The incumbent is 74-year-old Edward J. Markey, who served for 37 years in the House before winning a special election in 2013 to replace John F. Kerry in the Senate. The challenger is 39-year-old Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, a four-term congressman and scion of America’s legendary political dynasty. Markey has never lost an election in his 47 years of public service, but no Kennedy has ever lost an election in Massachusetts.
Both men are well-known and well-liked: Polls show that 80 percent of likely Democratic voters recognize their names and 70 percent view each candidate favorably. They’re both self-described progressives with similar positions. Markey snagged a huge endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); Kennedy got a rare and critical nod from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
In the absence of ideological differences, Tuesday’s contest comes down to age, relatability and loyalty. Do voters want an old dog with new tricks? Or new blood with old money?
“I have more than 500 laws on the books. He does not. I’ve led national movements, from the Green New Deal to the nuclear freeze movement to the net neutrality movement. And he has not,” says Markey. “And so I am able to use my record of achievement as a contrast.”
Kennedy defines the role differently. He says Markey is a “decent man,” but adds, “I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that this job stops with the votes that you cast or the bills you file, because there’s so much more to the job, and that there’s so much more good you can do than that.”
Their supporters are excited. But most Democrats are annoyed that two “good guys” are locked in this fight — one will emerge victorious, the other will be out of office.
“I’m losing a good, promising congressman or I’m losing one of the best, most progressive senators we’ve ever had,” says political writer Charlie Pierce, a Massachusetts native. “To me, that’s a lose-lose. What makes this election so easy to hate is that it seems, to me, unnecessary — an unnecessary waste of political energy and unnecessary squandering of two good careers.”
Markey’s signature look on the campaign trail is a mask, a shirt with no tie and rolled-up sleeves, and Nike Air Revolutions. The red-and-white sneakers got so worn he had to send them to the shoe hospital; now they’re back, and “I’ll have them on all day, every day until primary night,” he says.
This is not a race he expected to run. He represented his district outside Boston — with few Republican challengers — for more than three decades, which propelled him into the Senate after Kerry was named secretary of state. He won again the following year.
Winning a Democratic primary is effectively winning the election. In the past 50 years, the state has sent only two Republicans to the Senate: Ed Brooke, who served from 1967 to 1979, and Scott Brown, who won a special election in 2010 after the death of Ted Kennedy (then lost to Elizabeth Warren two years later).
Young Democrats have a hard time moving up because old Democrats keep getting reelected: Ted Kennedy served in the Senate for almost 47 years, Kerry for 28.
The Kennedys have never been fans of patiently waiting for a seat. John Kennedy was only 35 years old when he took on Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1952 Senate race. Ted had just turned 30 when he ran in 1962. Joe’s grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, was 38 in 1964 when he won a Senate seat in New York. Joe’s dad, Joe Kennedy II, was 34 when he was elected in 1986 to the first of his six House terms.
So it probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising when Joe Kennedy announced last fall he was challenging Markey, but it was.
“I don’t think Ed saw it coming, nor did most people,” says a longtime Democratic fundraiser familiar with the politics in the state, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign, adding, “People in Massachusetts appreciate his progressive positions that have been there long before AOC or the progressives now in style.”
The incumbent is now highlighting his decades in Washington. His signature initiatives include breaking up telephone monopolies, nuclear arms control, Medicare-for-all, finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and the Green New Deal. When he started the campaign last year, Markey thought a central issue would be the existential threat of climate change.
But early polls showed him down double digits against Kennedy, and the strategy shifted to not just what he’s been fighting for, but why.
“I can only run as a Markey from Malden,” he says. That working-class story includes a father who drove a milk truck and a mother who survived the 1918 flu pandemic pandemic but died of Alzheimer’s. His message now is that President Trump has betrayed the American people. “It’s time for the government to respond to the needs of these families,” he says. “It’s not their fault that the coronaviruses came. It’s not their fault that we’re in the middle of the greatest depression since the 1930s.”
Despite Markey’s roots, his opponent says the senator is now out of touch with many voters — especially minority and poorer constituents — because he’s rarely in the state. The Boston Globe reported last month that Markey spends less time in Massachusetts than any other member of the state’s congressional delegation.
Markey’s campaign has batted down that charge. “I would just say it’s been brought up every time he had a real race, and he’s never lost a race,” says campaign manager John Walsh. The senator’s national profile — along with the power that comes with seniority in Congress — is an advantage no challenger can match.
“Well, the test is effectiveness,” says Markey. “All of these mayors are with me because I’d had their back on everything that they wanted. All of the state representatives and state senators are with me. NARAL [Pro-Choice America] is with me. Planned Parenthood is with me. All the environmental groups in the state are with me.”
And AOC is with him, bestowing her endorsement and legions of young progressives. That was followed by an endorsement from the Globe last month, the first time the paper has ever not endorsed a Kennedy.
That leaves the delicate question of age. Kennedy is running, as young Kennedys do, on the promise of a new generation. He’s never called Markey, who is older than Kennedy’s father, too old for the job. But the suggestion hangs in the air like a wet sock.
Markey bats that away, too. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in endorsing me, said, ‘It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas.’ I’m the youngest guy in the race.”
Last year, a Massachusetts political reporter confronted Markey’s campaign manager. “He said, ‘John, just tell me, what are Joe Kennedy’s weaknesses?’ ” says Walsh. “And I said, ‘Joe Kennedy has no weaknesses. He’s young, he’s handsome, he’s rich, he’s a Kennedy, and he’s a nice guy. You know what his problem in this election is going to be? He’s not Ed Markey.’ ”
When Ted Kennedy first ran for Senate in 1962, he had no real qualifications except for the fact that his brother was president of the United States. His opponent, the nephew of House Speaker John McCormack, took a jab during a televised debate saying the candidate by any other name “would be a joke.” Kennedy, of course, won that race and held the seat until he died in 2009.
