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New poll finds Markey with margin-of-error lead as Kennedy hits back over attacks on family

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III at a news conference on Monday in Boston.
Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III at a news conference on Monday in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As a new poll from an outside group found the Democratic primary race for Senate neck-and-neck, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III on Monday rebuked his opponent, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey, for invoking and at times attacking the Kennedy family in an ever-more-contentious battle.

He said Markey would do better addressing his own shortcomings when it comes to helping communities of color than trying to knock the Kennedy family’s legacy.

In a short news conference — during which he notably took no questions — Kennedy used the topic of his family to draw contrasts with Markey’s own record on civil rights, comparing work his famous great-uncles and father engaged in with Markey’s opposition to busing to desegregate Boston Public Schools nearly five decades ago, among other less-than-progressive stances on issues of race.

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Markey “has served in times of tremendous consequence. And he’s gotten it wrong. Over and over,” Kennedy said of his opponent’s record on issues of race and social justice. “So he attacks my family.”

Kennedy’s comments mark the race’s latest foray into personal, and increasingly bitter, territory. The negative turn at least in part reflects the tightness of the race, with Kennedy’s once substantial polling lead having evaporated over the past year.

A SurveyUSA poll of likely Democratic primary voters found the race a virtual dead-heat, with Markey up 44 percent to 42 percent over Kennedy, within the poll’s margin of error. Among the poll’s 558 likely Democratic primary voters, 15 percent remained undecided.

The survey was paid for by Priorities for Progress, a group affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, a center-left advocacy organization, and is part of an effort it started in 2018 to help Democrats better understand what Massachusetts voters are looking for.

The poll showed Markey leading by double digits among voters who identify as “very progressive” or “progressive,” and with more educated and wealthier voters. Kennedy, meanwhile, performed better with lower-income voters and those with less than a college degree, and with those who identified as moderate.

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The poll, which was conducted using a combination of recorded telephone interviews and online survey, was conducted Aug. 12 through Aug. 16, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

With the back-and-forth over the Kennedy brand, both candidates are treading on delicate territory, those watching the race closely say.

For Markey, whose campaign has ramped up mentions of the Kennedy clan in recent weeks, taking jabs at the Kennedy brand runs the risk of alienating undecided voters, particularly older ones, who still feel the emotional tug of Camelot, political analysts say.

And generally attacking any candidate’s family can backfire, coming off as petty, they say.

Kennedy’s decision to tackle Markey’s references to his family also courts danger by elevating issues of legacy and entitlement that have irked many Democrats in the context of Kennedy’s decision to challenge a well-liked incumbent with whom he has few substantive policy differences.

“It reminds voters of the irony of this campaign,” which is that Kennedy is trying to harness the outsider energy that has pushed out other incumbents, but with the most politically famous last name in the state, said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Markey’s campaign has amped up its mentions of the Kennedy family in recent months. Most recently, the Markey team released a nearly three-minute digital ad Markey produced with the help of the youth-led Sunrise Movement climate change group, in which Markey twists a famous JFK line to say, “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

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The ad was a viral sensation on social media, catching the attention of national news outlets and racking up 2.9 million views on Twitter.

Markey’s campaign also put out a digital ad after last week’s TV debate featuring Markey ordering his opponent “tell your father” not to give money to fund negative ads. The Markey video opens with a shot of the younger Kennedy on a fancy-looking boat, and is set to Hall and Oates’s “Rich Girl.”

The decision to defend his family and hit back at Markey was made by Kennedy himself, according to campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman.

He was particularly irked by the latest digital ad that riffed on the famous JFK lines, because he felt Markey was trying to co-opt not just the rhetoric but the larger movement of social and racial justice that, as Kennedy argued Monday, the 74-year-old incumbent has never been a part of, she said.

Rather than attack Kennedy’s family, Markey’s time “would be better spent reconciling his own history with the civil rights movement over the course of the past 50 years,” Kennedy said at the Monday event, where he was flanked by more than a dozen Black leaders who have endorsed his campaign.

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Among other critiques, Kennedy pointed to Markey’s opposition to busing in Boston and his support for the 1994 crime bill which critics say led to mass incarceration.

Markey has explained his vote for the crime bill by saying everyone in the Massachusetts delegation at the time, including the late Edward M. Kennedy, supported it and that it contained good elements such as the first Violence Against Women Act. But he has said that the sentencing provisions in the bill “were wrong.”

The Markey campaign did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Kennedy, on Monday, seemed to get emotional when speaking about his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated while running for president in 1968. Kennedy’s voice broke when he spoke of how he never got to meet his grandfather, but he got to know him “through my father’s pride,” and other stories from family members and strangers alike.

At the news conference, Kennedy said he is proud of his family’s history but also that he knows he can’t coast on their contributions.

“Because this is what my family taught me about legacy: A legacy is earned,” he said. “It is earned in the streets where Senator Markey does not walk. In the communities he does not visit. From the voices he does not hear.”

He touted his own work both reaching out to communities of color and for pushing policies to end racial discrimination and injustice, though he acknowledged he is “a 39-year-old white man of tremendous privilege” whose work in the area is incomplete.

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