A Democratic Mud-Fight in Massachusetts

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S1: Most of the country’s political conversation is focused on the general election coming up in November, 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. There’s an invisible contract we all signed at birth, a promise the Massachusetts primary is today. This ad released by incumbent Senator Ed Markey just a few weeks ago was designed to take over the conversation. It’s three minutes long, America. If you break the sacred contract, the people make a revolution. It refers to revolution and a new deal. It notes Maki’s work with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. And then the ad takes unmistakable aim at March’s opponent in the race, Congressman Joseph Kennedy. The third, Maki’s voiceover inverts the famous quote of his opponent’s great uncle, President John F. Kennedy. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you. The ad shows how the Massachusetts Senate primary has become a contest of who’s more likely to shake things up in Washington. Who’s the more progressive liberal 74 year old Senate Democrat Ed Markey, a fixture in Congress since the Carter administration or 39 year old Congressman Joe Kennedy, elected to the House in 2012. Are Ed Markey and Joseph Kennedy very different politically? The kinds of votes that they take, the kinds of policies they put forward, their worldview, is there much difference between these two men? No. Victoria McGrane is a political correspondent for The Boston Globe. I asked her to give me a better sense of the marquee Kennedy matchup.

S2: Substantively, there is very little difference between the two of them.

S1: On today’s show, what a Senate primary can tell us about the strength of the progressive brand and the Kennedy name in Massachusetts, I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Victoria McGrane had been covering the Massachusetts Senate primary all summer when the flashy ad for Markey was released in August and a few things stood out to her immediately.

S3: The first is just the general image that Markey portrays about himself, which is obviously very powerful. I mean, 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 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. And the request was being made by John Kerry, who is Secretary of State John Kerry, who had helped make sure that Ed Markey got his Senate seat, 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. You know, a number of Democrats who are, you know, worked with Markey throughout his career say, you know, that is more the Ed Markey that they know that somebody who was very cautious at times.

S2: Long before Joe Kennedy ever jumped into this race, Ed Markey was seen as incredibly vulnerable. I wrote a story, I think, you know, in the fall of twenty eighteen, looking at this fact that he was widely seen as vulnerable for somebody who had been in elected office for nearly 50 years, had been a senator for almost a full term. He was not very well known in the state. So that was the chatter in the political circles in Massachusetts was who was going to take on Ed Markey and Kennedy, you know, sort of 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 very clearly made a calculation that this was a risk worth taking because there was a shot at it.

S1: What I have at the moment is an opportunity to prove who I am to the people across Massachusetts. And I look forward to having that. Well, if you’re listening to this conversation in Texas or Idaho or California, I think we ought to remind people just what the Kennedy name means in Massachusetts. That even makes it possible for an Ed Markey to portray himself as the outsider.

S2: Yes, the name is both a help and a hurt, I think, for for Kennedy. You know, when we see the results come in, we’ll get a real it’ll be a real test of how much power does that name still have in Massachusetts politics? I mean, some of the things we’ve seen in this race you would not have seen a decade ago. Senator Markey has used the Kennedy name against has weaponized it against the congressman in ways that would have been just beyond the pale not that long ago. But, you know, 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 makes it hard, despite the name, to paint yourself as as an outsider. And there’s just been this big this 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, you know, Kennedy has ever said. But there’s a sense that he’s, you know, we need to end dynasties. And that is a very powerful feeling among Markis base.

S1: There’s a reason this primary race has become a test of progressive bona fides and the drawing power of the Kennedy name. It’s because ideologically, Markey and Kennedy aren’t all that far apart.

S2: They’ve had to, you know, dig deep into the annals of each other’s voting history to come up with anything to complain about. And, you know, 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 was a young black man shot by police 10 years ago in upstate New York, but his is from Massachusetts. You know, why not? Did it put out a video saying that, you know, when he went to when he and his wife went to Ed Markey asking for help, for justice, for their son to get a, you know, an investigation into the police shooting, Markey dismissed them, use the word color to describe black people. The problem is Kennedy came very late to trying to define Markey in a negative way. So it’s unclear if if that stuck because in the meantime, Markey has really solidified this image of a progressive warrior, Aoki’s hip grandpaw some, as one analyst put it to me recently.

