Ignore the polls — and pols — who say that Edward J. Markey is toast in a hypothetical matchup with Joseph P. Kennedy III.
The 73-year-old junior senator from Massachusetts has just begun to fight. According to senior campaign director John E. Walsh, Markey has no plans to drop out and is ready for any opponent — including that “handsome redhead,” as Walsh referred to him, who’s still officially in the mulling stages of a challenge. Calling Markey “maybe the most underestimated, least-appreciated political leader in Massachusetts,” Walsh said he wants to run a campaign that tells voters “the truth about his work” and prove he’s worthy of another six years.
He’s a good choice to help Markey make that case. Back in 2006, Walsh built the grass-roots network that helped elect Deval Patrick as the state’s first African-American governor and that later became the template for Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Walsh went on to grow a statewide organization as chairman of the state Democratic committee.
Of course, in Patrick, Walsh had a candidate with magical political skills; he was also an outsider taking on the establishment. Long ago, Markey represented a version of that. But after nearly 43 years in Washington, his image as a youthful rebel who stood up to entrenched Democratic leadership is long gone. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Kennedy challenge to a veteran lawmaker long past his expiration date is catnip to the media.
The conventional wisdom that Markey has overstayed his welcome in Massachusetts politics may turn out to be correct. But first Kennedy has to actually get into the race. Leaking out news of his interest looked like a ploy to get Markey to bow out. Polls that show Markey losing to Kennedy by anywhere from 9 to 17 points also put pressure on the incumbent. But so far, Markey insists he’s staying in the race, and Walsh said he didn’t join a campaign “to shut it down.”
In some ways, the pressure is on Kennedy right now, even more than it is on Markey. If he thought Markey would make it easy for him by going away, he was wrong. He also faces pushback from fellow Democrats who like Markey and think the 38-year-old congressman has plenty of time to run for Senate. Kennedy must also confront his more cautious instincts. “This ultimately is not a question of anybody running against anyone else. You run for the seat,” he said on Labor Day. Sorry, but if Markey stays in the race as promised, Kennedy must have enough fire in the belly to take him on directly and explain why, beyond age and political pedigree, he’s the better choice.
And Markey must do the same. “They may tell me where to sit, but nobody tells me where to stand,” he declared in a famous television commercial that helped send him to Washington, at age 30. But that was a very long time ago. Now Markey is the old-timer facing a young challenger with an iconic political name.
Walsh has never before represented an incumbent, so signing on to the Markey campaign is an interesting flip. When he backed Ayanna Pressley over US Representative Michael Capuano, Walsh said, “Our party is really at a moment where we are changing direction, particularly in the age of Trump.” Now, he says, he plans to remind voters about Markey’s roots as a “disrupter” and his continuing leadership on cutting-edge issues like climate change. His mission is to expand the voter base, just the way challengers like Patrick and Pressley did.
“The best candidate is going to win the primary, and I’m 100 percent sure that person is Ed Markey,” said Walsh. Markey, no doubt, agrees.
Now, all they have to do is convince the rest of the electorate.