WHEN NEWS BROKE late last summer that Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was considering a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey, many political operatives reasonably asked … why? Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, the most high-profile aspect of Kennedy’s political career had been giving the Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2018 — and, of course, being a Kennedy. Markey, meanwhile, wasn’t shrouded in any scandal and had recently introduced the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an instant hallmark of progressive politics.
Polling voters, though, the answer is a little more evident. Last July, before Kennedy jumped in the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed that 45 percent of likely voters in the state were undecided about supporting Markey for reelection and 14 percent said they had never heard of him. By September, Boston Globe/Suffolk University released another poll finding Kennedy leading Markey by 14 points in a potential Senate head-to-head, and more Massachusetts voters viewed Kennedy as the more liberal candidate and a better fighter for Democratic priorities than Markey.
Soon after Kennedy announced his candidacy in September, progressive groups were quick to jump behind Markey. Markey has earned endorsements from a host of progressive organizations, ranging from national groups like Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, and Planned Parenthood to teachers unions, peace groups, and environmental activists on the state level.
As the September 1 primary nears, progressives, many of whom are still mourning the losses of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary, have turned their sights to saving Markey’s seat in the Senate — grateful for his early backing of the Green New Deal, which was unpopular among Democratic leadership in Washington when it was introduced. It doesn’t matter to them that Kennedy also supports the Green New Deal, and some view his recent announcement that his family trusts have divested from oil and gas stocks as too little too late. (In December, Markey’s campaign returned more than $46,000 from donors who didn’t meet requirements of the fossil fuel pledge, which both candidates signed.)
Many also suspect that Kennedy has decided to run for Senate because he’s calculated that it might be easier to unseat a 74-year-old incumbent now than it would be to beat Rep. Ayanna Pressley or Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an open primary six years down the road. Indeed, Kennedy’s stated rationale for entering the primary is a little fuzzy. Both candidates admit that when it comes down to brass tacks, they are in line on major issues. Kennedy’s case boils down to the idea that he thinks he could “leverage” the Massachusetts Senate seat better than Markey has. Senators have immense power beyond just voting on bills, Kennedy’s argument goes, and Markey hasn’t used his position effectively enough to serve the Democratic Party and the country.
The result is a Senate primary race that can best be described as pretty weird. On the one hand, there’s an incumbent who has served more than 40 years in Congress running as some kind of grassroots underdog. On the other hand, a literal Kennedy is claiming to be bullied by the political establishment and invoking language used by progressive insurgents who’ve sought new leadership to shake up the status quo.
There hasn’t been polling in the race since early May, when a UMass-Lowell poll showed the race had significantly tightened with Kennedy up by just 2 points. That, Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh argued, is because the progressive base has consolidated behind the senator. But another poll, conducted around the same time by Emerson College/7News, showed Markey trailing Kennedy by 16 points.
PROGRESSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR Markey from both the activist community and left-wing media has at times led the left to go fairly easy on the senator for votes they’ve criticized other Democrats for. Over the years, like Joe Biden, Markey voted for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the 1994 crime bill, and he opposed busing for desegregation in the 1970s.
When asked if he has any comments about these past votes, Markey told The Intercept that Black and brown men in the United States were “owe[d] a national apology” for the over-incarceration wrought by the 1994 crime bill, and said that’s why he’s co-sponsoring Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step Act to overhaul the criminal justice system. Markey offered similar remarks when he announced his 2018 co-sponsorship of the First Step Act, a precursor to Booker’s bill: “The First Step Act is just the beginning of the national apology we owe to the generation of African-American men and women who lost their lives and futures in prison due to a few dollars of crack cocaine and an unjust War on Drugs.”
On Iraq, Markey says he “deeply regret[s] that vote” and blamed President George W. Bush for lying to Congress and the American people about nuclear weapons in the country. “I’ve worked every day to ensure we don’t have another needless war in the Middle East,” he said, though he voted “present” in 2013 on military intervention in Syria, saying at the time that he needed to study the issue further.
