Looking back at the Massachusetts Senate primary between incumbent Ed Markey and Representative Joe Kennedy III, it could have been about a lot of things.
It could have been about generational change. It could have been about some big issue (i.e. different plans for reparations) that could drive national progressive politics for the next decade. It could have been, as the lazy cliche goes, a primary about the heart and soul of the Massachusetts Democratic party.
But as the race comes to a close, it is apparent it was about none of those things. It has become a race about nothing, except an expensive, largely insider exercise about personalities.
What it most certainly never became about: voters. The choice for voters isn’t about voting their hopes and dreams. It’s mainly about the hopes and dreams of two privileged, straight, white men who would vote pretty much exactly the same way as the other on every bill in the future.
Consider the past few weeks, which became something of a test of the Kennedy name. Markey leaned in, going after the Kennedy family’s reported involvement in a super PAC issuing negative messages. Markey also offered a biting rhetorical flip in an ad with the line, “it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
Kennedy doubled down on his family’s legacy in speeches and the last televised debate. A new super PAC ad boosting Kennedy heavily invokes his family’s legacy.
One could assume that Kennedy did not plan on ending the campaign this way. After all, when he entered the contest a year ago, he led Markey by 14 points. Surely that lead would grow as he began to raise and spend gobs of money, right? And there were a lot of people who bought into the conventional wisdom that, soon enough, Markey would get the hint and just retire instead of ending a nearly half-century in politics with a tough loss.
Markey, it turned out, had other plans. His resurgence this summer may be one of the important developments in Massachusetts politics in at least a generation. If the polls are to be believed, Markey not only closed the gap on Kennedy, but surged ahead.
If this race gave us anything, it’s that Markey has been defined politically for the first time in decades, as a resilient street fighter. But, again, that keeps the focus on Markey’s personality.
Still, even the senator may not have expected to close a campaign questioning the relevance of the Kennedys in Massachusetts.
Typically, races for major office end with some type of clarity for voters. It is on candidates to draw a contrast on terms that are the most favorable to them. In other words: Primaries are supposed to mean something.
Other high-profile primaries usually offer some clear choice. In the state’s First Congressional District, longtime incumbent Richie Neal faces a primary to his left from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. There was a similar difference in the Democratic presidential primary between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. In Republican primaries, the question is whether a candidate is with President Trump or not.
Yet, this particular primary ends on a note of confusion. What does it say about Massachusetts if Kennedy wins or loses? What is at stake, like, for real?
Many criticized Kennedy for challenging an incumbent in the first place without lodging a coherent complaint as to why Markey should be fired. But on the other side, Markey never really said what would be so bad if he lost the seat to Kennedy.
The race never fit into a simple box. Markey is significantly older, but polling suggests he has more support among younger people. Markey supporters say Kennedy is too moderate, but Kennedy smartly agreed to so many positions on the left (Green New Deal, Medicare for All) that one has to get into the weeds to show exactly how he is more moderate than Markey.
And in the battle to “out-progressive” each other, it is notable that Sanders, the biggest progressive in the country, isn’t weighing in on this race. Maybe that’s because both Kennedy and Markey backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary against Sanders in 2016 and then both endorsed Elizabeth Warren over Sanders last year.
One last thought on this race about nothing. When a winner is declared there will be a lot of analysis about what it says about the candidates and big takes on the mood of the electorate.
After all, on paper, it could seem like the most important Massachusetts Democratic primary in a generation. But amid a global pandemic when votes were cast over the course of a month and there were hiccups and court cases about the entire voting process this year, will we really learn that much anyway?