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Joe Kennedy III challenges Ed Markey in 2020’s weirdest primary race

Written by Robert Boatright, Professor of Political Science, Clark University


When Senate incumbents are challenged in a primary and lose, it is usually because they are enmeshed in a scandal.

Incumbency has numerous advantages: sitting senators have six years to build up a war chest, they have high name recognition, and they have experience running statewide campaigns. Plus, both parties actively discourage primary challenges.

Yet in the fall of 2019, 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy III decided to challenge 74-year-old incumbent Ed Markey in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Markey has done nothing scandalous and has one of the Senate’s most progressive voting records while representing one of the most progressive states.

So why did Kennedy decide to mount this challenge? And why might he actually have a shot of unseating Markey?

A primary not like the others

It is tempting to see Kennedy’s challenge as another instance of generational conflict among Democrats.

Markey served in the House from 1976 until he won the Senate seat in a 2013 special election. During his House tenure, Markey established himself as an expert on energy and telecommunication policy.

Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, has served in the House for only eight years compared to Markey’s 37. Before announcing his Senate bid, Kennedy seemed to be on a path toward playing a role in the House Democratic leadership.

The 2020 primary season has featured several House campaigns in which young, progressive candidates have challenged long-serving incumbents in districts that were once considered safe. Three of these challengers – Jamaal Bowman in New York, Cori Bush in Missouri and Marie Newman in Illinois – even won.

But in the Massachusetts race, the ideological differences – if there are any – are muddled. Kennedy cannot make a credible claim to be running to Markey’s left. Markey has secured the backing of progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of the highest-profile primary battle of 2018, and he has made his support of progressive policy goals like the Green New Deal a centerpiece of his campaign.

Kennedy, meanwhile, secured the endorsements of older establishment figures like Nancy Pelosi and the late John Lewis.

Throwing a wrench in the machine

Instead, it seems as though the race is less a battle of ideas, and more one of political calculation on Kennedy’s part.

One of the most influential recent books on political parties, “The Party Decides,” contends that American presidential primaries are largely a ratification of decisions made by party elites well before the votes are cast. The authors note, however, that political parties long ago lost control of the nominations for the House and Senate.

This has not necessarily been the case in Massachusetts. The Bay State is one of the few remaining in which it is possible to speak of a “Democratic machine” – a party that can control nominations for state and federal offices.

With a few exceptions – the most obvious is Elizabeth Warren – statewide elections in Massachusetts feature seasoned Democratic officials who have faithfully waited their turn to take the next step up the state’s political ladder.

Joe Kennedy and Ed Markey march together in a parade in 2013.
Joe Kennedy III marches with Ed Markey during Boston’s 2013 Pride Parade, when Markey was first a candidate for U.S. Senate.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Markey is a product of this approach. When he announced his candidacy in the 2013 special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat, his long House tenure made him the closest thing to a “next in line” candidate. Markey’s candidacy dissuaded many other Democrats from running, and he easily bested his lone Democratic opponent, the more junior U.S. Rep. Steven Lynch, in the primary.

Both Massachusetts senators – Markey and Elizabeth Warren – are in their 70s, so even if Markey survives this challenge, there will likely be an open seat race in Massachusetts soon.

Why couldn’t Kennedy simply bide his time?

In this overwhelmingly Democratic state, there are many Democrats who have been patiently waiting their turn, from the state’s all-Democratic House delegation, to statewide officeholders such as Attorney General Maura Healey. The Massachusetts Democratic Party also requires candidates to receive 15% of the votes at the party convention to even appear on the ballot.

So the state Democratic Party’s byzantine traditions, more than anything else, may have influenced Kennedy’s decision. Had he waited for Markey or Warren to leave, he could have found himself vying against several other more seasoned opponents who have been licking their chops. And he may not have even made it onto the ballot.

Perhaps he thought he had a better chance in a head-to-head primary than in a race for an open seat. Furthermore, should he lose, he could build upon this race to run for an open seat in the future, though he’s given up his House seat in order to challenge Markey.

Smelling weakness?

Kennedy also seems to be gambling that Markey’s campaigning skills are rusty.

He may have a point. With no serious Republican opposition, Markey cruised to victory in 2013 and in the 2014 general election. As the representative from a safe House seat for nearly four decades before that, Markey is the rare Senate incumbent who has never had to run in a competitive race.

Kennedy substantially outspent Markey early in the race, and Markey has only begun to catch up in recent weeks.

Although the two candidates each raised approximately $10 million, Markey had three times as much money as Kennedy on hand as of mid-August. An influx of cash from Markey may be behind his recent surge in the polls that have given him a narrow lead. While Kennedy has likely benefited from name recognition, he has struggled to articulate why he is running and where he disagrees with Markey.

Just how unusual would it be if Markey were to lose?

The only Democratic Senate incumbent who has lost his seat to a primary challenger since the early 1990s was Arlen Specter, who switched parties shortly before the 2010 election, only to lose the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak. The last Democratic primary loser who resembled Markey was J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. Like Markey, he had a track record of impressive legislative achievements but rarely had to vigorously campaign for reelection. Fulbright ended up losing the 1974 primary to the state’s governor.

If the Arkansas comparison seems strained, a Massachusetts comparison could be more apt. In the first half of the 20th century, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who dominated Massachusetts politics. The liberal Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was perhaps the most accomplished Massachusetts senator of his generation. Despite his national reputation, he lost his seat in 1952 to a much younger Democrat who, during the general election, ran a personality-based campaign fueled by his family’s money.

That Democrat was, of course, Joe Kennedy III’s great uncle: John F. Kennedy.

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