Could a Kennedy Lose in Massachusetts?

It’s hard to paint yourself as an outsider with such a famous family name.

Joe Kennedy holds a microphone in one hand and his other hand to his chest while speaking in front of a mural.
Rep. Joseph Kennedy III campaigns in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on Aug. 1 Keiko Hiromi/AFLO/Reuters

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Most of the country’s political conversation is focused on the November general election. And that conversation might have stayed focused on the general if we hadn’t seen this political ad about the Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts primary is Tuesday, and this ad, released by incumbent Sen. Ed Markey just a few weeks ago, was designed to take over the conversation. It’s three minutes long and refers to “revolution” and “new deal” legislation. It notes Markey’s work with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And then, the ad takes unmistakable aim at Markey’s opponent in the race, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III.

This ad shows how the Massachusetts Senate primary has become a contest of who’s more likely to shake things up in Washington: 74-year-old Ed Markey, a fixture in Congress since the Carter administration, or 39-year-old Joe Kennedy, elected to the House in 2012? I spoke with Victoria McGrane, a political correspondent for the Boston Globe, to help me get a better sense of the Markey-Kennedy matchup and what this primary can tell us about the strength of the progressive brand—and the Kennedy name—in Massachusetts. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ray Suarez: What stood out to you in that Markey ad?

Victoria McGrane: The first thing is just the general image that Markey portrayed, which is obviously very powerful. That he’s had this career of being a leader of movements—fearless out in front. But the reality of Markey is a little more mixed than that ad would lead you to believe. One good example is the very first consequential vote he had to take as a senator in 2013 when the Obama administration was asking for the authority to use military force in Syria. And Markey was on the committee that had to approve that request before it went to the full Senate. The request was being made by Secretary of State John Kerry, who had helped make sure that Ed Markey got his Senate seat and had endorsed him and supported him. And Markey voted present. He didn’t vote yes. He didn’t vote no. He didn’t take a stand. And he was the only member on that committee to do that. A number of Democrats who have worked with Markey throughout his career say that is more the Ed Markey that they know: somebody who was very cautious at times.

Long before Joe Kennedy ever jumped into this race, Ed Markey was seen as incredibly vulnerable. So that was the chatter in the political circles in Massachusetts: Who was going to take on Ed Markey? And it seems that Kennedy surprised everybody by being the one to do it, because he hadn’t been signaling that he was really laying the groundwork for this, but he very clearly made a calculation that this was a risk worth taking because there was a shot at it.

If you’re in Texas or Idaho or California, I think we ought to remind people just what the Kennedy name means in Massachusetts. That it even makes it possible for an Ed Markey to portray himself as the outsider. 

Yes, the name is both a help and a hurt, I think, for Kennedy. When we see the results come in, it’ll be a real test of how much power does that name still have in Massachusetts politics. Some of the things we’ve seen in this race you would not have seen a decade ago. Markey has weaponized the Kennedy name against the congressman in ways that would have been just beyond the pale not that long ago. But a lot of the particularly young voters who have really flocked to Markey don’t have that same connection to the Kennedy brand in Massachusetts even that you would have seen a few decades ago. So, yes, being a Kennedy, it makes it hard, despite the name, to paint yourself as an outsider. And there’s been a big backlash against the congressman, whether fair or not, that he’s doing this because he feels like he is entitled to the seat. I don’t think that’s what Kennedy has ever said. But there’s a sense that we need to end dynasties. And that is a very powerful feeling among Markey’s base.

There’s a reason this primary race has become a test of progressive bona fides and the Kennedy name. Ideologically, Markey and Kennedy aren’t that far apart, right?

