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OPINION

The Kennedy-Markey fight goes viral and nasty

The campaign for the US Senate seat re-charged a battle for the progressive vote in Massachusetts, one that mirrors the larger war going on in the Democratic presidential race.

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III and Senator Ed Markey debate at WGBH studios in Boston in February.
Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III and Senator Ed Markey debate at WGBH studios in Boston in February.MEREDITH NIERMAN/wgbh-pool

In these pandemic times, the Democratic Senate primary fight between Senator Ed Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III is going viral — and getting a little nasty.

Shortly after Senator Elizabeth Warren left the presidential race, Emma Friend, who described herself as a “newly free Warren staffer” tweeted her “#1 hot take” about the Markey-Kennedy showdown. “THE F---- CO-AUTHOR OF THE G------- GREEN NEW DEAL MIGHT LOSE HIS SEAT IN THE SENATE TO A MODERATE AND YOU’RE JUST SLEEPING ON IT.” That tweet got 9,551 retweets and 55,700 likes. It also raised $57,635 from 1,953 contributors — Markey’s best small-dollar fund-raising day to date, as first reported by Politico.

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By going so viral, the tweet also re-charged a battle for the progressive vote in Massachusetts, one that mirrors the larger war going on in the Democratic presidential race. Somewhat oddly, it also has the Markey and Kennedy campaigns channeling Bernie Sanders — although in different ways — in a primary state that former vice president Joe Biden won.

From the start, Markey tapped enthusiastically into the progressive network represented by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who endorsed him and Sanders. It was a smart way for Markey, 73, to align with young progressives, particularly those heavily involved in the environmental movement. Friend’s tweet inspired fresh support from the left for Markey, including from some more unpleasant quarters. For example, a few days afterward, Felix Biederman, a member of the Chapo House gang, the socialist podcast that idolizes Sanders and denigrates rivals, tweeted this support for Markey under his twitter handle, @ByYourLogic: “Joe Kennedy is a demon who needs to lose.”

Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey has not been popular with the Democratic establishment, either. Its view of the race as a needless fight surprised the 39-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. After stumping across the country for fellow Democrats and raising millions, he believed he had generated enough good will to offset any discomfort with his effort to dislodge Markey. Instead, some Democrats attending party caucuses across the state to elect convention delegates have refused to take campaign stickers from his 4-year-old daughter. Of course, none of that insider bitterness changes the polls, which have Kennedy leading Markey, although by a thinner margin than when Kennedy first got into the race.

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Adding to Kennedy’s surprise and annoyance, the left is also ignoring his progressive record on women’s rights and LGBTQ issues and his own support for the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, a Kennedy campaign spokeswoman points to a list of nonprogressive votes taken by Markey during his long tenure in Washington. The list includes the 1994 crime bill, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, and the Iraq War. It also includes Markey’s long-ago support for the Hyde amendment, a legislative provision that barred the use of federal funds for abortion. The senator is now endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice, but just as Sanders blasted Biden for his one-time support of the Hyde amendment, Kennedy was prepared to call out Markey during a debate scheduled for Wednesday night. Like everything else, the debate was called off.

Does any of this matter? Only to political insiders, who are still processing their new coronavirus reality. Campaigns at every level are frozen, and no one can predict when that will change. Candidates can’t shake hands, and volunteers can’t knock on doors. That leaves social media, with its potential for meanness and excess, as the major mode of communication. Markey would be wise to separate himself from the worst of it. And Kennedy is better off devising a message about the future and his role in it rather than trying to trip up Markey over his past.

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On one level, the candidates get this. Last week, Kennedy suspended his campaign because of the health crisis and is conducting virtual town halls. On Tuesday, he called for direct cash assistance of $4,000 to adults earning less than $100,000 a year and $2,000 per child for families in that same income bracket. Meanwhile, Markey is calling for “a Manhattan Project” to fight the pandemic.

That’s the kind of thinking that should go viral. It’s about the people they seek to represent, not themselves.

Have a point of view about this? Write a letter to the editor; we’ll publish a select few. (We’re experimenting with alternatives to the comment section for creating online conversation at Globe Opinion over the next month; you can let us know what you think of our experiments here.)


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.