Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s loss to Senator Edward J. Markey in Tuesday’s primary marked the first time a member of the storied political clan dropped an election in Massachusetts.
How did it happen?
“Endorsements played an important role here,” said Tatishe Nteta, an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst, noting the support the 74-year-old Markey picked up among key state Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, as well as from national progressive stars like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led Sunrise Movement for climate action.
Markey, Nteta said, staked much of his campaign on issues important to progressives and young voters, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Polls show that even across partisan lines, climate change is a hugely salient issue for young people.
But class played a role in the election as well as age, Nteta and others said.
“Highly educated, high-income, high-wealth Democrats turned out to vote, and they turned out in droves to vote for Senator Markey,” Nteta said, noting Markey’s success in areas like Brookline, Newton, Belmont, Northampton, and Amherst.
Markey also took 59 percent of the vote in Boston, a nod to the changing demographics of the city, said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and longtime observer of local politics.
He said during the 2018 primaries, Boston precincts with the highest turnouts weren’t the traditional ones associated with “cops, firefighters, and nurses” in Dorchester, South Boston, and West Roxbury. Rather, he said, the Hyde Square corridor in Jamaica Plain, filled with young transplants, delivered victories to progressives such as Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.
Markey, DiCara said, harnessed that same energy Tuesday night.
“They came out in droves yesterday,” said DiCara, who endorsed Markey in the race.
Markey focused much of his election night speech praising young people and thanking them for their support. Before the election, a Suffolk University poll showed Markey running well ahead of Kennedy among young people ages 18-35, 49 percent to 39 percent.
Markey described his campaign as, “a movement fueled by young people who are not afraid to raise their voices or make enemies.”
“Tonight’s victory is a tribute to those young people and to their vision,” he added.
And many young people who attend college in the Boston area have stayed after graduation in recent years, whereas previously they often moved to other cities after commencement, said Nteta, a Massachusetts native who grew up in Middleton.
That cohort of younger transplants, Nteta said, doesn’t “have the same connection to the Kennedy name.”
But Kennedy fared particularly well in working-class strongholds in the central and southeastern parts of the state, including in Springfield, where he took 63 percent of the vote, Fall River, where he captured 76 percent, and New Bedford, where 67 percent of Democratic voters pulled the lever for him.
“The most conspicuous division in the electorate was social class,” said Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry via e-mail. “Markey did best in upper income communities (Brookline, Newton) and in those with high concentrations of young professionals (Cambridge, Somerville). Kennedy had pockets of strength in working class cities (Fall River, New Bedford, Springfield). Class matters in Massachusetts.”
Indeed, Kennedy acknowledged as much during his concession speech, telling supporters that “we built a campaign for working folks of every color and creed who carry the economic injustice of this country on their backs.” He said he and his backers “built a campaign for those who do not have the luxury of accepting the status quo or the privilege of being patient for just a few more years. That is who we fought for and they showed up today.”
Working class voters have long been Kennedy allies in Massachusetts, said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at UMass Boston.
“Think Sen. Ted Kennedy and labor,” Cunningham wrote in an e-mail. “And [Joe Kennedy III] has forged his own ties to working class and people of color. He’s been especially strong on immigrant rights, for instance.”
Nteta, the UMass professor, referenced Kennedy’s support among people of color as well.
Kennedy on the stump talked often about “fighting for working class votes” and “fighting for the rights of non-whites” much like his forebears who remain popular among Black voters.
Joe Kennedy, Nteta said, “did a good job of connecting himself” to his family’s legacy of fighting for racial justice.