It is supposed to be the highest-profile Senate primary in the nation. But weeks into Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s bid to unseat Senator Edward J. Markey, the two candidates are still circling each other like boxers fresh in the ring, awkwardly trying to find an opening, in a matchup that offers no easy lines of attack.
At times, both men have struck the stance of scrappy outsider, attempting to harness the grass-roots’ hunger for sweeping change. But tilt your head, and both look like insiders — which, in fact, they are.
Markey has served in Washington since 1976, and Kennedy’s family has been in politics since the 1880s.
The low boil of what is still expected to become a feisty match underscores how unusual this primary battle is. It is rare for an incumbent senator to face a serious challenge, let alone start the race behind in the polls, as Markey has. Kennedy hasn’t yet offered a stark ideological contrast, the typical reason given for taking on an incumbent. Nor is he likely to.
“It’s normally a pretty formidable thing to have the name ID, the talent, and the ability to raise money to have a shot” at beating a longtime incumbent in a statewide race, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant and veteran campaign manager who has worked for many an upstart candidate. Kennedy has all three, Trippi said.
But Markey has demonstrated he’s not going to be steamrolled by the redheaded rising star, several political observers noted. “He seems to not have gotten the memo that Joe’s last name is Kennedy,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Kennedy’s late great-uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Much of the action so far has consisted of insider maneuvers — moves typical of the early phase of a campaign and which probably catch the attention of engaged activists but not rank-and-file voters still a year away from voting in the primary.
Markey pounced on Kennedy’s official campaign kickoff by proposing a debate focused solely on climate change and calling for it to be early November. The move has sparked ongoing sniping between the campaigns, and looks more like that of an insurgent seeking to grab attention from the headliner. It also underscores Markey’s outsize profile on the issue.
Meanwhile, a video Markey’s campaign put out about Kennedy’s vow to stop taking corporate PAC money drew a rebuke from a campaign finance watchdog, which called it a “Republican-style attack.”
Kennedy’s jabs have been aimed at drawing contrasts between Markey and himself. Shortly after launching his campaign, the Newton Democrat called on his primary rivals — Markey, labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, and businessman Steve Pemberton — to sign a so-called people’s pledge to limit outside political groups from spending money on the race.
The move puts Markey in an awkward spot, given that the Malden Democrat made a similar pledge a very prominent issue in the 2013 special election to fill the Senate seat after John Kerry became secretary of state. He repeatedly criticized his Republican opponent, Gabriel E. Gomez, for declining to sign the pledge.
Back then Markey was the favorite with a substantial fund-raising advantage.
Now: “Our campaign is considering it,” Markey said Thursday, when asked by the Globe about Kennedy’s proposal.
What has changed between 2013 and now that he has to pause and think about it?
“Well,” he said, fumbling for a second, “our campaign will be talking to his campaign, so you can talk to John Walsh, my campaign manager, about that.”
Addressing more than 70 volunteer organizers packed into the back room of an Arlington restaurant earlier that night, Markey captured the contradictions of the race.
He sounded much like the genial Washington veteran that he is. For almost every key policy battle highlighted in his remarks, Markey pointed to a bill he has introduced.
As he discussed one bill — currently stalled in the Senate — to fund research into gun violence, Markey indulged in his longtime penchant for corny twists on existing acronyms.
“We can pass it. We can turn NRA into Not Relevant Anymore in America,” Markey said.
But Markey also sought to frame his long record as one that is nonetheless of the moment. His whole career, Markey said, “I’ve tried to stand up, look ahead, and lead, because leadership is always about the future.”
He segued to his partnership with progressive icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York, on the Green New Deal blueprint to tackle climate change. His alliance with the 29-year-old rising star, who has endorsed the him, and the Green New Deal are frequent topics for the 73-year-old Markey.
Both help establish his bona fides among left wing activists, said John Cluverius, a political scientist at University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Markey is refusing to allow himself to be painted as the old fuddy-duddy incumbent in the race,” he said.
Kennedy, too, in some ways is positioning himself as an insurgent even though his four terms in Congress and famous family name make it a clumsy fit.
His campaign stops have focused on reaching out beyond the core base of Democratic activists to less engaged voters, a pattern he continued this weekend with events that include a visit to a legal services clinic for low-income families in Framingham and a meeting at the Worcester Healthy Baby Collaborative to discuss racial disparities in maternal and infant health.
He, too, has avoided mentioning his chief rival. Asked shortly after he announced to describe the key reason he’s in the race, Kennedy said he was motivated to help fix a broken “system” that persuaded 63 million Americans Donald Trump was the answer to their hopes and problems.
To do that, Kennedy said, requires a senator who is focused on hearing the concerns of all the state’s citizens; pursuing fixes not only to the climate crisis but also a whole range of other pressing problems; and “changing the politics of the country,” including flipping the Senate to Democratic control.
“I think I can do better,” Kennedy said, when pressed if he was implying that Markey has had his shot and has fallen short.
Several political observers said Kennedy still needs to articulate a sharper rationale for his candidacy if he wants to persuade Democratic voters to toss out Markey.
“I honestly still haven’t seen him explain why he’s willing to take on a sitting senator like this,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Other analysts are less convinced Kennedy needs to spell out an ironclad case given the desire for fresh faces and strong fighters that Trump’s presidency has sparked within the Democratic base. Democratic voters want candidates who can capture their sense of outrage and urgency, these analysts say, and — despite Markey’s progressive credentials — Kennedy’s style and youth may feel more in line with their mood.
The villain in the Massachusetts Senate primary race “is not Markey or Kennedy. It’s Donald Trump, and liberal voters are so frustrated that they want to lash out,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “Kennedy seems to be a little bit more of a message than reelecting Markey.”
Change is the reason members of a major Boston union, IBEW Local 103, plan to “fight like hell” for Kennedy, Lou Antonellis, the union’s business manager, said during a formal endorsement event last week.
“It’s time for a new wave and a new generation of leadership. We’re sick of looking at a lot of gray hair, a lot of older people,” he said, with members of the union’s first-year apprentice class gathered to witness.
In an interview afterward, Antonellis said the support for Kennedy wasn’t really about anything that Markey had failed to do. It’s about their members. “They’re young, they’re motivated, they’re hungry. They relate to Joe Kennedy.”