Massachusetts Senate primary: Joe Kennedy’s challenge to Ed Markey, explained

Voters have their last chance to weigh in on one of the country’s most head-scratching primary races this Tuesday, September 1.

Last year, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), a four-term congressman and scion of one of the US’s most famous political families, announced that he would challenge sitting Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who’s up for reelection this fall. What Kennedy has struggled to articulate since then, however, is why he’s doing so. Although he’s emphasized a commitment to the people of Massachusetts, and framed his candidacy as one advancing generational change, Kennedy’s bid has still left many confused.

“He has never answered the question of ‘why he’s running’ well,” says Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, who had her own theory. “That’s because his answer isn’t one that flies in politics: The answer is ‘I’m ambitious,’ and he perceives Ed Markey as easier to beat than an open Senate race against someone like Ayanna Pressley, Maura Healey, or Katherine Clark [down the line].”

Kennedy has said his run is about advocating for Massachusetts residents in a more effective way than Markey has, particularly on issues of racial justice and matters important to underrepresented communities. “People deserve to have representation that’s going to fight for them,” Kennedy recently told the Boston Globe. He’s also highlighted data showing Markey spent less time in the state than other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

Markey has centered his campaign around his longstanding work on the environment, and dedication to advancing progressive policies including the Green New Deal, which he cosponsored. His team has also focused on digital organizing, and built a devoted following among younger voters in the process.

One of the efforts they’ve launched is the Markey Map, which features examples of the funding and policies the senator has secured for his constituents. “I work very hard in order to make sure that I deliver for the people of Massachusetts,” Markey stressed in an August debate.

Unlike in a number of House challenges that have taken place in recent years, Kennedy doesn’t exactly have a clear ideological case. Kennedy isn’t running at Markey from the left, nor do the two differ significantly on most policy positions. Both are white men who identify as progressives, and Markey’s the one who’s seen as having stronger bona fides, given his work on climate.

The biggest differences between the two include age, as well as their national political profiles. Markey is currently 74 and known as a policy wonk who has steadily worked on a slate of core issues for more than four decades in Congress. Kennedy is 39 and potentially a more visible liberal leader in the Senate, in part, because of his family’s legacy.

“It’s been a weird campaign, and I think it’s surprised not just the candidates themselves, but everyone in the state,” says Tatishe Nteta, a political science professor at University Massachusetts Amherst.

The race has reflected some existing Democratic divides

In some ways, the race has come to mirror some of the national divides between progressives and the Democratic establishment — though it’s not an exact parallel.

Markey, for example, has garnered backing from a number of progressive organizations and figures because of his track record. A leader on environmental issues, he’s been endorsed by fellow Green New Deal sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — and gained support from many progressive groups including the Sunrise Movement, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Progressive Massachusetts.

During his 18 terms in the House, and seven years in the Senate, Markey has established himself as a lawmaker willing to push for more aggressive environmental policies including fuel economy regulation, an ambitious cap-and-trade bill, and the Green New Deal — which is focused on significantly dialing up investments in clean energy. His legislative record demonstrates a commitment to leading on this issue, his supporters say.

“On a number of issues, I would expect Markey to vote against a poorly negotiated bipartisan deal. Especially on climate and technology, I expect him to be introducing the new policy and moving the ball forward,” said Jonathan Cohn, of Progressive Massachusetts, who said he saw Kennedy as less likely to be making the same advancements.

Kennedy also has a solid progressive voting record, but he’s been perceived as closer to establishment Democrats both due to the longstanding presence of his family in politics, as well as his slowness in backing measures including Medicare-for-all, which Markey signed onto two years prior to him. Kennedy has said the timing delay was because he wanted certain provisions to be revised, including one that could have restricted access to abortion funding.

Kennedy has also been endorsed by multiple progressive lawmakers, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan. He’s got the backing, too, of several House Congressional Black Caucus members including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Marc Veasey along with the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And he’s credited with being a leader on mental health policies and LGBTQ rights including a proposal championing universal mental health care and a resolution condemning Trump’s ban of transgender service people in the military.

Pelosi’s endorsement irked some progressives, since House leadership has taken a hard line against challengers to incumbents, making her backing of Kennedy appear hypocritical. According to a Pelosi aide, Kennedy had not asked for her endorsement; she opted to do so because she appreciated his work helping Democrats flip the House in 2018 and was concerned about statements the Markey campaign had made about the Kennedy family legacy. Pelosi has said publicly that she supports House Democratic members in running for office and praised Kennedy’s work in particular.

Kennedy has argued he would be more present and engaged with constituents than Markey has been. “I think it points to style as much as substance,” says political analyst Mary Anne Marsh, of the advocacy group Dewey Square. “Joe Kennedy is very hands-on and personally committed to people and solving their problems.”

Experts also note that some of the divisions in the party that have been projected onto the contest aren’t as clear cut as they’ve been in some other races featuring a young candidate challenging an older incumbent. And they stress that the race is essentially a battle between two progressives who have sometimes aligned with moderates.

According to a Boston Globe report, for example, both Kennedy and Markey have a solid pattern of progressive votes. And Markey, like Kennedy, has also taken some less progressive stances in the past, voting in favor of the Iraq War and the 1994 crime bill, as well as opposing busing for school integration in the 1970s. (Markey reversed his position on busing in the 1980s and has since said he regretted the sentencing provisions in the crime bill.) Both candidates have also been questioned on their past opposition to legalizing marijuana. Kennedy changed his position and vocalized his support for federal legalization in 2018; Markey backed legislation on the subject in 2019.

