September 3, 2020, marked the end of a long, fierce contest between incumbent Senator Edward Markey, and challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. On election day, Markey emerged the winner of the Massachusetts U.S. Senate Primary for the Democratic Party, handily defeating Kennedy by a 10-point margin; however, until only a few weeks prior, the scion of the famous Kennedy dynasty had seemed the probable favorite.
From the beginning of Kennedy’s bid, observers remarked on the unique circumstances of what was sure to become a tight race. In January this year, the academic and non-partisan commentary journal of the Center for Political Science at the University of Virginia called it “the most unusual Senate primary in decades.
“It is pretty rare for a sitting House member to challenge a senator in the primary,” wrote Clark University Political Science Department Chair, Prof. Robert Boatright – cited in the analysis – of the Markey-Kennedy contest. The race was made unusual not only because of the infrequency at which popular incumbents like Markey are challenged, but also because of the political motivations, or lack thereof, behind Kennedy’s ambition.
PolitiFact senior correspondent and author of the University of Virginia analysis, Louis Jacobson, noted that, “In essentially every credible Senate primary challenge since 1992, the incumbent has been viewed as vulnerable because of some apparent weakness.”
Most common among these weaknesses are older runners, who typically have a scandalous history, or challenge a distinct policy from a different party. However, Markey’s campaign was essentially free of all these hallmark weaknesses. At the age of 74, Markey’s Congressional career has spanned for more than four decades. Markey was just completing his first Senate term. Still, age has yet to be a detriment to his popularity among voters – clearing him of the first weakness. His career is marked by little evidence of scandal, and he has historically remained consistent in his political convictions.
According to Jacobson, there was no apparent route for Kennedy to criticize Markey on this subject. Finally, in what was perhaps the most important factor into what made the challenge “unusual,” Kennedy presented little in the way of alternatives to Markey’s policy proposals. In fact, he endorses most of them, including the Green New Deal, and some form of Medicare for All.
Moreover, Kennedy initially held back most of his criticisms on the Senator’s voting record. So why challenge Ed Markey in the first place? And more importantly, how was Kennedy polling so well in an incumbent challenge thought of as improbable?
Joseph P. Kennedy III — grandson of Joseph Kennedy and grandnephew to John F. Kennedy — first began his political career in 2012, when he was elected to serve as Representative for the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts. He built his record working on many of the same causes as his Congressional delegation peer, Senator Markey, such as environmental justice policies and reforms on the American immigration system.
When Kennedy formally began his Senate challenge, he claimed to set his sights not just on a “fight back against Donald Trump.” Speaking in East Boston, birthplace of his great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, the Representative argued that “You’ve got to address the underlying structures – the calcified system, a broken system – that allowed [Mr. Trump] to win in the first place.”
Kennedy’s challenge came as a surprise not only because of the anticipated unlikely odds for success, but because Kennedy himself had admitted only two years prior that he did not intend to run. In a 2017 interview with WBUR Boston’s Anthony Brooks, Kennedy said that “Markey has been a dear friend to me and my family for an awfully long time,” and reiterated his hopes that the Senator remains in office “for a while.” Still, in the same interview, Kennedy noted that “Timing is everything. And… opportunities don’t come up that often.”
Early polling seemed to reflect Kennedy’s idea of an opportunity existing. A Sept. 8, 2019 Suffolk University and Boston Globe poll showed Rep. Kennedy leading in a primary challenge against Sen. Markey, 42 to 28, with 29 percent of likely voters undecided. Suffolk University pollsters credited Kennedy’s unforeseen advantage to a combination of name recognition, and perception of efficacy on being a “better” Democrat. Kennedy led by more than 10 points on three questions: which candidate was more liberal, a better adversary to the President, and better at fighting for party priorities.
The sentiment of respect, which Joseph Kennedy provided in that interview, appeared to be one which permeated into his Senate bid, but he quickly turned to criticism of his opponent. Still, Kennedy found difficulty in distinguishing himself on policy. Writing again on the matter for WBUR, three years later, Anthony Brooks posited that “there really aren’t any” differences between the two candidates and that “they agree on just about everything.”
