As the 2018 midterm elections approached, Democratic candidates around the country wanted Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s help.
Looking through a stack of requests for the last weekend of the campaign, Kennedy singled out one from Talley Sergent, a former Senate and State Department aide, running a long-shot bid for Congress in West Virginia against a Republican incumbent.
Kennedy’s staffers tried to gently persuade him to travel instead to a place where the Democratic candidate was within striking distance. But Kennedy stood firm, arguing that Democrats need to show up everywhere, recalled one campaign aide. So the Friday before Election Day, the Newton Democrat was campaigning at The Smokehouse in Charleston, W.Va.
Sergent didn’t win that race, but Kennedy’s admirers say his willingness to help out in even the toughest contests, and the interest he’s shown in tending to the party’s future, has earned him deep respect among Democratic Party loyalists.
The hefty bank of good will may come in handy as he moves toward mounting what would be a messy and controversial primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey. That good will has been accrued by raising millions of dollars, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, and shaking untold numbers of hands — stumping for candidates across the country, including in not-so-blue places where nostalgia for the Kennedy name and enthusiasm for his optimistic message have made him an in-demand surrogate, supporters say.
Kennedy’s ability to energize a variety of voters, not to mention raise gobs of money, also is a key reason his fans say they’re eager to see him compete for the Senate seat and the bigger national platform it would provide the grandson of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy.
“I’m not blowing smoke here — there was more energy and smiling faces from Democrats who had lost hope” than there has been in a long time, said Sergent .
Should he decide to run for the Senate and win, she said, “his role on the national stage would be helpful even for the people of West Virginia because he’s going to be in our corner on key issues. . . . Our country and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be better for it.”
Kennedy’s public acknowledgment that he is pondering a Senate bid sparked protests from some Democrats that it would be an expensive, possibly damaging, intraparty fight. They warn it would be a distraction from the urgent 2020 tasks of toppling President Trump, winning control of the Senate, and keeping the House of Representatives in Democratic hands.
There are just as many Democrats, however, who love the idea of Kennedy gaining a higher-profile perch to continue his party-building efforts.
He was an enthusiastic campaign surrogate during the 2018 midterm cycle as Democrats successfully toiled to win the House. He stumped for House colleagues and Democratic challengers in key battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, and Arizona. He also accepted a string of speaking gigs for state party events around the country, delivering keynote speeches at about a half-dozen gatherings from Texas to Florida, according to his campaign.
Kennedy was one of the most in-demand surrogates among the key “red to blue” seats identified as top priorities by the Democrats’ House campaign arm, according to one adviser involved in the effort to win the House.
Among those who wanted Kennedy’s help was Conor Lamb, a former Marine who won a major upset in a March 2018 special election for a southwestern Pennsylvania House seat, part of Trump’s Rust Belt base of support.
“ ‘We’ll do absolutely whatever you want,’ ” Lamb recalled Kennedy’s team saying.
By happenstance, Kennedy’s visit ended up being the day after he delivered the Democratic response to the 2018 State of the Union.
He did a lunchtime fund-raiser for Lamb, then visited a tiny field office packed with campaign volunteers and supporters. Kennedy also accompanied Lamb to a county party event, where he worked the room but had no formal part in the program.
Lamb, who promised in his campaign not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House, voted for Kennedy for the leadership role. (Kennedy — who could be seen laughing on the House floor when Lamb called out his name — backed Pelosi.)
Kennedy also has shown himself to be a prolific, and generous, fund-raiser. He raised close to $4.9 million for Democratic candidates during the 2018 campaign cycle, either directly or indirectly through party organizations, according to his campaign — an enormous haul for a rank-and-file House member.
Looking toward 2020, he’s already raised $1.7 million for fellow Democrats this year.
For Markey’s part, during his 37 years in the House, he gave in excess of the recommended “dues” sought by the party campaign arm on many occasions. He also raised additional money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and individual candidates, according to a Markey spokeswoman. He was seen as one of caucus’s biggest fund-raisers outside leadership ranks.
But there were cycles, including 2006 and 2010, where news reports described Democrats as frustrated with Markey for not sharing more of his substantial war chest with other candidates.
In 2006, a year when Democrats were engaged in an ultimately successful fight to wrest back control of Congress from Republicans, Markey drew ire from Moveon.org. The liberal advocacy group targeted him in a campaign to pressure safe incumbents sitting on a lot of cash to give it to candidates in tough races.
Since 2017, Markey contributed and raised approximately $2 million for Democratic congressional candidates, with a focus on competitive Senate races such as those in Montana and Missouri, a Markey spokeswoman said.
Yet Markey has never been in-demand outside of Massachusetts as a campaign surrogate in the way Kennedy is. Markey did not stump for any candidates outside of the state in the 2018 cycle, according to his campaign.
Markey hit the trail for a long list of Massachusetts candidates, including attending several events for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s and Attorney General Maura Healey’s reelection bids, neither of which were tight races. He also stumped for others such as Jay Gonzalez, who lost his long-shot gubernatorial bid against Charlie Baker.
His work within the state has certainly won him fans. One hundred twenty state lawmakers have endorsed Markey’s reelection bid, as has the majority of the state’s congressional delegation.
Kennedy’s party work includes support for Democrats in Massachusetts, too.
“He does a lot. And he draws a crowd, too. It’s like having a rock star,” said state Representative Jeffrey N. Roy, whose Franklin-area district shares turf with Kennedy’s. Roy launched his run for the Massachusetts House about the same time Kennedy announced his 2012 bid for Congress, and the two have campaigned and raised funds together since.
Roy praised Markey’s record. “But, certainly, my allegiances are to Joe.”