The contentious Senate Democratic primary race took an even nastier turn Monday, with the campaign of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III contending that Senator Edward J. Markey and his supporters had created a “dangerous” atmosphere that has contributed to numerous death threats against their candidate. In response, a top Markey aide slammed Kennedy’s team for “choosing to end this campaign with crocodile tears‘‘ instead of substantive policy debates.
Kennedy’s campaign manager, Nick Clemons, said in a public letter they have reported death threats to the US Capitol Police “on a near daily basis.”
A Kennedy spokeswoman said that Capitol Police are “coordinating with local law enforcement to provide increased security at all Joe’s public events.” The Capitol Police said they don’t comment on details of how they protect members of Congress.
Markey’s campaign insisted that he has condemned hateful personal attacks and said tweets cited in Clemons’s letter are “not affiliated with or in any way tolerated by the Markey campaign.” But in a letter to Markey campaign manager John Walsh, Clemons said the senator’s campaign “has responded with silence, ridicule, and thinly veiled efforts to actually incite further attacks” on Kennedy as well as his family, staff, and supporters.
Clemons alleged that “[t]his tacit endorsement of such negativity has given your supporters license . . . to launch death threats against Joe himself and revisit the assassinations of his grandfather and great-uncle.”
The letter to Walsh included numerous examples of harassing and profane tweets, including posts joking about the murders of Kennedy’s grandfather Robert F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy.
“We understand it is not anyone paid by the Markey campaign making these threats — but it is the direct result of the toxic online ecosystem your campaign has allowed (at best) and encouraged (at worst.),” Clemons wrote.
In a statement late Monday, Walsh said the tweets Clemons identified have nothing to do with the campaign. “The Markey campaign itself had already reported these condemnable posts to be removed,” Walsh said. “The Kennedy campaign itself acknowledges that the Markey campaign does not support the individuals behind these tweets.”
Meanwhile, asked for an example of how the Markey campaign has encouraged further attacks against the Kennedy family, a Kennedy spokeswoman pointed to a cheeky digital video Markey’s campaign put out, using Hall and Oates’s “Rich Girl,” to needle Kennedy over allegations — not proven — that his father, former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, is helping fund a super PAC running negative ads against Markey.
Walsh, who runs Markey’s campaign, addressed Clemons’s letter on Twitter earlier Monday, his tone combative.
“I am disappointed that as someone I have known for years you are choosing to end this campaign with crocodile tears,” wrote Walsh. He said that Markey “has condemned all vile and hateful speech surrounding this race — and you know it.”
Pressed by Kennedy during their Aug. 11 debate over some ugly social media messages, including one that said “Lee Harvey [Oswald] got the wrong Kennedy,” Markey denounced the post.
“That is just something which is completely unacceptable, should not be in politics, and I make that a pledge to you, it is absolutely wrong,” Markey said during the debate.
Markey and his supporters have sought to highlight that it is Kennedy’s supporters, via a pro-Kennedy super PAC, who have gone negative, while the super PACs backing Markey have stuck to positive messages.
One TV ad by the pro-Kennedy New Leadership PAC focused on the numerous Senate votes Markey missed in the spring, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Markey missed 80 percent of the 42 votes the Senate held during May and early June, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
The pro-Kennedy PAC, which federal filings show has spent about $2.3 million on the race since launching mid-July, also recently sent out a mailer on the same theme, claiming that “[a]s Trump and COVID-19 devastated our nation, Ed Markey failed to show up. . . . Ed Markey is putting his political interests above ours,” according to images of the flier reviewed by the Globe.
Pro-Markey super PACs have spent about $2.8 million on the senator’s behalf in the race so far, according to federal filings.
Walsh, in his Twitter thread, also said that “[t]he Markey campaign has put up with non-stop Kennedy-campaign supported harassment, including a pickup truck spewing negative attacks literally every day at our campaign events attended by families and young people. We don’t whine or complain about your ridiculous campaign-supported stunts because we are focused on our campaign’s positive message and supporters.”
Walsh continued: “Instead of more disingenuous political stunts, the Kennedy campaign should join ours in closing out the race discussing solutions to the real injustices people face. . .”
With primary day a week from Tuesday, the back-and-forth underscored the ever-growing bitterness between the two campaigns. The candidates share remarkably similar positions on most of the major policy issues of the day, so their campaigns have increasingly focused on small differences in past positions and one another’s campaign tactics.
The letter from the Kennedy campaign represents an escalation of long-simmering frustrations felt by his staff over what it sees as the maliciousness of the discourse in the so-called Markeyverse, as Markey’s online supporters call themselves.
As Clemons’s letter notes, the Markey campaign found itself embroiled in controversy over ugly online attacks leveled at Kennedy and his family even before the challenger officially got into the race.
Paul Tencher, who at the time was Markey’s top campaign hand, retweeted a post that said rather than challenge Markey, Kennedy “should focus on his family’s considerable mental health issues.” Just weeks earlier, Kennedy lost his cousin, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, 22, to an apparent drug overdose after she fought a yearslong struggle with mental illness.
Tencher publicly apologized and subsequently left the campaign but was still paid $40,000 for consulting work he did for the Markey reelection effort.