How Markey and Kennedy Are Closing Out Their Brutal Primary

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (R) and Senator Edward Markey (L) at an event last October. Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Democratic party leaders would be excused for not wanting anything to do with the primary race between Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and his challenger, congressman Joe Kennedy III, after it erupted into a back-and-forth — over online harassment, one candidate’s motivations for running, and the legacy of the most famous family name in politics — in the final days before the September 1 contest. The seat is certain to remain in Democratic hands in November, after all, and there’s a presidential race (and a pandemic) to focus on.

But the party’s leaders haven’t stepped back. Nancy Pelosi burst onto the scene last week with a defense of Kennedy while Markey has run an ad narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and both candidates have spent recent days scouring their contacts lists for possible last-minute endorsements on Capitol Hill and in celebrity circles, according to prominent party figures close to both of them.

Kennedy camp complaints that some Markey backers were harassing the candidate, his family, and his staffers online have overshadowed the final flurry. But suspicions between the two campaigns have been mounting for months as backers sought to frame the race between a veteran senator with progressive credentials and a younger Kennedy family member with few policy complaints about Markey as an all-or-nothing fight for the soul of the national Democratic party. On Kennedy’s side, this has often meant describing the young congressman, who represents a safely Democratic district, as being at the forefront of the kind of young, energetic change that swept the party into power in the House of Representatives in 2018, partly in reaction to Donald Trump. And on Markey’s side, it has meant recasting the senator’s long liberal career in Washington to be a story of progressive heroism since long before he sponsored the Green New Deal last year, never mind his vote for the Iraq War, for example — something most progressives paying attention to the race have been willing to brush aside. (But Bernie Sanders has not endorsed Markey — who backed Elizabeth Warren for president — and shows no signs of planning to do so, despite pleas from Markey and plenty of his advocates, a handful of Democrats in the know told Intelligencer. Markey and Sanders served together in the House for 16 years, and in the Senate — where Warren also serves — for six.)

National coverage of the race has tended to focus on two big issues: Markey’s position in the progressive firmament and persistent questions about why, exactly, Kennedy is running if he has few substantive complaints about the senator. “I have been a fan of Ed Markey’s since he led the fight to reform the state’s judiciary when I was governor and that was a long time ago,” 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis told me this week. “I am also a fan of Joe Kennedy’s, my congressman, but I can’t for the life of me understand why he is putting us all through this to defeat a fine U.S. Senator. He should be in Iowa digging up votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.” Together, these arguments appear to have made Markey a slight favorite.

Largely inspired by the endorsements and ongoing involvement of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement (a group of young environmental organizers), national progressives have joined Markey’s cause. In a year where the presidential race has offered few clear opportunities for the left flank of the Democratic party to push back against the center-left, this race has seen more vicious intra-party brawling than it might have in a different political context. “Kennedy is a really good release valve when you know you can’t go after Biden,” said one national progressive leader backing Markey.

“What the progressive movement is saying — particularly the young progressive movement — is they’re trying to make clear that what happened in 2018 is not just a bunch of women of color knocking off a bunch of old white guys,” Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh told me, explicitly comparing his candidate to Charles Booker, who fell short in Kentucky’s Senate primary in March, and Cori Bush, who defeated longtime congressman William Lacy Clay earlier this month. “When a 74-year-old almost-50-year veteran defeats — if it happens — the Mt. Rushmore legacy of Massachusetts politics, maybe national politics, it’s not about how old you are. It’s not about the color of your skin. It’s actually about the policy.”

“It’s not a national race,” countered one legislator who’s backing Kennedy. You can read it, he pointed out, as pitting a face of old-guard New England against the ascendant energy candidate — but both candidates fill both roles. “It confounds every national trope.”

Early signs of an unexpectedly large turnout have both campaigns now rejiggering their projections and pushing for last-second help. “Both candidates have an argument that high turnout would benefit them,” explained Massachusetts pollster Steve Koczela. “Higher turnout tends to mean more people with lower level of education turn out. That would benefit Kennedy,” he said, noting that the congressman’s base across the state includes blue-collar white and minority voters, while Markey’s tends to be made up of highly-educated white liberals. “It would also mean more young people would turn out. That would benefit Markey.” More than 1 million voters in the state had already requested ballots as of mid-August, well above expected levels, reflecting a level of engagement that neither side anticipated when the race revved up in late 2019.

