Pandemic turns Markey-Kennedy race into virtual showdown
Primary contest moves online -- and turns testy
THE US SENATE race between Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy, which was shaping up to be one of the most closely watched congressional primary contests in the country, now faces a much different challenge: How do candidates draw attention when the glad-handing, town parades, and speech-making that are the lifeblood of normal campaigns have had to give way to Facebook Live and Twitter broadcasts, and most people are more focused on a global pandemic than an intra-party face-off?
“I’d be lying to you if I told you that the ideal way to run a race for US Senate is from my attic,” said Kennedy. But that is mostly where anyone paying attention to the race has seen the four-term congressman, who is challenging Markey for the Senate seat he won in a 2013 special election.
Kennedy talks to guests on split screen about everything from mental health issues raised by the crisis to its impact in prisons from a desk on the third floor of his Newton home. The regular issue-focused sessions are leavened by some lighter fare, including a recent detour to the kitchen for a remote cooking lesson with local celebrity chef Tiffani Faison.
Markey, when he’s not in his driveway in a virtual free-throw contest with Celtics center Enes Kanter, holds court from the dining room of his Malden home, where the topics have ranged from nursing home policies to pandemic relief legislation.
The primary is a showdown between two liberal Massachusetts Democrats in which the issue overshadowing the contest has now become its central focus. Everything about the campaign conversation has changed, with Markey and Kennedy devoting nearly all their attention for weeks to the coronavirus crisis and, in recent days, to racial justice issues. At the same time, each candidate has largely stuck to his original campaign storyline, seizing on the pandemic to amplify its theme. In that way, the race remains a choice between a seasoned veteran of progressive causes and a challenger making a case for new leadership from a new generation.
Also not changed by the pandemic is the puzzle that presents for voters, who are faced with a contest of seemingly small differences during a time of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty.
Markey ticks off his efforts since the outbreak began to ensure federal benefits for gig workers, aid for minority businesses, and his success securing help for the state’s fishing industry. “But in a way that’s just a continuation of my work on climate change, and on gun safety, on Alzheimer’s, and other issues that I have been the leader on in Congress,” said Markey, who served 37 years in the US House before being elected to the Senate.
For his part, Kennedy says the pandemic has only strengthened the argument for his candidacy. “I think we need stronger leadership in our government, I think we need stronger leadership in the Senate,” he said. “And if I believed that six months ago, I certainly think that’s even more so the case now.”
Kennedy says everything from a broken health care system to environmental justice issues burdening poor communities with air pollution have contributed to the coronavirus toll in places like Chelsea, which has the highest infection rate in the state. But he has begun to turn the issue into an attack on Markey, claiming the veteran lawmaker has not been an effective advocate for hard-hit places like Chelsea, Lawrence, Revere, and Brockton. Kennedy recently told WBZ’s Jon Keller that Markey’s leadership has “not been present or effective at trying to lift these communities up, hear those voices, and actually fight for them, as I have.”
Markey, who has been endorsed by mayors in three of the four communities, bristles at the charge. “At times like this, negative political attacks are completely inappropriate, especially when they are blatantly false,” he said.
Markey has jumped on the fundraising bandwagon, recently hosting a virtual concert with a Cambridge Latin jazz singer in which he encouraged viewers to make donations to benefit Chelsea and Lawrence relief funds.
The contrast Kennedy draws in attacking Markey’s work in Gateway Cities seems anchored more in language and the emotion he evokes than any specific critique of Markey’s record. “We’ve tried to use the campaign to raise the voices of those folks on the frontlines who are experiencing and going through these challenges,” he said. A former Peace Corps worker who is fluent in Spanish, Kennedy seems to be channeling his late grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, who was revered as a passionate champion for poor and marginalized communities.
In Chelsea, that message resonates with Judith Garcia, who was elected five years ago at age 23 to the City Council. Garcia says she hasn’t seen Markey much in Chelsea, and is ready for a change. “I feel that Joe is that young blood that many of us are craving and desperately need for our community. He’s come out and been hands-on,” she said.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who is supporting Markey, calls the charge that he hasn’t been a forceful advocate for communities like his nonsense. Following the 2018 natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, Rivera said Markey held utility company executives’ feet to the fire in demanding accountability. “He’s been here for every one of our most important issues, and now for COVID-19,” said Rivera.
Kennedy, 39, doesn’t make an explicit call for generational change, but he does everything short of that. “There’s a generational challenge confronting our nation, the likes of which we have not seen before in American history,” he said of the pandemic. “We have to rebuild out of it and we cannot go back to where we were back in February,” Kennedy said, calling that a “normal that was broken.”
Kennedy has also laid out a reform agenda that includes abolishing the Electoral College and the filibuster, but it’s not clear that those types of process issues are what wins over voters.