“Senator Markey has been on the cutting edge of progressivism in the Democratic Party for his entire career,” Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept, citing the senator’s early support for net neutrality and opposition to nuclear weapons. “Has every vote he’s ever taken over his long political career been perfect? No. But he’s often the person in his party forcing others to take hard or uncomfortable votes before positions become politically popular, creating the space and momentum for change.”
Though Markey has positioned himself as a stalwart leader of the progressive movement, and touted the significance of receiving progressive endorsements in his primary, the senator lacks a record of backing progressive primary challengers, something Warren and Sanders have embraced over the last few years. Unlike Warren and Sanders, for example, Markey stayed out of Charles Booker’s competitive Senate bid in Kentucky this year, and in his home state, he’s standing behind Rep. Richard Neal, despite Neal facing a much more progressive challenger in Alex Morse. Markey also didn’t endorse Pressley in 2018, though his supporters say it matters that he didn’t endorse Mike Capuano, the incumbent, either.
Back in November, a reporter pressed Markey about why he wasn’t supporting Morse, given that he supports the Green New Deal, and Neal doesn’t. “Ultimately he supports taking bold action on climate change and changing the tax code that makes [a Green New Deal] possible,” said Markey, defending his colleague. Markey and Neal both endorsed each other before Kennedy and Morse were running. “I like both candidates,” he added, referring to Booker and Morse. “On big votes Congressman Neal has been with me, but we have our differences.”
Kennedy hasn’t endorsed in the Morse/Neal contest either and told The Intercept that he plans to focus on his own race. Kennedy has also been criticized by progressive groups for endorsing the more moderate candidates in Massachusetts races in which progressive challengers were running.
“One thing we’ve pointed out is that in 2018, he had the choice to support progressive women of color — Ayanna Pressley and Nika Elugardo — but he didn’t,” said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group that has endorsed Markey. In those races, Kennedy endorsed incumbents Capuano and Jeffrey Sanchez, who both lost. (This cycle Elugardo has endorsed Markey, and Pressley is staying out of the race.)
EARLIER THIS WINTER, a Democratic activist in Massachusetts approached Kennedy after a campaign town hall and pressed him on why he was running. “With due respect to Senator Markey, who is a good man, there’s more to this job than the way you vote and the bills that you file,” Kennedy answered, as reported by Boston Magazine. “It comes with an ability to leverage that platform … and, with due respect to the senator, if you’re not going to leverage that now … then when?”
But has Kennedy “leveraged” his House seat to the best of his ability?
“I think I have,” he told The Intercept, though acknowledged that he’s “done it differently obviously” than star representatives like Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez. He credits those women for using their platforms to cast a spotlight on issues of importance. “I’ve tried to do that in a way that is most natural to me,” he said, and pointed to his fundraising trips throughout 2018 to help Democrats flip the House. Kennedy said this work helped flip the House in 2018 and in a recent debate, he brought up his fundraising for Covid-19 relief groups and legal defense for immigrant families.
“Let me be clear,” he added. “When I critique Senator Markey … I’m not saying in persona, experience, history, or policy that I would be the next AOC or Ayanna Pressley. Like that’s not who I am, that’s not the policy positions that I necessarily take.”
“The reason Joe can go around [fundraising] is because he’s Bobby Kennedy’s grandson,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “It’s not because he’s ever led on a single issue since he’s been in Congress.” Kennedy countered that he’s proud of his leadership in areas around mental health and LGBTQ issues, and noted he spoke to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights in his 2018 response to the State of the Union.
Kennedy’s campaign said its polling shows Markey leading with more white, affluent voters, while Kennedy is doing better with middle-class and working-class white people, as well as Black and Latino communities. “We are proud of the broad and incredibly diverse base of support Joe has earned from communities of color to working-class cities and towns,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Brian Phillips Jr. told The Intercept. White, affluent voters tend to be more reliable Massachusetts primary voters, and so the Kennedy campaign is hoping for high turnout overall. “If you look to more moderate and conservative Democrats, they’re with Joe,” said Walsh.
