Winning any election is terrific, but winning a special congressional election -- especially one that has been nationally reported -- is really terrific. The winner knows when he arrives in the House to take his seat that every other member knows who he is and something about his victory. That's not the way it is for a lot of semi-anonymous congressmen who serve out their careers in the back row.

In the first year of Richard Nixon's first term as president, Democrat Michael Harrington won just such a special election in the Sixth District of Massachusetts. The Sixth District had been sending nothing but Republicans to Congress since the advent of the talkies. So when Harrington, a categorical critic of the Nixon administration's Vietnam policies, beat William Saltonstall, Republican son of the Republican senator, the results were widely interpreted as a blow to the Republican president and an indication of the growing political strength of the peace movement.

The day after the election, Rep. Jimmy Burke, then in the sixth of what were to be 10 terms, was introduced to his new colleague from Massachusetts. Burke, the savvey House veteran, offered the following advice to Harrington, the issues-conscious rookie: "Forget all the other stuff, kid; all the folks back home really care about are shoes and Social Security."

Harrington rejected Burke's counsel, because as just about everybody who studied those things knew, Massachusetts was in the process of becoming the most liberal state in the nation. It would be demonstrated, three years later, for all to see, when George McGovern, the peace candidate, carried Massachusetts, including Burke's as well as Harrington's districts.

If anyone had, in 1969, any doubts about Massachusetts voters' total commitment to liberalism, let him look at the record and the popularity of the state's senior U.S. senator, Edward Kennedy.

"Edward Kennedy" Jimmy Burke would have told Michael Harrington had he been asked, "is a very special case. Don't kid yourself by confusing anyone else with Kennedy. He has different rules from the rest of us." Jimmy Burke would have been right. After all, from 1960 to 1962 -- until Edward Kennedy became 30 -- the Kennedys had Ben Smith appointed to Jack's seat in the U.S. Senate. Has any other senatorial family had a designated sitter?

That's the way it has been in Massachusetts for Edward Kennedy for almost 20 years now. And the voters of Massachusetts owe him an apology, because they did not prepare him for the rest of the world, where different rules apply for everyone, including Kennedy.

Massachusetts is not a relentlessly liberal place. By voting returns, the state is the most Democratic in the union. Only Ike, since the Al Smith-Herbert Hoover campaign, has carried the state for the Republicans. But in the 1976 Demcratic presidential primary, George Wallace carried Boston and Henry Jackson carried the state. The present governor, Edward King, who has endorsed President Carter's reelection; is a strong supporter of capital punishment and nuclear energy. And as political proof that the days of student power are history, King has fought successfully to raise the state's legal drinking age.

Along with the rest of the country, Massachusetts has been moving in a conservative direction over the past decade -- from liberal governor Frank Sargent, a Republican, to Democrat Michael Dukakis, a less mercurial New England version of Jerry Brown, to Ed King.

But in what has proved to be a terrible disservice to its favorite son, Massachusetts has never held Edward Kennedy to the same standards it imposed on its other candidates for public office.

Michael Harrington, following Kennedy's lead, took an active interest in foreign affairs. He exposed the crimes and excesses of the Chilean junta. What he got for his efforts was a raft of criticism and a host of challengers. w It was perfectly appropriate, by the standard of Massachusetts voters, for Kennedy to concern himself with Biafra and Bangladesh, but Harrington should forget the Santiago city council and locate Auntie's missing Social Security check.

Kennedy has never been in an adversary role with his constituency. He was only rarely called upon to defend his positions, to justify his proposals, to expositions, to justify his proposals, to explain Chappaquiddick. By their unquestioning confidence, his home-state voters undoubtedly enabled Kennedy to assume a leadership role in the Senate on controversial public questions, but they prepared him ill for campaigns outside his own constituency.

The Massachusetts voters, like all indulgent parents who love too well and unwisely, never asked their favorite son where he was going, where he had been or what he did while he was out -- philosophically or politically. His campaigns were more coronation than contest. No opponents had either the stature or the wit to engage Kennedy, to subject him to the same brand of scrutiny most other senatorial incumbents undergo.

For 17 years, Edward Kennedy has had a free ride from his home state, and for the past four months he has paid the price of that indulgence. He has been put on the defensive about his spending votes and initiatives in a time of austerity. He has been made to answer for his long record of opposition to defense spending in a time of military enthusiasm. The voters of Massachusetts never even presumed to ask Ted Kennedy why he wanted to be president. Their only question was when.

Kennedy has moved his Massachusetts constituency on issues. He has led. His opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam made anti-war activity respectable among rank-and-file Democrats who, in other states, might have been sporting "American, Love It or Leave It" on their bumpers. mIn 1972, Kennedy made possible the electoral union between the shipyard and Harvard Yard that enabled George McGovern to sweep the Massachusetts primary. But on so many other controversial public questions -- on which other politicians' political careers have ended -- his voters simply assumed that Ted knew both more and best.

Now Kennedy returns to the state that has trained him so poorly for this unhappy campaign. The question that next Tuesday's primary will answer is whether Massachusetts Democrats will assume responsibiliity for their past disservice to their uniquely favorite son and provide the solace of a landslide win over Jimmy Carter. Or whether they, too, will insist on asking the tough questions they've never asked before.