There’s been an urgent focus on racial justice

Amid global protests over racism and police violence, there’s also been more pressure on both lawmakers to demonstrate how they would push for racial justice, an issue that Kennedy, in particular, has pressed Markey on.

The two candidates have both taken similar steps in response to recent calls for police reform: Both support congressional Democrats’ George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would incentivize regional departments to ban the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and reduce legal protections for police. And both have backed legislation that would specifically address police accountability for misconduct. Kennedy has sponsored a bill with Jeffries that would limit existing barriers to prosecuting police for civil rights violations. And Markey has cosponsored legislation with Rep. Ayanna Pressley that focuses on eliminating “qualified immunity,” a provision that helps shield police from legal accountability for their actions.

“They both support things like criminal justice reform, they both support fairness in health care. There are a lot of similarities between the two in regards to policy,” says Setti Warren, the executive director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who previously served as the first popularly elected Black mayor in Massachusetts. “The question is for them, and others, what are we doing beyond those proposals?”

In recent debates, Kennedy has pushed Markey further on his record on issues of race — and cited his own strengths on this area.

Among the critiques Kennedy’s highlighted is a statement from the family of DJ Henry, a college student from Easton, Massachusetts, who was shot and killed by police while at school in New York. Henry’s father, who has spoken of Kennedy’s consistent support on his son’s case, has said they found Markey dismissive during their meeting with him ten years ago and were put off by his use of the term “colored” in the conversation. Markey noted that he has since apologized to the family and said he’s written to the Justice Department urging officials to open an additional investigation.

Kennedy’s campaign has also pointed to his prioritization of racial justice in the legislation he’s crafted. Bills he’s authored include legislation that dedicates grant funding for STEM education programs for women and students of color, and a measure that would bar discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity when damages are being determined in a civil court case. His family’s record is one he’s highlighted as well.

“There’s also a legacy argument. The Kennedy name — particularly amongst African Americans and Latinos — is one that’s viewed in a favorable light, given President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy’s support for the civil rights movement,” says Nteta.

Markey, meanwhile, has cited his efforts both advocating for a majority-Black state Senate district in the 1970s and establishing programs including E-Rate, which expanded internet access in schools and libraries. He’s also cosponsored a bill with Sen. Cory Booker called the Next Step Act, which focuses on comprehensive criminal justice reforms including reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. And environmental justice is a key plank of the Green New Deal, which has prioritized protections for frontline communities of color that have disproportionately been affected by pollution and climate change — though some advocates have expressed concerns about the language of the resolution.

“I don’t see major distinctions in their public statements or constituent outreach when it comes to issues related to immigration and racial justice,” says Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is classified as a 501(c)(3) and limited in its ability to weigh in on political contests.

Ultimately, regional leaders say there’s a sense that both lawmakers could do more.

“Prior to Congresswoman Pressley coming into the office, from the black business perspective, I can’t say that there was anyone folks were looking to as a champion on the federal level,” says Segun Idowu, the executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, which is similarly classified as a 501(c)(3).

The dynamics of the race have changed significantly since last year

A lot has changed in the course of a year in this race.

Last summer, prior to Kennedy’s announcement in the race, a Suffolk University poll found that he would lead Markey in a hypothetical match-up, 35 percent to 26 percent. At the time, although he had high approval ratings, Markey wasn’t as well-known.

Ultimately, this lack of awareness is something the Markey campaign capitalized on to reestablish his image, Cohn said.

“Starting out with lower name recognition can be a blessing and a curse for a candidate,” he told Vox. “It allows them to craft what they want the narrative to be. They’ve had a very strong digital team, people who are either with Bernie or Warren in the primary, boosting the narrative about him.”

Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh tells Vox that the team focused on Markey’s policy record and organizing on digital platforms. “I think it’s fair to say that voters didn’t know him that well,” he said. “For most of his years, he represented 12 percent of Massachusetts. [We did] the job of getting people to know who he is.”

In recent months, the polling has tightened significantly, with younger voters trending toward Markey. Among likely voters overall, the latest Suffolk University poll had Markey up at 51 percent, with Kennedy at 41 percent.

Regional experts chalk up Markey’s momentum to a number of different factors, including a campaign that’s united a broad set of supporters behind his policy chops, his social media presence, and the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez.

“Markey has been an underestimated entity in Massachusetts,” says Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos. “Slowly and methodically, John Walsh has guided the field campaign to include union endorsements, linking progressives and independents.”

As Politico’s Joanna Weiss wrote, young voters’ energy behind Markey has been central to helping establish a robust internet presence of memes and accounts that some have deemed the “Markeyverse.”

Such support has also collided with one of Kennedy’s arguments for running, which is a case he’s made for “generational” change. As has long been the case with Congress, seniority is an omnipresent factor in everything from committee assignments to party leadership roles, and there has been a growing wave of young, progressive leaders in Massachusetts — and beyond — who have opted to challenge older ones.

Kennedy has attempted to tap into this energy, but it appears some young voters aren’t as interested. And because of his family’s long political history in Massachusetts, it’s been tougher for him to suggest that he’s offering a new approach. “I guess we’ll really see how much the Kennedy name matters,” says University of Massachusetts Dartmouth political science professor Shannon Jenkins, who notes it could still resonate with a subset of voters even as it may turn away others.

There was limited polling in the race until recently, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how it could turn out, though Markey has developed a lead. The lag in results expected with mail-in voting could also mean that the winner — who is all but certain to secure the state’s Senate seat this fall — might not be known for some time.

“Joe Kennedy started out this race as the frontrunner and now it’s a race — it’s a dogfight,” says Marsh.

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