Kennedy’s broader argument that we can’t revert to a “normal that was broken,” however, reinforces the idea of the 73-year-old Markey as a decades-long fixture in a system that has failed to address persistent inequities. While Markey points to a string of legislative achievements over that time, his long tenure also leaves him open to attacks on past votes.
In some of the “most consequential moments” of recent history, Kennedy said of his opponent, “he’s been on the wrong side of those decisions.” He cited Markey’s votes for the Iraq war authorization, the Patriot Act, and “a crime bill in 1994 that led to the incarceration of a generation of African-American men.”
Markey says he regrets the Iraq war vote, which he said the Bush administration sold on false premises, and the impact the crime bill has had on black incarceration rates.
But reaching back to votes cast in a very different context can be a tricky play for Kennedy. In the case of the 1994 crime bill, which was Democratic-sponsored legislation that included money for community policing and other initiatives, Markey was hardly the only liberal lawmaker to support the measure. Also casting votes for the bill were Kennedy’s own father, Joseph Kennedy II, who served 10 years in the House, and his late great-uncle, Ted Kennedy.
Markey enjoys a clear edge among progressive activist groups. He regularly trumpets his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal with rising congressional star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and he’s been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, a national organization of young climate activists. Last week, Markey got the endorsement of the Massachusetts chapter of Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run.
Markey’s campaign manager, John Walsh, points to a well-known moment in Markey’s early years as a Malden state rep when he so angered House leaders with a judicial reform measure that they had his desk put out in the State House hallway. “He’s the original disruptor who’s willing to put it all on the line,” said Walsh.
But ideological differences between Markey and Kennedy seem vanishingly small in the grander scheme of congressional politics. Politico Massachusetts reported last week that Progressive Punch, a database on congressional voting records, rates Kennedy’s record as 97 percent progressive and Markey’s 99 percent.
“If you’re a Democratic voter you’re going to be happy pretty much with whichever one wins,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
All of which circles back to the question first raised by Kennedy’s entry into the race in September: What is the rationale for a liberal congressman looking to wrest a US Senate seat from a liberal incumbent?
Kennedy has framed his challenge as motivated by urgent issues not being addressed by Markey, and touted his ability to use the platform of a Senate seat to help Democrats win seats across the country. O’Brien thinks he saw an opening and worried that a race for an open seat six years from now should Markey retire then might be a tougher path.
“I honestly think it’s about ego and political ambition,” O’Brien said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as a campaign slogan, ‘I want this seat’ isn’t that compelling.”
Michael Goldman, a veteran political consultant who did work for Kennedy’s father but is not involved in the race, said it comes down to Markey’s long track record of progressive leadership versus the promise of a bright future in the Senate. “This race is between whether you think it’s more important for you and your family to retain someone who’s been there for 43 years or to elect someone who will be there for the next 20,” he said.
Former state treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who also hasn’t taken sides, said Democrats are torn. “People see Ed Markey as the longtime Democratic soldier who has stuck his neck out on issues like the environment when it wasn’t necessarily as big an issue,” she said. “But then Joe Kennedy is considered the future of the Democratic Party. I think that’s been the dilemma for a lot of people.”
Kennedy has been much more successful at transitioning the race to the online world. In just the past week, his campaign said it has recorded 1.1 million engagements with his Facebook posts — likes, shares, or comments — compared with only 31,000 for Markey’s Facebook feed.
How that big digital disparity will translate when it comes to votes in the September 1 primary is unclear.
“There’s no playbook for a race like this,” said O’Brien, the UMass Boston political scientist. That’s not just because the race is taking place amidst a pandemic that has upended conventional campaigning, she said, but also because Kennedy clearly is a threat to knock off an incumbent whose views he largely shares and who isn’t dogged by scandal.
That context would make most officeholders a lock for reelection. For all his decades in Congress, however, Markey was not particularly well-known outside the House district he represented covering suburbs north of Boston before being elected to the Senate seven years ago. What’s more, his opponent brings a name that still registers deeply in a state where no Kennedy has ever lost an election.
“A year or two ago Kennedy came to campus, and I was struck that his name still had real cachet for students who had only a vague memory of Ted Kennedy,” said O’Brien, the UMass professor.
With less than 100 days to go, the race is beginning to move out of pandemic hibernation. On Monday night, Markey and Kennedy face each other in a televised debate in Springfield. A week later they’ll meet in another television debate.
Voters are also already seeing Kennedy in early television ads, part of a $1.2 million blitz his campaign launched in early May.
Polls have had Kennedy with a lead from the start, and that’s remained true in two recent surveys, but there is little agreement on its size. An Emerson College poll in early May showed Kennedy with a 16-point lead. A University of Massachusetts Lowell poll around the same time pegged the race as a virtual dead heat, with Kennedy up by 2 points, but had a much larger margin of error.“It’s probably somewhere between that,” Nick Clemons, Kennedy’s campaign manager, said of the two poll results.
“I suspect this is going to be right down to the wire,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “Each side’s advantages are real.”