S1: Well, let’s let’s talk about see a little more, because this race has turned out to be like a magnet dropped on a tabletop full of iron filings. Everybody has the 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?

S2: That was a real surprise that she decided to wade into a race like this at all. She very rarely endorses. 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 she has the House has this policy of blacklisting vendors who work for challengers to Democratic incumbents in the House. This is a Senate race. But Pelosi said that she decided to get in because of these attack. The marquee 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 superPAC that’s run some negative ads against Markey. And so I took the Pelosi endorsement kind of on two levels. One, you know, 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. The ties go deep. And I really just read it as sort of a sign that she’s saying to Tamaki, who she worked with and was close allies with in the House, that, hey, this is this is too much, you know, 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.

S1: At the same time, Alexander Cosio 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.

S2: Yes. I mean, if Markey wins, I think we can safely say that the most important political move he made was well before there was ever a primary contest was teaming up with AOC on the Green New Deal. And that has really generated all this excitement among younger progressive voters that has, you know, really sort of transformed his image from, again, the sort of this, you know, not very well known. Nice guy to Aoki’s partner in the Green New Deal. And that’s been very important to how this races has gotten to where, you know, the most recent we had three polls out yesterday that shows Markey is now in the lead.

S1: Massachusetts has no shortage of other big political names, deeply entrenched in incumbents. People who you’ve actually heard of in other parts of the country have Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, Barney Frank, Jim McGovern, others come out and said anything one way or the other.

S2: Elizabeth Warren has endorsed Ed Markey. Interesting sort of scuttlebutt on that part is, you know, Markey very clearly recognized he was vulnerable as well. He locked down as many endorsements as he could very early, long before anybody had signaled they might actually get in and challenge him to have this long list of elected officials that he, you know, reached out to at the very beginning of 2019. So Warren endorsed him in February of 2019, if I recall correctly. So unclear if she would have, you know, stayed neutral had she known Kennedy, who she also has a very close relationship with getting in the race. One of those things we’ll never know. She never criticized Kennedy. Unlike a lot of Democratic elected officials, she has never criticized Kennedy for getting in the race. She every time anybody asks her, any reporter asks her about the race. She’s always, you know, said is as many nice things about Kennedy as she does with Markey. But that has also helped, you know, Maki’s standing as the kind of progressive figure in this race, even though both he and Kennedy vote very similarly and have, you know, very similar scores on these scorecards of, you know, are you a progressive or not?

S1: Is it too easy to overstate Massachusetts liberalism? I mean, this is a place that currently has a Republican governor.

S2: Yes. Who enjoys sky high approval ratings from Democratic primary voters.

S1: Right. So it’s it’s too simplistic to just say, oh, Massachusetts. Oh, uber liberal.

S2: Yes, so I moved to Massachusetts in early 2018, and that has been one of the enduring lessons I have taken away from my move as an outside observer of Massachusetts to an actual person reporting on politics from here is it is not the stereotype that the rest of the country has is this bright blue, ultra liberal state. I mean, don’t forget that Joe Biden won the presidential primary here. Elizabeth Warren came in third, even though she, you know, was handily re-elected as senator, that Democrats here, there is a healthy portion who are more moderate. So it’s a lot more nuanced than you might think.

S1: 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.

S2: No, it’s not. But so far, there’s no evidence that there’s two candidates running in the Republican primary. One doctor Shiva, who ran as an independent against Warren in the 2008 Senate campaign, is a conspiracy theorist and all around kind of extreme guy. And the other candidate, Kevin O’Connor, is sort of you’re more sort of more traditional Republican. But there’s just really no evidence that either one of them has wide appeal in Massachusetts. I don’t think there’s going to be a real race after this primary.

S4: Victoria McGrane covers politics for The Boston Globe. She’s been following the race between Senator Ed Markey and Representative Joseph Kennedy, the third. Victoria, thanks for talking to us. It was really great. Thanks for having me. That’s the show What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt, Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz, where led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.