There was nothing preordained about this tense final stretch. Kennedy entered the race last fall ahead of Markey, largely thanks to the political strength of his name in the state, and because the 74-year-old incumbent — despite 37 years representing part of it in the House and six years representing all of it in the Senate — wasn’t particularly well known outside of environmental circles. This fact alone was enough to inspire some powerful Bay Staters — used to representation from big-name senators like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy with significant influence in Washington — to encourage Kennedy to run. (The 39-year-old candidate is Ted Kennedy’s great nephew and Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson.) But according to associates who spoke with him at the time, Markey was “completely flummoxed and hurt” by Kennedy’s decision to challenge him, in the words of one top Massachusetts Democrat, and he immediately made it clear to colleagues that he wouldn’t hesitate to go hard on Kennedy in order to keep his seat.

Nonetheless, Markey worked to keep those tensions under control as he began to ramp up his re-election effort — last August he fired a top campaign aide for retweeting a message saying Kennedy “should focus on his family’s considerable mental health issues.” Instead, he leaned into his environmental record, promoting his work on the Green New Deal and pointedly rolling out Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement shortly before Kennedy announced his campaign. Kennedy, meanwhile, didn’t try to build much of a policy distinction between himself and Markey, opting to paint his bid as an attempt to inject new energy to the seat. (Kennedy is “making his case that Massachusetts needs a senator focused on the future,” says Eric Lesser, a state senator and former Obama aide who is now supporting the congressman.) Opponents immediately turned that pitch around, asking why, exactly, Kennedy was actually running if he had no problems with Markey’s policies.

And in the eyes of some of Markey’s younger supporters eager to push for progressive, if not necessarily generational, change, this created an opening for a conversation about dynastic politics and entitlement. “Part of what we’re fighting over here is how politics is supposed to work,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a leading progressive strategist who is supporting Markey. That involves evaluating questions like, “How are we going to remember the Kennedys?,” he said. “Is it a good thing that we have the Kennedy family?” Their answer is No.

For decades, these questions have been uncomfortable to ask in Massachusetts, but in the final months of the campaign Markey has thrown a few elbows at the family, saying in one recent video, without mentioning John F. Kennedy by name, “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” The congressman, meanwhile, made the case that Markey wasn’t spending enough time in the state, and that he would, while he continued to focus on his relative youth and the need for a new perspective in the Senate. In the closing days, Markey has been running a television ad voiced by Ocasio-Cortez: “When it comes to progressive leadership, it’s not your age that counts,” she says in the spot. “It’s the age of your ideas.”

Now, as the race winds down, a lot of the conversation on the ground is simply about which national figures have endorsed which candidate. Markey backers have used his endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez to make the case that the race is a clear-cut ideological battle, arguing that Kennedy’s endorsement from Pelosi is a sign that the party Establishment is behind the congressman. But the story isn’t so simple. For one, Chuck Schumer backs Markey, and a super PAC supporting the senator recently received $50,000 from Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile Kennedy’s supporters see the Pelosi endorsement as validation aimed at the state’s liberal voters, not its moderates. Then there’s the fact that Pramila Jayapal, one of the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, hasn’t endorsed Kennedy, but recently held a healthcare-focused event with him. The congressman also had backing from the civil rights leader and fellow House member John Lewis.

Still, that’s the national-level conversation. Both candidates boast a huge range of local endorsements across the state, but while Dukakis and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have backed Markey, many of Massachusetts’s biggest names are sticking to the sidelines. Warren, for one, endorsed Markey before Kennedy — her former student — was a candidate, and she has mostly avoided talking about the race since he entered it. (Both candidates helped introduce Warren, who holds Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat, at her presidential campaign kickoff last February.) Meanwhile Kerry, former governor Deval Patrick, attorney general Maura Healy, congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and congressman Seth Moulton have all insisted they’ll remain neutral through the end.

That’s in no small part because of some clear political discomfort. Few local leaders I got in touch with this week would agree to talk on the record about the race, at all. “Family fights are the most vicious fights,” sighed the legislator backing Kennedy.

And it’s not just that Markey is trying to become the first Massachusetts pol to beat a member of the Kennedy family. It’s also that the state’s Democratic electorate appears to be at a crossroads, and this race could send an important signal about its future direction.

One measure of that decision: The top five finishers in Massachusetts’s March presidential primary were, in order, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Bloomberg, and Pete Buttigieg. Fewer than 800 votes separated the combined totals for the moderates Biden, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg on the one hand and progressives Sanders and Warren on the other, out of nearly 1.4 million cast. Both combinations ended up with 48.1 percent of the primary vote. And while perhaps the state’s best-known political figure, Warren, is a famous progressive, recent polling also shows at least three-quarters of Massachusetts Democrats approving of the job being done by Charlie Baker, the state’s moderate Republican governor.

“It is so Massachusetts-specific,” shrugged a senior party strategist who’s recently worked in the state but staying neutral on the race, surveying its final weeks. “It says nothing about the future of the party, or the tone of the country as a whole. It could happen nowhere else.”

How Markey and Kennedy Are Closing Out Their Brutal Primary