Massachusetts has seen close US Senate races, not-so-close races, even the rare major upset.
But there is no recent parallel to the roll in the mud that is Kennedy-Markey.
From the outset, Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III has been beset by charges that his primary run against Senator Edward Markey was a vanity campaign, pitting two politicians with very few substantive differences.
Yet it may be all that common ground between them that accounts for the increasingly personal tone of the campaign. In lieu of closing arguments, voters are instead being subjected to a steady diet of attacks, with Kennedy caricatured as a fake progressive.
“I don’t know how it can both be true that there is no difference, and that if I win the future of the world is in jeopardy,” Kennedy told me Tuesday.
Early on, Markey secured the support of a lot of the state’s political establishment —which, not for the first time, recoiled at the notion of an intraparty skirmish.
To that he added the support of progressives who saluted his longstanding support of climate change legislation and his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal. If you have access to a television, you know all about this, courtesy of his new BFF, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Yet, this race feels as though it is headed right down to the wire. That’s not surprising to me, because Kennedy has quietly laid the groundwork for his race for years.
Not by being born into America’s most storied (and star-crossed) political family, the inheritor of a century of know-how and good will. No, Kennedy has built it over his four terms in political office, by showing up at times that other politicians don’t.
“People deserve to have representation that’s going to fight for them,” Kennedy said. “Nobody in Lawrence asks me why I’m running. Nobody in Springfield asks me why I’m running.”
Just about a year ago, we were in the South End together, touring the headquarters of Health Care for the Homeless, headed by the legendary Dr. Jim O’Connell. It was just after Kennedy had announced.
What struck me, walking around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, was that Kennedy wasn’t meeting people there for the first time. It wasn’t in his district. But he had thought about the issues of drug addiction and homelessness, worked on them, and had talked to people who were on the front lines every day — without cameras or fanfare.
I think that kind of work accounts for the support he holds in communities across the state where politicians don’t always show up. He’s been endorsed by a slew of elected officials outside Route 128, mostly because they’ve seen him. When you’re used to being ignored, that matters.
A lot has been made of the negative tone of the race. But to some extent, that’s normal in a hard-fought primary. Attacks fill the void that is left when policy differences between candidates are so small.
But these, of course, are not normal times. These are times when the Democratic Party is determined to tackle big issues, particularly on racial justice. These are times that demand change.
Democrats have voted for the right things for years — and, clearly, in terms of bringing about equity, that hasn’t been enough. It’s going to take a movement that will push over a long haul, and leaders who will be accountable to that.
So voters are left to measure intangibles — concern, passion, presence. How that gets assessed is a great unknown — maybe the decisive unknown — in this race.
What bugs me about this race isn’t that people are saying terrible things on Twitter —though they are. What bothers me is that it diminishes not only the issues, but two strong candidates.
For voters outside that echo chamber, what constitutes a true champion? Markey has the strength of a long and distinguished legislative record; Kennedy asks voters to believe in the power of passion and presence. In less than a week, the results will be in.