Since the moment he announced his challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey in the Democratic primary, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III has faced questions about why he is running and, subsequently, skepticism that he’s offered voters an effective enough rationale for seeking to unseat a longtime, party loyal incumbent.
In recent weeks, Kennedy has sharpened his efforts to define Markey as out-of-touch with the struggles of many of his constituents. He’s painted his opponent as doing the bare minimum for those seeking his help rather than using his powerful office to its full potential.
The question now is whether Kennedy’s waited too long to start drawing this unflattering portrait of Markey.
“The time to attack Markey was when this race started and Markey had low name recognition,” said Brian Jencunas, a Massachusetts-based political strategist who has worked for candidates from both parties. Kennedy’s attacks are less effective now, after Markey “has been able to define himself as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s cool grandpa who wears fresh sneakers and co-sponsors the Green New Deal.”
Several analysts say it appears the Kennedy campaign hoped to run a safe campaign that avoided directly attacking Markey.
The Kennedy campaign “probably underestimated his ferocity,” said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Markey in the past but is not working for either campaign currently. “Markey can lull you into thinking he’s an easy target. He’s not.”
Kennedy started the race with a double-digit lead in the polls, buoyed by his famous last name.
Markey, meanwhile, was widely seen as vulnerable thanks to his long-tenure in Washington and voters’ surprisingly low knowledge about the man who had spent the last six years representing them in the US Senate.
But Markey has in recent months eliminated Kennedy’s polling lead, boosted by national progressive groups and left-wing activists who solidified behind him and have helped build his image as an unexpectedly hip and indispensable progressive champion. With Kennedy’s polling lead long gone and Markey appearing to have momentum, the Kennedy campaign seems to feel compelled to draw a sharper contrast between their guy and the incumbent.
The Kennedy campaign pushed back on the notion that they’re critiquing Markey too late.
“Joe got into this race because Ed Markey has not done enough to show up for the people he serves. We have said this day in and day out on this campaign,” said Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman.
To be sure, Kennedy’s message has always had an implicit contrast.
But Kennedy and his team have been steadily ramping up their jabs at Markey’s record on civil rights, questioning his attention to communities of color, and challenging his claims of being just a regular guy from Malden.
And Kennedy even unleashed a new attack on Markey’s legislative record at their final television debate Tuesday, claiming Markey is inflating his legislative accomplishments when he boasts of having “over 500 laws on the books,” as he has done in other forums and a recent campaign video that went viral.
Kennedy offered his most pointed assault on Markey’s effectiveness during a tough stretch of questioning for Markey in the debate. The 39-year-old challenger took every opportunity to keep the discussion squarely on the complaints of two different constituents who recently went public with criticisms that Markey, 74, treated them poorly when they sought his help on serious matters involving their children.
The Kennedy campaign quickly turned the moment into a digital video, cut with clips of the two fathers describing how Markey let them down.
“If Senator Markey cared as much about fathers like Dan Henry and Colin Bower as he does about mine, he wouldn’t have a primary,” Kennedy wrote in a tweet sharing the video, a swipe at Markey’s focus of late on allegations — not proven — that Kennedy’s father, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, has been helping fund a pro-Kennedy super PAC.
At issue are criticisms leveled by two fathers: Colin Bower, who told WCVB earlier this week that Markey was “aloof” during their 2013 meeting when Bower met with him seeking help after his ex-wife kidnapped his two sons, of whom he had sole custody, and took them to Egypt; and Danroy Henry Sr., who has said he and his wife felt Markey dismissed their pleas for help in getting justice for their murdered son, a young Black college student from Easton killed by a white police officer in New York 10 years ago.
Both Bower and the Henrys have said they are supporting Kennedy, citing the help he has given them.
“If you think that a letter or two letters that somebody else wrote is enough, then fine,” Kennedy said, knocking Markey’s defense that he signed onto two letters asking the Department of Justice to investigate DJ Henry’s killing. “But I promise you that as your senator, I will not rest for you and your family.”
The topic is a tough one for Markey. He looked unhappy and awkward as he defended his record on constituent service and explained that he apologized to the Henrys over “for their disappointment” in the meeting he had with them in 2014.
“I work very hard in order to make sure that I deliver for the people of Massachusetts,” Markey said.
Kennedy’s new public attack on Markey’s legislative record, seemed to fall flatter.
Markey’s tally includes bills that he merely co-sponsored, “literally signing his name to somebody else’s work,” Kennedy charged. “Under that definition, I am an author of the Green New Deal. The difference is, I wouldn’t claim to be.”
Asked for a list of those 500-plus bills, Markey’s campaign sent a link Wednesday afternoon to a publicly available database showing 546 bills Markey has either sponsored or co-sponsored that have become law since 1977, the first full year Markey was in Congress. A campaign spokeswoman promised to send additional information.
The list from Congress.gov, which is run by the Library of Congress, shows that some of the laws that Markey co-sponsored are relatively minor or ceremonial in nature, such as a joint resolution designating the week of July 13, 1987, as “Snow White Week,” where Markey was one of 218 co-sponsors, or more recently legislation that became law in 2019 directing the US Treasury to mint $1 silver coins in commemoration of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher killed in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion.
Others are, of course, substantive though a mere list does not indicate which ones Markey was instrumental in as opposed to merely supportive. And some of the policy crusades he is best known for — most recently the sweeping climate change plan known as the Green New Deal — have not turned into law, at least not yet.
But Markey has notched enough legislative victories in his nearly five decades in Congress to be able to effectively parry Kennedy’s critique.
At the debate, he seemed to relish the opening Kennedy gave him to recite his top hits list, ticking off measures to protect the environment, combat gun violence, and fund Alzheimer’s research.
With each example, he proclaimed, “That’s my law.”
Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.