The consensus today is that Joe Kennedy would never stand a chance against Markey but for his famous name.
This is not to say “Joe” — his preferred moniker — hasn’t prepared himself for the family business. Raised primarily by his mother Sheila Rauch, after a public and messy annulment from his father, Kennedy attended Stanford and then Harvard Law School. His political “coming out” was at Ted’s funeral, where he greeted guests and charmed almost everyone he met.
“The feeling was that one of the things Joe had going for him was that he wasn’t really a Kennedy,” says Pierce. “He didn’t have the Kennedy sense of entitlement. He didn’t have the Kennedy sense of wearing your legacy like a suit of armor.”
In 2012, he ran for Congress and handily won. “He is exceptionally well-liked by the old Kennedy people,” says the Democratic fundraiser. “Everybody who ever had a relationship with Jack, Bobby, or Ted really likes ‘young Joe.’ ”
“First, and I mean this respectfully, literally anything I’ve ever done, any accomplishment I’ve ever had, people have said it’s because of my name,” says Kennedy. “And that just is what it is. I’m used to it.”
The only thing he asks is that he gets a fair chance to make his case. “I understand that my family means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. And I understand the people will project onto me certain things, positive and negative. I have been trying to be very clear throughout all of my campaigns and throughout my professional life, given my chosen profession, that I am who I am. Voting for me doesn’t mean you get Robert Kennedy. It doesn’t mean that you get Ted or Jack. It doesn’t mean you get my dad. It means you get me.”
His record is not long but solidly liberal. After charges that the older members of Congress were shutting out newcomers, Kennedy was selected to give the 2018 Democratic State of the Union response, a prestigious showcase for rising stars. Later that year, Pelosi sent him across the country to raise money for Democratic members.
Kennedy says he had to be talked into challenging Markey, but he thought voters deserved to have a choice. He’s running on his core issues: jobs and manufacturing, affordable child care, racial justice, mental health and addiction, climate change and health care for all. Since his positions are similar to Markey in so many ways, Kennedy is leaning heavily on his energy and engagement with voters throughout the state, especially minority communities.
“I think that the role and the opportunity of what it means to be a United States senator has changed such that if you’re going to try to claim to tackle the big challenges of this moment — racial justice and equity, economic inequality — that’s not going to be signed in some backroom deal in Washington,” says Kennedy. “If it would’ve, it would’ve been done by now.” Markey, he believes, doesn’t see the job “with the same degree of opportunity, possibility or the relentlessness required in order to deliver on the change that we want to see.”
Where Kennedy sees opportunity, others see an opportunist. Kennedy is well-liked as a House member but has failed to give, according to critics, a compelling rationale for his senate bid beyond his youth. Some progressives are offended that he’s trying to ride the wave of progressivism in the state without fully acknowledging the work by people of color. The goodwill he accrued over the years? “I think he sacrificed all of that in this run,” says Pierce. “Now he just looks like another ambitious Kennedy.”
“Politics is extremely complex at the moment,” says the congressman, so “people are looking for labels to associate with this race: Are you more progressive or not? Are you running as a Kennedy or not?” He rejects the labels — and just thinks he’d be more effective in the senate.
But the name issue came up again earlier this month when Markey released a viral ad that flipped JFK’s famous 1961 inaugural speech on its head. “We asked what we could do for our country,” Markey says in the video. “We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
Within days, Pelosi endorsed Kennedy, telling The Post’s Karen Tumulty she was offended that Markey — who served with her for many years — had crossed a hallowed line. “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family,” she says. “And I thought, Joe didn’t ask me to endorse him, but I felt an imperative to do so.” Pundits were baffled that Pelosi had interjected herself into a Senate primary, and assumed it was because she is still fiercely loyal to the Kennedys, whom she has known for decades.
If Kennedy loses this primary, he could theoretically run again if Warren’s Senate seat became available because of a Biden Cabinet appointment, or if Markey retires. But he doesn’t want to wait and take the chance that one of the state’s rising stars could eclipse him at some point in the future.
“It’s up or out for him,” Pierce believes. “That is the fundamental rationale for his campaign. And he’s got Ayanna Pressley in his rearview mirror, which is not an inconsiderable factor,” referring to the popular progressive congresswoman.
There’s one more reason Kennedy might be in such a hurry. Says one longtime observer: “There are a lot of people in the state who think this is a steppingstone to the presidency.”
Kennedy’s early lead has been erased; Markey has pulled into a double-digit lead in some polls. But the race is seen as too close to call, and both campaigns say they expect to win by bringing out a record number of first-time voters: Young progressives for Markey; minorities and other underrepresented communities for Kennedy.
The Globe’s endorsement of Markey last month was a blow to the Kennedy camp, which dismissed it as pandering to the paper’s “disproportionately white, well-off, well-educated readers.” Markey has racked up other endorsements (Warren, MoveOn.org), cutting further into Kennedy’s support.
Pelosi’s endorsement is widely seen as a reaction to the Globe and as the lifeline the congressman needed to blunt Markey’s momentum.
In the last days of the campaign, Markey has doubled down on his progressive bona fides and Kennedy has aired ads showcasing his grandfather and JFK. The challenger thinks he will win. “Yes, I do,” says Kennedy. “And I’m excited about that.”
Markey isn’t making predictions.
“I’m running to the wire,” he says. “I’m 24/7. I’m all gas and no break until eight o’clock on primary night.”