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Ed Markey is making it personal in the Senate race

Congressman Joe Kennedy III (left) and Senator Edward Markey debated at WBZ-TV in Boston as they competed for the Democratic nomination to run for Markey's Senate seat.  

Photo:  WBZ-TV
Congressman Joe Kennedy III (left) and Senator Edward Markey debated at WBZ-TV in Boston as they competed for the Democratic nomination to run for Markey's Senate seat. Photo: WBZ-TVWBZ-TV

When he launched his audacious challenge to incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey last year, Joseph P. Kennedy III’s last name and the storied family that gave it to him were seen as a huge advantage, bringing him instant recognition and warm feeling in the state that launched that famous political dynasty.

At a Tuesday TV debate, Markey sought to turn that family connection into a cudgel, hammering away at the allegation that the Kennedy family is rushing to bolster the latest would-be heir to its legacy via a super PAC that’s pouring cash into negative ads against Markey. He took particular aim at the possibility — not proved — that Kennedy’s father, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, is helping fund the PAC.

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Kennedy and Markey clash at debate
Incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey and his primary challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III clashed ahead of the state's Senate primary. (Photo: Pool, Video: Handout)

“Tell your father” not to put money into a PAC running negative ads, Markey ordered, repeating the phrase like a mantra.

The not-so-subtle subtext of Markey’s attack: Kennedy and his family feel entitled to the Senate seat, and they’ll do whatever it takes to oust the incumbent standing in their way.

It remains to be seen how effective it will be for Markey, with some political analysts warning that Markey may alienate undecided voters, especially older ones, who still feel the emotional tug of Camelot.

Or the family focus may come off as whining about being outgunned by his opponent.

Regardless of whether it helps or hurts Markey in the Sept. 1 Democratic primary, it’s a notable line of attack in a state still entangled in the Kennedy legacy.

”It shows how much the times have changed,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian and associate professor at Boston University who has written about the Kennedys. A few decades ago, Markey never would have dreamed about making such an attack on the Kennedy family, because “it would have boomeranged against him.”

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Certainly, Markey did not persuade the family to back down.

“If Ed Markey wants to know why a super PAC is running ads attacking him, all he has to do is look in the mirror. Because he spent over $1 million against my son using his own super PAC before anything was done for Joe,” the elder Kennedy said in a statement read to the Globe by his longtime spokesman Brian O’Connor.

Super PACs and candidates by law cannot coordinate with one another, but two pro-Markey super PACs jumped into the race early, and have spent about $2.8 million on his behalf, according to federal filings.

Meanwhile, the New Leadership PAC is supporting Kennedy, and has spent about $1.4 million on the race, according to federal filings. O’Connor declined to answer whether Kennedy’s father is contributing money to that PAC. The elder Kennedy had more than $2.8 million in his own campaign account, according to the most recent federal filing, left over from when he served as a congressman from Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999, fueling speculation he would employ at least some of that cash toward the super PAC effort.

Markey’s campaign manager, John Walsh, said he takes the father’s statement as confirmation the elder Kennedy is contributing to the super PAC. “If Congressman Kennedy wants to run negative attack ads against Senator Markey, he should have the guts to use his own money, not his father’s,” said Walsh.

Markey’s campaign certainly sees the line of attack on Kennedy as a potent one. As soon as Tuesday’s night debate wrapped, Markey’s team posted a digital ad featuring Markey’s “tell your father” attack. The ad opens with a shot of the younger Kennedy on a fancy-looking boat, and is set to Hall and Oates’s “Rich Girl.”

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The song begins: “You’re a rich girl, and you’ve gone too far,

Cause you know it don’t matter anyway,

You can rely on the old man’s money.”

The thrust of the video is that Kennedy turned to the PAC as he saw his once sizable lead in the race disappear.

“Free advice for Joe Kennedy. Don’t rely on the old man’s money,” Markey tweeted, linking to the video.

For Markey’s supporters, his “tell your father” moment tapped into their own anger at Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey. Left-wing party activists, who make up a key part of Markey’s coalition, see Kennedy’s move to take out Markey as a purely cynical and opportunistic calculation. They say that’s why Kennedy’s rationale for running is weak.

The line of attack, “in so far as it captures an underdog insurgent energy for Markey, that could be a good thing for him in this particular race,” especially for getting progressive voters, a group Markey needs to run up his margins with to win, said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Markey in the past but is not working for either campaign currently. “But it’s not without risk.”

“It doesn’t look good for Joe Kennedy to be leveraging that kind of money,” said activist Charley Blandy, who is supporting Markey. “That he needs the money, and the fact that he’s going negative, says to me that he realizes [the race] is either too close to call or slipping away from him.”

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But some Democratic strategists believe Markey risks looking like he’s getting into a personal feud with the Kennedy family, and could make him look petulant rather than righteous. Moreover, several people closely following the race said they were puzzled by the Markey campaign’s focus on the issue of PAC spending at all, since voters typically don’t care about the issue or frankly where candidates get their money.

“Joe ran away with this debate. He was cool, calm, and collected,” trouncing Markey particularly on the issues of racial justice and “showing up, and, Markey for the most part was just pulling at straws,” said state Representative Jon Santiago of Boston, who is supporting Kennedy.

After Kennedy spent months asking Markey to sign a so-called “People’s Pledge” to keep super PACs out of the race, for Markey to not sign the pledge and then attack Kennedy and his family over a PAC, “it’s disrespectful at best and hypocritical at worst,” he said.

Darrell M. West, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written about the Kennedys, said he didn’t see Markey’s line of attack resonating with most voters, because of course a father would help his son, in politics or otherwise.

That said, he agrees that the Kennedy brand is diminished “just because it is so old. . . . Even in New England, every Kennedy has to earn it on his or her own. Voters are not going to vote for them simply because they’re a Kennedy.”

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The issue of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited money, is a long-running theme of the Markey-Kennedy contest. Shortly after getting into the race, Kennedy challenged Markey to sign the pledge modeled on an agreement Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown inked in the 2012 race, to limit outside political groups from dumping money in the race.

Markey strongly supported such a pledge in his 2013 primary and general election races for the Senate seat he now holds, but refused to join Kennedy’s proposed pledge. He advocated instead for a weaker version that would allow progressive groups to spend on candidates’ behalf so long as they contributed “positive” messages.

Kennedy rejected that idea as unworkable and a loophole “big enough to drive a truck through.”

Markey has been getting support from two different super PACs during the race: United for Massachusetts, formed by environmental activists, and Environment America Action Fund.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.