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Kennedy vs. Moulton — the hottest race in Massachusetts

Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy III.Globe staff photo illustration/Associated Press

US REPRESENTATIVE Joe Kennedy III has the famous name. But another Massachusetts congressman — US Representative Seth Moulton — has the higher profile.

Moulton, a reliable presence on cable TV with a well-crafted litany of anti-Trump talking points, just got a mention in the New York Times as someone who “in private conversations” has not ruled out running for president. “Fake news! He’s not running for president,” responded Carrie Rankin, Moulton’s spokesperson, when asked about it.

Fake or not, it’s a reminder that the hottest political race in Massachusetts right now is the unofficial one between Moulton and Kennedy. Their names are not on any ballot, and for now, no open Senate seat is available for either one. But these two smart, seriously ambitious politicians are engaged in a quiet battle for standing in a party looking for fresh faces and a message that resonates with middle class voters after Donald Trump.

“They’re both stars,” said US Rep. Richard Neal, the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, in a recent interview. “You could sell the two of them in a lot of different political circles beyond the base of the party.”


If Moulton’s success in getting his name in the mix of 2020 speculation makes him a bigger star than a Kennedy — that would be highly unusual in Massachusetts. But it fits Moulton’s pushy political history. To win his seat in Congress, Moulton, 39, ran against incumbent Democrat John Tierney. He also joined an unsuccessful effort to take the minority House leadership position away from Nancy Pelosi. Moulton’s status as an Iraq War veteran also gives him a platform on foreign policy, and he’s passionate when he talks about what’s at stake when the country sends its young people off to war.

Although close in age, Moulton comes across as older than the 36-year-old Kennedy. Maybe it’s due to Moulton’s combat experience. Or perhaps it’s because in Massachusetts, the more baby-faced Kennedy is still known as “Joe’s kid.” His father, Joseph P. Kennedy II, the longtime head of Citizens Energy, a nonprofit energy company, also represented Massachusetts in Congress.


In 2012, Joe Kennedy III took over the seat held for decades by US Representative Barney Frank. More wired into the Democratic establishment than Moulton, he began his speech introducing Senator Elizabeth Warren at last summer’s Democratic National Convention with an anecdote about his first day at Harvard Law School, when he was challenged by his professor — Warren.

Before Trump’s election, Kennedy preferred to duck talk about his political pedigree and liked to pitch his ability to cultivate relationships with Republicans. When his name was floated out in 2014 as a possible chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said he had no interest in it because, “If I do the job right, I would be finding ways to beat those guys” — meaning Republicans.

Last month’s fight over the Republican effort to derail the Affordable Care Act fired him up. After House Speaker Paul Ryan called the GOP replacement bill an “act of mercy,’’ Kennedy called it “an act of malice.” Kennedy got a lot of attention for carrying the torch on health care — a family legacy. While he still wants to be known as a politician who reaches across the aisle, he’s also cranking up the ideological passion. A recent press missive sent out by his office forwards news that Kennedy is “leading the charge” against Mark Green, an anti-gay Republican legislator, who is Trump’s choice to become secretary of the Army. The release also boldfaces Kennedy’s identification as the “grandson of Robert F. Kennedy.”

Kennedy will always have the name. He still needs a sharper profile.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.