Essentially unable to campaign on new ideas, Kennedy shifted his focus to the mere fact that he was new, and marketed his campaign on style. Relying on the thesis of his launch – that America’s political systems are “broken”. Kennedy was quick to label Markey as an entrenched, out-of-touch career politician. For most of the lifespan of his campaign, this strategy seemed to strike a chord with many Massachusetts voters.
By May of 2020, Kennedy remained firmly in the lead. A May 5 Emerson College poll showed him widening his margin to 16 points ahead of Markey. A July 31 UMass Amherst poll, however, handed Kennedy one of his first reputable projections of failure. Nearly every public poll conducted from July up to election day would show Marky exiting as the victor. According to Boston-based Politico correspondent Stephanie Murray, the sudden and massive polling change between the candidates reflected two failures on the part of the Kennedy campaign: a lack of precision and specificity, and an underestimation of Markey’s ability to rally support.
Throughout the campaign, Murray wrote, “Kennedy never seemed to come up with a satisfactory answer” to the simple question, “why are you running?” In one of his final rallies, Kennedy remarked, “Not one person in [Massachusetts] cities, not one, has asked me why I am running for the Senate.” Instead, Kennedy argued that the reason was not necessarily important – “They ask, ‘what can you do to make this better, and when I need you, will you be there?’” Still, Murray noted, the Kennedy campaign knew full well that they had only a few weeks to create a well-defined message and separate their candidate from Markey.
On the night of Aug. 11, 2020, the final debate in the Senate race began. Kennedy, suddenly backed into a corner, and facing near-universal polls showing inevitable loss, is given one final chance to make an in-person case for himself. He introduced his platform in much the same way as he had in Sept. of 2019, emphasizing the importance of engaged politicians free from a broken system. Kennedy rallied consistently around his suggestion that “…We have politicians in Washington that think these problems will be solved in backrooms, someplace, not in our communities.”
Facing the (at-home) audience, Kennedy emphasized that the “biggest difference between [himself] and Sen. Markey” was that “Sen. Markey doesn’t live here.” Explicitly and deliberately separating himself from his opponent, Kennedy noted that Markey “Spent less time in the state than Elizabeth Warren when she was running for president. And he says that he needs to be in Washington voting for us, but he missed over 50 percent of the votes in this critical time… we need more out of this seat.”
Outlining these points, Kennedy reiterated his argument that Markey is an entrenched component in the broken system which he criticizes. Kennedy ran his campaign on his Massachusetts roots, and argued that he had built stronger connections with communities in the Commonwealth. However, Markey’s endorsements from state Congresspeople, as well as mayors and city counselors from prominent cities, greatly outnumber Kennedy’s. Markey received support from the mayors of Boston, Worcester, Quincy, Lawrence, and eighteen other cities; Kennedy only had eight. And while Markey drew endorsements from 126 State Congresspeople, including the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, and the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Kennedy received the endorsement of only 10.
Ironically, Kennedy’s key endorsements came from outside the Commonwealth. In particular, he enjoyed the support of 42 U.S. Representatives, including such influential politicians as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Rep. Adam Schiff, and the late Rep. John Lewis. Markey relied on his Senate allies, such as his peer, Elizabeth Warren, and of the endorsement of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Further on in the debate, Kennedy directed his criticism of Markey’s inaction specifically towards policy. Regarding the Green New Deal, Kennedy asked, “Why not go out and actually build it?” articulating his claim that he had spent more time building connections and working from the grassroots. “If that’s where the fight is, then why aren’t you fighting for it?” asserted Kennedy. “You support it – I support the Green New Deal – I was on it from day one – we need environmental justice in our country. The difference is I know that’s not just going to come to pass. You’re the guy that took a donation from ExxonMobil. Not me.”
Markey was quick to respond, highlighting his work on the Green New Deal as what had made his campaign so popular. “[Kennedy] keeps using the word change,” he began, arguing that the people of Massachusetts did not have to choose between change and suggested inaction: “I represent experience and change at the same time. I do both.”
The Senator noted that to him, change meant “inspiring a generation of young people to rise up on the Green New Deal” and other issues “to get into politics in our country.” Countering Kennedy’s assertion, Markey posited that “when [Kennedy] uses the word change, he means something different,” instead moving to attack Kennedy’s wavering record. “He’s changed his position of Medicare for All. He’s changed his position on PROMESA, which is hollowing out Puerto Rico. He’s changed his position on the issue of super-PACs.”
