BRANFORD, Conn. (AP) — Bruce Wilson Jr. finds himself in rarified Republican company that includes Mitt Romney and Richard Nixon. Like those two before him, he is running against a Kennedy.
The school board member and Connecticut state Senate hopeful knew he faced a challenge when he entered the race against Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the late Massachusetts senator and nephew of a president and attorney general. He just didn't quite realize the power of the Kennedy name.
"I've had people say to me, 'I want to be part of electing the next president of the United States,'" Wilson said. "They're thinking that they're in on the ground floor of the next Kennedy ascending to the White House."
Though Kennedy insists he's looking no further than the open seat he's running for in the state where he's lived for 30 years, his name has been floated for numerous political offices over the years, both here and in the family's home state of Massachusetts. In 2012, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry's seat after he was tapped to be Secretary of State.
But the 53-year-old environmental lawyer insists the 36-member Connecticut State Senate is what ultimately makes sense for him, in his first run for public office.
"I think being a state senator is an important job," said Kennedy, who has lived with his wife Kiki and two children in the shoreline community of Branford for about 20 years. "To me, being the people's representative in Hartford is a huge responsibility."
Even Kennedy seems surprised by the support he's received in the 12th Senate District, where five of six small towns are currently run by Republican leaders.
More than 50 interns last summer signed up to volunteer for his campaign. More than 60 supporters have opened up their homes to host "house parties," inviting friends, family and neighbors to meet the candidate. Three of the parties were held by members of a group calling itself "Republicans for Kennedy."
"He was the soccer coach when my kids were small," said Kathy Beebe of Branford, an employee of a boat yard Kennedy toured on Friday. "He's a very real person."
Both Kennedy and Wilson insist this election could be close. Unaffiliated voters make up the largest single chunk of voters in what is considered a swing district.
Wilson, 50, the former CEO of a Connecticut medical manufacturing company, said he believes the Kennedy aura has dimmed in recent months as voters learn more about the Democrat.
Wilson has criticized Kennedy for saying in a local interview "a combination of cuts and new taxes" is needed to balance the state budget. A recent mailer from his campaign asks: "Are you willing to pay more for a Kennedy?"
Wilson also filed a complaint with state elections officials over possible election law violations by Kennedy's campaign and the state Democrats.
Records show Kennedy, his wife, brother Patrick and members of Kennedy's former firm, the Marwood Group, made $40,000 in contributions in June to the state party. The party has made approximately $40,000 in organizational expenditures on behalf of Kennedy's campaign, which is participating in the state public campaign financing system that imposes strict spending limitations.
While Wilson alleges Kennedy and the Democrats may be trying to circumvent the system, both the party and Kennedy deny any wrongdoing.
"Of course I'm going to support the Democratic Party. I've done it before, I'm doing it now and I'll continue to do it," Kennedy said.
That kind of loyalty should be expected from a scion of the most famous Democratic Party family in America.
"I'm very proud of my family's legacy," he said. "My father and my uncles really set very high expectations ... that all of us should make a contribution to society."
But Wilson said the name isn't what governs, it's the values and policies of the person who is elected. On Nov. 4, he will be trying to do better than Romney and Nixon, who lost to their Kennedy opponent — Romney in a bid to unseat the elder Ted Kennedy and Nixon to President John F. Kennedy — but didn't see those races end their political careers.
"I think most people who might feel a little enamored by the name are also capable of looking at the issues," Wilson said.