John Walsh started hearing from the naysayers soon after he signed on to be Senator Edward J. Markey’s campaign manager for his reelection bid last summer. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III was already too far ahead in the polls. Markey wouldn’t be able to match Kennedy’s fund-raising juggernaut. Labor would consolidate behind the upstart with the famous last name. Markey would crumple and drop out of the race.
But projections are perilous in politics. With 21 days before the Sept. 1 primary, Markey has not dropped out, but rather clawed his way back from a double-digit deficit against Kennedy to essentially a dead heat, according to the latest polling and analysts watching the race.
The Markey and Kennedy campaigns both acknowledge the race is close, and in a sign of the uncertainty of the contest — for which widely accessible mail-in voting is already underway — the campaign has turned sharply negative ahead of a televised debate Tuesday evening.
The Kennedy campaign over the weekend released an online-only ad, which mocks Markey’s first TV ad focused on his Malden roots, blasting the senator for hurting union workers in his hometown by “selling them out to giant telecom corporations.” At the same time, a pro-Kennedy super PAC went up on the air with a negative spot about how Markey has missed numerous votes during the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
Markey and his campaign have been on the attack as well, with the senator delivering several aggressive debate performances, hammering Kennedy for being “a progressive in name only” and questioning whether Kennedy had shifted positions on certain issues out of “political convenience” as opposed to true conviction. Markey’s campaign has also pumped out some negative digital ads, including one that paints Kennedy’s embrace of Medicare for All as a purely political move and suggests voters can’t trust him to push for it in the Senate.
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who has helped several challengers oust incumbents, including working on Seth Moulton’s successful 2014 campaign against Representative John F. Tierney, said it’s no surprise that the race has tightened, given Markey was well-liked and scandal-free before Kennedy got in.
“That doesn’t mean he survives this, but it’s not surprising that as strong a challenger as Kennedy is, it would turn into a jump ball as you get closer,” said Trippi, who is unaffiliated with either campaign.
Markey’s campaign has gotten a big boost from the national progressive groups that coalesced behind him, reinforcing the campaign’s pitch that he’s the true progressive in the race and helping attract a flood of small-dollar donations in late June and July. That helped him close a fund-raising gap with Kennedy in the quarter that ended in June.
The national and Massachusetts chapters of Our Revolution, the spinoff group of Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, both endorsed Markey, as did the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party, both big supporters of Senator Elizabeth Warren, among other left-wing activist groups.
The seed of this progressive support, of course, was planted by Markey himself, when he teamed up with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shortly after the New York Democrat arrived in Washington in 2019, fresh from shocking the political establishment with her unlikely primary win over a powerful Democratic incumbent. The pair joined forces to author the Green New Deal plan to tackle climate change.
That early partnership with AOC, as she’s known, helped Markey “build out his relevance,” said Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, who declared her support for Markey last month, and previously advised former Senate candidate Steve Pemberton, who dropped out of the primary in October.
Markey didn’t just insert himself into the current progressive movement by pointing to his past accomplishments; instead, he managed to connect “to a new generation of activists” and convert them into activists for his campaign, she said.
Kennedy’s team says they always expected the contest to narrow.
The Markey campaign, for its part, says the recent negative ads put out by both the Kennedy campaign and a pro-Kennedy super PAC show that the Kennedy and his allies are worried about the congressman’s standing in the race.
“The shifting strategy of negative attacks coming from a desperate Kennedy campaign is because they know Ed Markey is gaining momentum in these critical final weeks of the race,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager.
“If Senator Markey thinks our focus on his record is ‘negative’ — perhaps that says more about his record than about our campaign,” said Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman. Kennedy, she said, “is building a diverse coalition of working men and women who deserve better than a US senator who moves to Washington and leaves them behind.”
The biggest unknown in the race is just who will turn out to vote. The coronavirus pandemic led the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a law allowing every registered Massachusetts voter to cast an absentee ballot by mail, no excuse needed. In some states, similar efforts have led to a significant uptick in voter turnout. That has raised the possibility that less-engaged voters — who wouldn’t typically go to the trouble of taking a stance in a late summer contest between two ideologically similar candidates — may cast ballots, since they can do so without leaving home.
“As the race looks right now, turnout matters a whole lot,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. And that’s not just in terms of numbers, but what sort of voters decide to mail in ballots or show up to the polls. More liberal voters have tended to favor Markey, as have young people, he said, whereas Kennedy performs better with white working-class voters and older voters.
The most recent public poll of the race also found Kennedy appeared to have an edge with unenrolled voters, while Markey had an edge with those registered as Democrats. But predicting turnout in a primary is always extremely difficult, and this year there have been so many changes to the voting system “it’s hard to predict what might happen,” said Koczela.
The Kennedy campaign also believes they have an advantage with communities of color, which Kennedy has focused on from the start of his campaign. But Kennedy’s team acknowledges that both groups that make up their core coalition — blue-collar white voters and voters of color — do not typically turn out for state primary contests. That has the campaign intently focused from now until Sept. 1 on voter education and turnout efforts.
While the conventional wisdom shared by many analysts is that a higher-turnout election will benefit Kennedy, the Markey campaign disagrees. They believe recent polling shows that the late deciders are overwhelmingly breaking toward the incumbent, in part because, the Markey folks argue, Kennedy has failed to articulate a clear rationale for why he is challenging a popular incumbent.
Rivera, the political consultant who is backing Markey, said it’s clear that both campaigns understand this race is going down to the wire and both are “going to turn every rock” in search of voters who can tip them into victory.
She said that is why Markey has hammered Kennedy over his vote for a controversial 2016 law known as PROMESA that established a federal financial oversight board to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt.
The Puerto Rican electorate in Springfield, Lawrence, and elsewhere is “paying attention” to issues like that, she said.
The Kennedy campaign is homing in on issues that matter to Black and Latino communities to draw similar contrasts with Markey, as well, she said.
On Monday, that outreach appeared to sway at least one voter. Springfield City Councilor Malo Brown, who represents a predominately Black ward, announced he was switching his allegiance to Kennedy, having previously endorsed Markey in the race.
“Joe has shown up and listened,” he said.
Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.