Kennedy, who recognizes that he comes to this race with wealth and a dynastic political history, still feels like he hasn’t really been given a fair shake by the left. Progressive media has gone after Kennedy for working for Michael O’Keefe, a conservative, tough-on-crime district attorney on Cape Cod. “Why did Joe Kennedy … choose in 2009 to help cage his indigent neighbors under the leadership of O’Keefe?” asked The Appeal’s Will Isenberg. The Nation’s Maia Hibbett said Kennedy would have been “collecting quality-of-life fines, securing low-level drug convictions, and evicting families from their homes” during his time as a prosecutor.
Kennedy told The Intercept that he did not handle eviction cases, as those are civil suits, and that his time was spent primarily on DUIs, assault and battery charges, domestic violence, and opioid and mental illness drug cases. “The idea that your liberal ideology has to be in accordance with your boss is an absurd position to take, because yeah I disagree with him, but my job wasn’t setting policy, it was implementing the laws that were actually uniform across the state,” he said. According to Kennedy, his nickname at the office was “innocence project” because of his commitment to criminal defense.
In May, Kennedy introduced a bill to establish a right to counsel for eviction, medical bankruptcy, and domestic violence cases — a decadeslong goal from the legal aid community. Yet he earned minimal progressive plaudits, perhaps because earlier that month he was ripped online for a tweet that said no patient should “be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side.” (The next day he clarified, “Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. … But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court.”) Kennedy has also been blasted by progressives for not co-sponsoring former Rep. John Conyers’s original Medicare for All bill in the House, but he said he was “proud” to co-sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s version, which builds upon earlier proposals from Sanders and Conyers, after working with her to ensure that it would cover abortions and long-term care.
“Senator Markey has over the course of the past several months gone much further left than he ever has,” Kennedy told The Intercept. “The progressive world has consolidated around him to make him the progressive in the race and tried to make me a mealy-mouth moderate who is running on ambition and my name, which has been frustrating to say the least.” Kennedy said he wants more of an honest conversation about vote histories. “I looked at my record and what I’ve done and I’m just trying to say, ‘Hey, you want to have a debate about who is more progressive? Fine. I think the honest answer is there’s areas where Senator Markey has led, and there are areas I’ve led.’”
LAST WEEK, Kennedy’s campaign held a press conference with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who slammed Markey for his immigration record, pointing to a 2013 vote in which the senator broke with his caucus and the president to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention bed quota. Kennedy later voted for an omnibus spending bill that included the quota, along with all but three other House Democrats.
Markey certainly rejects the idea that he hasn’t led in the Senate and ticked off a number of his biggest accomplishments, from increasing fuel efficiency standards to creating the largest federal program for low-income students to access internet at home. He feels his advocacy on issues like the climate crisis, net neutrality, and Medicare for All position him well to win his next election. “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas that are important,” Markey said. “And in terms of the age of my ideas, I’m the youngest person in this race.”
Markey isn’t alone on shifting leftward over the course of this election cycle. Kennedy, whose grandfather was killed by a man who’s been up for parole many times in recent years, now supports eliminating life sentences without parole, although he said he wants to balance sentencing reform with the wishes of victims and their families. That’s a change from earlier this year, when he wrote in a February candidate questionnaire that he supported eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles and nonviolent cases, and “heavily restricting,” but not eliminating, qualified immunity.
“I think my position on that has actually evolved since we even did that questionnaire,” Kennedy said. “I’ve thought about that one a lot. … I am comfortable now with the idea that people should be eligible for parole. … I also want to make sure victims’ voices and survivors’ voices are heard.”
At the end of the day, the Markey and Kennedy campaigns will have poured close to $20 million into a race that won’t help Senate Democrats add any seats in the chamber or markedly change the winner’s policy blueprint for the next congressional session. Kennedy has raised more than $7.8 million so far, and Markey — who out-raised Kennedy for the first time last quarter, according to his campaign — has raised more than $10.4 million to date. Both men cast their most recent fundraising hauls as evidence that their campaigns are surging.