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Analysis: A Kennedy loses in Massachusetts, dimming the sheen of a storied political dynasty

In this December 1960 photo, President-elect John F. Kennedy, standing at center, was surrounded by members of his family at his parents' home in Hyannis Port. Standing, left to right, are Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy; Steven Smith and wife, Jean Kennedy Smith; Robert Kennedy; Patricia Kennedy Lawford; Sargent Shriver, Joan Kennedy, wife of Edward Kennedy; and Peter Lawford. Foreground, left to right: Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Joseph P. Kennedy and wife, Rose Kennedy, seated in front; Jacqueline Kennedy; and Edward Kennedy. His presidency was the start of a decade in which the Kennedys wielded sizable influence in American politics.
In this December 1960 photo, President-elect John F. Kennedy, standing at center, was surrounded by members of his family at his parents' home in Hyannis Port. Standing, left to right, are Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy; Steven Smith and wife, Jean Kennedy Smith; Robert Kennedy; Patricia Kennedy Lawford; Sargent Shriver, Joan Kennedy, wife of Edward Kennedy; and Peter Lawford. Foreground, left to right: Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Joseph P. Kennedy and wife, Rose Kennedy, seated in front; Jacqueline Kennedy; and Edward Kennedy. His presidency was the start of a decade in which the Kennedys wielded sizable influence in American politics.Associated Press

On Tuesday night, something unprecedented happened in Massachusetts politics: A Kennedy lost a race.

The powerhouse political family has dominated races in Massachusetts for decades, notching more than 30 primary and general election wins and zero losses since John F. Kennedy won a seat in Congress in 1946.

This time was different. Voters sent Senator Edward Markey, the 74-year-old incumbent, back to the Capitol, and sent Joseph Kennedy III, his 39-year-old challenger, home.

The loss, which is reverberating through state and national Democratic politics like a small earthquake, raises questions about whether the Kennedys — who captivated the nation for the better part of a century with their promise and tragedy, and who adopted the enduring myth of Camelot — have seen their dynasty’s end.

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“It’s clear that the family name doesn’t mean as much as it used to in years past,” said Jim Manley, who worked as a top aide to the late Senator Ted Kennedy for more than 10 years. “There are no guarantees in life anymore, especially in politics.”

The Kennedys represented the American Dream for many when they burst onto the political scene 70 years ago, toppling old-money Protestants and blazing a path to prosperity and power for newer, and especially Catholic, immigrants in America. The descendants of Irish immigrants who crossed the ocean aboard “coffin ships,” the Kennedys were able to go from fresh off the boat to the White House in just three generations. Politically speaking, that aspirational leap in fortune neutralized John F. Kennedy’s great wealth, inherited from his father, which never became a liability for the youthful president.

“They captured the imagination of the nation because they showed the promise of America fulfilled,” said Thomas Whalen, a professor at Boston University who has written books about President Kennedy. “That you could come from these humble origins and, in a matter of a few generations, you can ascend to the top of the country’s power structure.”

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Kennedy concedes to Markey in Democratic primary for Senate
Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III was beat by Edward J. Markey in the Democratic primary for Senate.

Now, a few generations later, that underdog trajectory is better embodied by politicians such as Representative Ayanna Pressley, who is the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive firebrand who was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and became the youngest woman elected to the House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Markey, lending his campaign a youthful, anti-establishment energy that buffeted Kennedy.

Remarkably, Markey was even able to weaponize Camelot against his rival, portraying President Kennedy’s iconic line, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” as out of date and wrong for the moment.

“With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you,” the senator said as rock music blared behind him in a digital ad that racked up millions of views.

Kennedy, who early in the race avoided mentioning his family legacy, responded to Markey and released an ad talking about the “fight” he and his family have waged for generations, cut with speeches from Kennedys of yore.

That nostalgia clearly didn’t resonate as it once did, perhaps due to a fatigue with dynasties in a Democratic Party that is newly energized around issues of both race and inequality. (It’s President Trump, not Democrats, who have professed an interest in dynasties lately: He suggested last week that his daughter Ivanka should become the first female president.)

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Or it could show a natural evolution away from the sway of the family name among younger voters, who weren’t alive during the Kennedys’ height in the 60s and may not remember the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate career, which ended when he died more than 10 years ago.

Even as Joe Kennedy handily won elections in Massachusetts in recent years, there were signs that the Kennedy name had lost its political shine in other states. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest grandchild of Joseph P. Kennedy, the family’s patriarch, lost her bid to become Maryland’s governor in 2002. Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter, dropped her bid for Senate in New York in 2009. And Chris Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy’s son, ran for governor of Illinois in 2018 and lost in the primary.

Losing in Massachusetts, the Kennedys’ backyard, however, is a different matter and raises more questions about the family’s political future.

There are other, younger Kennedys who could enter the political arena — Jack Schlossberg, JFK’s grandson, appeared in a video with his mother, Caroline, at the Democratic National Convention, quickly sparking memes about his resemblance to his handsome uncle, the late John Kennedy Jr. And Ted Kennedy’s grandson, Edward Kennedy III, has expressed an interest in politics. Amy Kennedy, who married Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick, recently won a Democratic House primary in New Jersey.

But Joe, a Kennedy who was more gifted than many of his cousins and exuded a wholesome charm, was his grandmother Ethel’s favorite to carry on the political dynasty. That makes his loss more meaningful. Ethel Kennedy recently cut a video in support of her grandson, saying he reminds her of “Bobby and Jack and Teddy.”

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“He was her great hope for carrying on the dynasty,” said Larry Tye, a former Globe reporter who wrote a biography of Bobby Kennedy. “She thought he was the closet thing the family had produced to her beloved Bobby.”

In the end, Kennedy tripped on his own ambition, and his defeat feels like a significant setback for the dynasty — not just a stumble.

“If he goes down in defeat now, I think it’s potentially an end — and a sad end — to the dynasty,” Tye said.

That’s not how everyone sees it, however. Voters love a comeback story, and both the Kennedy family — and Joe Kennedy himself — could easily have a second act.

“Win or lose, I wouldn’t count out Joe Kennedy,” said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Markey in the past. “People think he’s going to be dead, I just don’t agree.”

Campaigning on Saturday in Dorchester, Kennedy said he hadn’t given much thought to the speculation about whether his career was over.

“People have been plotting my path forward in a whole lot of different directions from the time I was a young adult,” he said.

That kind of prognosticating just comes with the family name. It’s no longer clear what else does.

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Dugan Arnett and Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this story.


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.