Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III has not made up his mind on whether to mount a primary challenge against Senator Edward J. Markey, yet already the lines are being drawn in what would be a generational showdown between two of the state’s most respected political figures.
The prospect that Kennedy, the 38-year-old scion of the state’s most revered political dynasty, might take on the 73-year-old Markey, the longest-serving member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, set off a seismic charge in the Massachusetts political landscape.
The early tumult points toward a potentially divisive primary that would test loyalties and the still-long held wisdom that Massachusetts Democrats are best served when ambitious politicians wait their turn, a tradition that’s already been softened by Ayanna Pressley’s surprise primary victory over a longtime, establishment-backed congressional incumbent in 2018.
“If he gets in, he’s going to get in to win, because Kennedys aren’t in the habit of losing,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Manley added that he is “not a fan” of the idea of a Kennedy primary challenge, nor of primary challenges generally. “Despite the fact I don’t imagine the campaign would ever get ugly, it’s bound to have a pretty destructive impact on the politics of Massachusetts,” he said.
Markey, in an interview with the Globe, declined to criticize Kennedy. Instead, Markey preferred to underscore his platform — gun safety, the Green New Deal, and economic justice — saying he stood for “the issues of today.”
“I am energized by the threat that Donald Trump poses to everything that Massachusetts stands for,” he said when asked whether he felt vulnerable in any way. “This is the most energized that I have ever been in my life.”
In the wake of Kennedy’s interest this weekend, Markey, who was first elected to the Senate in 2013, quickly shifted to defense Monday — releasing a 90-second video endorsement from his senior Senate colleague and liberal superstar, Elizabeth Warren, who publicly endorsed Markey in February.
But Warren spoke warmly about both men to reporters over the weekend, bringing up Kennedy when asked if she was still backing Markey. “Eddie has been a great partner in the Senate,” she told reporters. “Joe Kennedy is also a great partner... He’s really an amazing person.”
The comment highlights the divided loyalties Kennedy’s entrance into the Senate primary would cause. After all, Warren chose Kennedy to introduce her at her presidential campaign launch in February.
While the majority of the Massachusetts delegation has endorsed Markey, a handful of notable standouts remain, including Representative Katherine Clark, a close ally of Kennedy’s and member of House Democratic leadership who is slated to appear at a town hall meeting with Markey and Pressley this week.
“I have tremendous respect for Senator Markey and Representative Kennedy, and I’ve enjoyed working with both of them during my first eight months in Congress,” Pressley said in a statement to the Globe. (Kennedy endorsed Pressley’s opponent, then-Representative Michael E. Capuano, in last year’s primary; Markey did not make an endorsement.)
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh told reporters over the weekend that he is sticking by his endorsement of Markey.
Should Kennedy jump in, the Senate primary would pit one of the party’s rising stars — albeit a white male and an establishment player — against a longtime progressive (also a white male), whose supporters argue he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his long crusades on climate change and consumer protection, among other issues.
With his privileged background, famous name, and strong ties with the Democratic establishment, Kennedy is not an insurgent candidate like Pressley or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who also vanquished a white male incumbent in a primary upset.
But Kennedy could still tap into the Democratic base’s hunger for generational change — and for strong voices who can articulate the party’s cause in the Trump era. His skills in this area already earned him viral moments, high-profile speaking roles including the 2017 Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union, and even chatter that he might run for president in 2020.
Markey had already drawn two declared primary opponents, labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and businessman and author Steve Pemberton.
And while the news that Kennedy is weighing a primary bid sparked speculation that other big names might also see a ripe opportunity to buck the line, one of those possibilities, Attorney General Maura Healey “is not considering a Senate run,” said a person close to her.
Kennedy, if he decides to run, would be the automatic front-runner, numerous analysts said.
“Markey’s biggest problem in this hypothetical primary is that he is not a Kennedy,” said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts political science professor. “There will be a lot of support for Kennedy should he run, both among every day Democratic voters, but also nationwide as some donors want to elevate a young Democratic voice that isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
A number of progressive activists greeted the Kennedy news with skepticism. They praised Markey’s record, especially on climate change. Markey was the lead author of landmark legislation to create a cap-and-trade system for Earth-warming greenhouse gases that passed the House in 2009 (it died in the Senate). More recently, he’s co-sponsored the so-called Green New Deal with Ocasio-Cortez.
He’s also led congressional efforts to ensure robust Net neutrality rules, which require Internet service providers to give everyone equal access to online content.
“A challenger needs to make the case that there’s some issue that hasn’t been addressed and some urgency that’s lacking,” said Jonathan Cohn, chairman of the issues committee of Progressive Massachusetts, a grass-roots advocacy group. If there’s such a case to be made against Markey, he said, “I haven’t heard it.”
Kennedy, first elected to Congress in 2012, has made a mark as a champion of transgender rights and is the chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus’s Transgender Equality Task Force. He gained national attention for his denunciation of the GOP’s efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, among other issues in the Trump era, and gave a well-received speech earlier this year defining his vision of “moral capitalism.”
While activists and party regulars may frown at a Kennedy challenge, they make up a small portion of the voters who would turn out for the primary — many of whom analysts believe would be attracted to Kennedy, both by the legacy of his name and what they’ve seen of him on TV.
“Incumbency isn’t what it used to be, either in terms of how would-be challengers perceive it or how voters perceive it. The advantage is smaller,” said Steve Koczela of the MassINC polling group. “Polls show Markey has done fine overall, but [he] isn’t as widely known as I am sure his campaign wishes he was, going into what could be a spirited primary.”
Amid the commotion the potential Kennedy primary challenge has caused, some politicos doubt it will come to reality. On one side are those who continue to believe that such a divisive move is too out of character for Kennedy, who by all accounts is risk-averse and a team player.
On the other are those who don’t believe Markey’s insistence that he will continue to run, no matter what.
Tobe Berkovitz, a former Massachusetts Democratic political media consultant, predicted that Markey will bow out if Kennedy gets in the race.
“Markey is not in fighting trim and he will soon figure that out,” said Berkovitz, who has not worked for either Democrat. “What Markey has to lose is his legacy as a longtime congressman and senator and a winner of Massachusetts politics. If he loses, sure he was once a senator, but his cachet is tainted.”