Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s plans to kick off a run for Senate on Saturday sent Democrats from the Berkshires to the Beltway into a tizzy, previewing the tension and turmoil his blockbuster primary challenge against Senator Edward J. Markey will trigger throughout the party.
On Capitol Hill, Kennedy’s move prompted a chorus of criticism Thursday from party elders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who counts both men as allies, was curt when asked about the race. “I consider it a loss to lose Joe Kennedy in the House, but he has made his decision.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was blunt: “I think it’s bad for him. I think it’s bad for the party.” The Democrat recalled seeing the negative effects firsthand when she worked for President Jimmy Carter in 1980 after the late Edward M. Kennedy — the younger Kennedy’s great-uncle — launched a primary challenge against him.
“I know how much animosity that created within the party that lasted for years,” she said.
Kennedy remains undeterred, of course.
As he left the Capitol building Thursday afternoon, the Newton Democrat confirmed he was jumping in the race but didn’t provide any details. “You will hear an awful lot more about everything on Saturday,” Kennedy said. His House colleagues “have all been very supportive,” he added.
Kennedy has endorsements from a number of fellow federal elected officials and will roll those out after the Saturday announcement, said a person involved in the campaign.
But he already has vocal supporters on Capitol Hill.
“It’s entirely normal for someone with Joe’s talent and potential to seek more capacity to do more great things,” said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York and close ally of Kennedy in the House. “I think everybody should just calm down and let democracy work its will.”
Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, predicted a Kennedy victory. “He’s dynamic, smart, has vision, and gets things done. That’s exactly what our country needs right now,” she said by text message.
She added that “most people are staying quiet [because] that’s how D.C. goes.”
In Massachusetts, the announcement amplified the distress major donors and party operatives felt when they first learned last month that Kennedy might jump into the race. Many are close to both Markey and the Kennedys, and are pained about having to take sides.
“I love them both,” said Representative Richard E. Neal, who has endorsed Markey like the majority of the delegation. “I think we’re all pretty loyal and good friends, and these are longstanding friendships.”
Several Democratic insiders said they expect big donors to give to both candidates. Some deliberately wrote checks to both Markey and Kennedy ahead of the younger Democrat’s decision so they could max out to both without having to choose sides, said one Democratic operative with Massachusetts ties.
Prominent Democrats, such as former representative Barney Frank, have raised concerns that the divisive Senate primary — plus the huge field of candidates that appears to be forming to compete for Kennedy’s Fourth District House seat — will suck resources and attention from more crucial races around the country. And privately, some Democrats view Kennedy’s move as cold-blooded ambition that could kill the career of a well-respected lawmaker, namely Edward J. Markey.
Still, other politicos greeted Kennedy’s entrance with excitement because of the energy the race would inject into the state. The unfolding primary brawl for Senate will likely juice voter enthusiasm and turnout, and could lead to unexpected outcomes down the ballot, some strategists mused.
Whether Markey or Kennedy, “Will we end up with an amazing Democratic US senator at the end of the day? Yeah. And probably one that’s really clearly defined” on the issues, said Democratic consultant Dan Cence. “That’s never a bad thing.”
Some unlikely politicos got in on the action Thursday. “I’m for Kennedy,” former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who is running against President Trump for the GOP nomination, told Washington Post reporters. “I’ve known him since the day he was born.”
The Republican added that his wasn’t an endorsement Kennedy was seeking.
Markey has already buttoned up many endorsements from elected officials — 120 from the state Legislature — and key groups in the state. But not everyone. At least one major union, the IBEW Local 103, which has about 10,000 members, plans to endorse Kennedy, said business manager Lou Antonellis.
He said not to count out Kennedy for other union endorsements, either: “He’ll do fine, I’m sure.”
High-profile Massachusetts Democrats who haven’t picked a side yet seemed determined to stay neutral.
“I’ll be upfront with you, I am not going to get involved in this one,” said state Attorney General Maura Healey during an interview on WGBH radio.
Other key officials declining to weigh in on the race include Kennedy’s House colleagues Katherine Clark, Seth Moulton, and Ayanna Pressley. Notably, Moulton and Pressley both won their seats after beating incumbents.
Environmental activists, many of whom are lined up behind Markey, emphasized their support.
“Ed Markey, as the coauthor of the Green New Deal, is arguably the strongest environmental champion in the Senate,” said Deb Pasternak, chapter director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, which has endorsed Markey. “We’re going to work to keep him there.”
Markey’s long environmental record is a key element of his support among some Massachusetts Democrats and is likely to play a major role in the coming campaign.
The Malden Democrat supercharged his environmental credentials earlier this year when he teamed up with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a 29-year-old icon of the left, to introduce the Green New Deal to tackle climate change. She recently endorsed him.
“I’m not one to say that Joe should not run in this race,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Capitol Hill Thursday. “But I believe that Senator Markey, he is necessary. . . . If he’s not there, we are not going to have very critical, deeply vested expertise and leadership to take us forward.”
Markey, for his part, spoke to reporters in Lawrence Thursday evening.
He stressed his connection to Ocasio-Cortez, mentioning her twice,
“Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said today I am the generational change that America needs. I fight for the issues that need to be fought,” Markey said.
He also recounted the meeting with Kennedy on Wednesday when the congressman broke the news of his run.
“I said to him, welcome to the campaign trail,” Markey said.