Before that summer, Senator Markey’s campaign scrambled to find a response to the initial projection of Kennedy’s resounding victory. They quickly turned towards Markey’s progressive record, and his values shared by popular contemporaries, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. This was not exactly a pivot in marketing; however, The Atlantic’s Russel Berman wrote on Sept. 1, 2020, that “The genius of Markey’s campaign was that it took his biggest vulnerability and used it as an opportunity: The senator didn’t have much of a political identity in Massachusetts, so his supporters created one for him.”
Berman would further attribute Markey’s success to young people, especially around environmental activism and the progressive ideals of the 2020 elections cycle. Markey’s primary claim throughout the final debate, no matter where the topic took the candidates, usually centered back on such examples of direct action as a Senator. In particular, he frequently pointed to his work with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom he had authored and sponsored the Green New Deal.
It has “created a movement of millions of young people across this country,” Markey said, in rebuttal to Kennedy’s attack. “They’re on every campus. Young people rising up, demanding we solve that problem. It’s at the grassroots in our country.”
In doing so, Markey and his team shaped his campaign around progressive ideals. It could also be said that young progressive followers had just as much influence in getting Markey’s campaign to look the way it did. Perhaps helped by COVID-19, young supporters of the Senator were able to create a dominant online presence, not unlike that of Sander’s presidential bids. They praised Markey for his consistent record and youth environmental groups, such as the grassroots non-profit Sunrise Movement, rallied around Markey’s campaign. Their primary concern being that a well-respected progressive could be quietly ousted by Kennedy, who aligned himself as a moderate during the campaign, despite his political beliefs which largely align with Markey’s on nearly all points.
Markey, a consistent progressive, “was never known as a progressive warrior,” wrote Johnathan Martin of The New York Times on Sept.1, 2020. Instead, the Senator had usually been seen as a quieter and a behind-the-scenes fighter who would take a firm stand on the occasional issue. Martin noted that Markey, not unlike Democratic Presidential Nominee Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Has cast a handful of votes – including for the 1990 crime bill and the Iraq war – that are out of step with today’s movement to the left.”
Ultimately, this had little effect on Markey’s ability to draw progressive support. But because the modern progressive movement of the Democratic Party co-opted Markey to their platform, many – including Martin – believe that the high-profile Massachusetts Senate race could be seen as a microcosm for future intra-party conflicts for Democrats. It could be a preview, Martin wrote, “of the pressure party leaders could face from the left next year if Democrats win the presidency and both chambers of Congress this fall.”
As the week of the election approached, the final Emerson College poll put Markey ahead by 12 percent. On election day, Senator Ed Markey was nominated with 55.4 percent of the vote, earning 149,073 more votes than Representative Joseph Kennedy III, practically ensuring his victory in the contest against the Republican nominee, Kevin O’Connor. Markey won a substantial lead in typically-progressive Greater Boston, winning out the city and its suburbs – notably including Kennedy’s home seat in Newtown, and excluding Revere, Saugus, Lynn, and Peabody.
The college towns and neighboring communities of Western Massachusetts, including Williamstown and Amherst, also went to Markey, but by a less substantial margin. Historically more moderate Bristol County, home to much of the Commonwealth’s Republican base, went entirely to Kennedy, joined by parts of neighboring Plymouth County. Kennedy’s only sizable victories outside of southeastern Massachusetts would come from Springfield – where the representative received nearly 25 percent more of the vote than Markey – and an enclave in the northern part of the state, including Lawrence and Lowell. Worcester also went to Kennedy, but only by about four percentage points; Kennedy won approximately 75 percent of Worcester County.
While Kennedy’s campaign began with seemingly unstoppable momentum, that momentum was reversed only a month before election day. In winning, Markey seemingly toppled the long-standing Kennedy dynasty – never before had a member of the family lost an election in Massachusetts.
Sen. Markey nodded to his primary benefactors in his acceptance speech, saying that, “Tonight’s victory is a tribute to those young people” who powered his campaign to a rousing success over his challenger. He resolved, “The age of incrementalism is over,” reflecting on his promise to the progressives who handed him his victory. And yet, Markey’s win raises even more questions about the future of the Democratic party, especially as progressive Democrats elsewhere in Massachusetts were handily defeated by more moderate competitors.