They’ve had to dig deep into the annals of each other’s voting history to come up with anything to complain about. Kennedy has also criticized Markey for being out of touch with Massachusetts. There’s been a couple of cases of constituents who’ve come forward with very damaging stories about how the senator treated them. The father of D.J. Henry, who is a young Black man from Massachusetts shot by police 10 years ago in upstate New York. Kennedy put out a video saying that when Henry and his wife went to Ed Markey asking for help, for justice, for their son, Markey dismissed them. In the meantime, Markey has really solidified this image of a progressive warrior, AOC’s hip grandpa, as one analyst put it to me recently.

Let’s talk about AOC a little more, because this race has turned out to be like a magnet dropped on a tabletop full of iron filings. Everybody has to line up somewhere, and some interesting outcomes have occurred. Nancy Pelosi, who served with Ed Markey for decades, has supported Joseph Kennedy. How does she explain that?

That was a real surprise that she decided to wade into a race like this at all. She has been a fierce defender of incumbents in the House, so her endorsement of Kennedy sparked all sorts of complaints of hypocrisy on the left, including from AOC, because Pelosi has this policy of blacklisting vendors who work for challengers to Democratic incumbents in the House. This is a Senate race, but Pelosi said she decided to get in because of these attacks the Markey campaign had started waging against the Kennedy family. Markey has made a lot of noise about allegations that Kennedy’s father, the former congressman, has been funneling money into a super PAC that’s run some negative ads against Markey.

And so I took the Pelosi endorsement on two levels. One, by all accounts, she really loves Joe Kennedy. She tapped him to deliver the Democratic response to Trump’s first State of the Union. She has a long connection to the Kennedy family. Her father ran JFK’s campaign in Maryland. And I really just read it as sort of a sign that she’s saying to Markey, who she worked with and was close allies with in the House, that, Hey, this is too much. The extent to which that’s going to help or hurt or change anything in this race? Probably not a lot. I’m not sure that anyone in Massachusetts is going to be swayed toward Joe Kennedy because of Nancy Pelosi.

At the same time, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who famously primaried and took down a powerful incumbent, a member of the House leadership, instead of looking upon Joe Kennedy as in that same mold has endorsed Ed Markey.

If Markey wins, I think we can safely say that the most important political move he made was teaming up with AOC on the Green New Deal. That has really generated all this excitement among the younger progressive voters that has really transformed his image. And that’s been very important to how this race has gotten to where we had three polls out yesterday that show Markey is now in the lead.

Massachusetts has no shortage of other big political names deeply entrenched incumbents: Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, Barney Frank, Jim McGovern. Have any of them come out and said anything one way or the other?

Elizabeth Warren has endorsed Ed Markey. Markey very clearly recognized he was vulnerable and locked down as many endorsements as he could very early. Warren endorsed him in February of 2019, if I recall correctly, so it’s unclear if she would have stayed neutral had she known Kennedy—whom she also has a very close relationship with—was getting in the race.

Is it too easy to overstate Massachusetts liberalism? I mean, this is a place that currently has a Republican governor. 

Yeah, who enjoys sky-high approval ratings from Democratic primary voters. I moved to Massachusetts in early 2018. And that has been one of the enduring lessons I have taken away from my move: It is not the stereotype that the rest of the country has of this bright blue, ultraliberal state. Don’t forget that Joe Biden won the presidential primary here. Elizabeth Warren came in third. The Democrats here, there is a healthy portion who are more moderate.

Does this race advantage a Republican candidate in the general? Does either Ed Markey or Joseph Kennedy face a serious opponent in November? This isn’t all over after Tuesday’s votes are counted.

There’s two candidates running in the Republican primary. One is Dr. Shiva, who ran as an independent against Warren in the 2018 Senate campaign as a conspiracy theorist and all-around kind of an extreme guy.* And the other candidate, Kevin O’Connor, is more of a traditional Republican. But there’s just really no evidence that either one of them has wide appeal in Massachusetts. I don’t think there is going to be a real race after this primary.

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Correction, Sept. 2, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Dr. Shiva ran against Elizabeth Warren in the 2008 Massachusetts Senate campaign. That race took place during the 2018 Senate campaign.