Democrats In Massachusetts are preparing forthe fiercest Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday.
The race has pitted incumbent Senator Ed Markey, the longest-serving member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, against challenger Representative Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of the former attorney general and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
The campaign has turned deeply personal in recent weeks, with the Kennedy clan being drawn into the discourse.
And while the battle has been portrayed in much of the news media as a contest between who can be the most progressive, strategists say it will ultimately come down to the candidates’ records.
“I really think the contest is between who can do a better job, and how do you do that job,” said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
Markey, 74, has touted his progressive credentials and decades-long environmental advocacy, including his authorship of the Green New Deal with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Kennedy, 39, has said the party needs new voices on a number of issues, including racial justice. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the congressman was often seen donning a mask with his sleeves rolled up and volunteering across Massachusetts.
The congressman, who has served in the House since 2013, even took the step of temporarily suspending his campaign’s political operations in March as the coronavirus spread in the U.S.
But three polls released this week show Markey with a lead over Kennedy, a stark difference from more than a year ago, when Kennedy led Markey by a wide margin.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in polls,” said John Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “It is a reasonable thing to say there is a clear trend in this election.”
Walsh attributes the Markey campaign’s boost to its messaging and organizational prowess, including its large digital operation, which has proven to be popular with Gen Z voters.
Markey’s TikTok boasts more than 10,000 followers and features a number of videos, including an ad from his first congressional run and a present-day video of Markey proclaiming, “That’s no malarkey. I’m Ed Markey.”
“It is fun, but it is serious because this generation has grown up in endless war,” Walsh said, referring to Gen Z voters. “They cannot be certain that they are going to have a life better than their parents. They’ve grown up with the prospect of crushing student debt, of income inequality, of lack of racial justice, of a planet that is on fire, literally. And a political system that refuses to do anything about it. And when they see a guy like Ed Markey, you bet your ass they’re in.”
Markey has attracted a wide range of endorsements, from fellow Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to progressive House candidates Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, as well as House Democratic leaders Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney.
Kennedy also has an impressive Rolodex of endorsements, ranging from a large number of Massachusetts labor unions to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the late civil rights icon Representative John Lewis.
But Kennedy says endorsements won’t ultimately decide the race and has focused on meeting voters face-to-face in what his campaign has dubbed “24 hour campaign days.”
“From being out and around as aggressively as we have been over the past couple of weeks, and past couple of days, [I’ve seen] an enormous amount of support for our campaign, literally from every corner of our commonwealth,” Kennedy said during a phone interview while en route to a campaign event. “We’ve got to get folks out [to vote].”
Kennedy did note the unusual circumstances. This will be the commonwealth’s first statewide election that features a vote-by-mail option amid the pandemic. He argued that since early voting is already underway, he’s taking polls “with a pretty good grain of salt.”
The congressman has made a point of reaching out to members of Massachusetts’s Black community throughout the campaign, addressing the nationwide issue of racial injustice head-on.
“For those that continue to say that these issues of racial injustice and of the devaluation of Black lives, that that is not a real or systemic thing, how many times do we have to see it on video?” Kennedy said.
The issue became front and center in the campaign last month after the father of DJ Henry, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2010, accused Markey of dismissing the family after Henry’s death.
Markey was quick to issue an apology and called on the Justice Department to reopen Henry’s case. Kennedy has a close relationship with the Henry family, who has endorsed his Senate bid.
Markey’s supporters and critics frequently argue that Kennedy does not have a good answer when asked why he’s challenging Markey, implying that the move is meant to tick another box on his political résumé.
Kennedy and his supporters, in turn, argue that Markey has gone Washington.
“I believe that Massachusetts should be getting everything they possibly can out of our senator, and I don’t think we’re getting it,” Kennedy said when asked why a Democratic primary voter in the state should vote for him.
The Kennedy family name was drawn into the battle after Markey in a campaign ad referenced President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address.
“We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it,” Markey said in the three-minute ad, referencing Kennedy’s quote. “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” Markey did not directly address his primary opponent in the spot.
The congressman quickly hit back at Markey, accusing the senator of “weaponizing” his family’s history.
“I didn’t [bring my family into the race],” Joe Kennedy said. “The senator did.”
Kennedy then began featuring footage of JFK, RFK and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in has ads. His grandmother, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, 92, even recorded a spot encouraging voters to support her grandson.
In recent days, the campaign has taken on darker tones, with Kennedy raising the alarm over online harassment against his family and supporters.
Kennedy’s campaign manager, Nick Clemons, penned an email to Walsh, copying members of the press earlier this week, in which he demanded that Markey publicly end attacks, though he said he did not believe the harassment was coming from anyone on the Markey campaign’s payroll. Clemons included screenshots of the harassment that showed graphic references to the assassinations of JFK and RFK.
Walsh defended the Markey camp in a series of tweets, saying Markey had condemned the attacks multiple times and that Clemons was “choosing to end the campaign with crocodile tears.”
“They’re making charges that are deliberately disingenuous and deceitful,” said Walsh.
He noted that the campaign recently reported a suspicious Twitter account, with the handle “Markeychusetts,” that had made negative remarks about Kennedy to the FBI.
Additionally, Walsh said that the Markey had its fair share of negativity thrown at it from self-identified Kennedy supporters, giving an example of a truck blaring negative messages about the senator at campaign events.
“The two most popular things in Massachusetts are politics and sports, and sometimes they’re one in the same,” Marsh said. “But I can’t remember ever seeing anything quite like this.”