Kennedy vs. Markey is no Pressley vs. Capuano
Usual dynamics reversed with challenge from the middle
ON SATURDAY, Rep. Joe Kennedy formally announced his campaign to challenge Sen. Ed Markey in next year’s Democratic primary. Rumors of a Kennedy run have been swirling since earlier this summer, and with them comparisons to Ayanna Pressley’s successful 2018 primary bid against Mike Capuano. While both Pressley and Kennedy represent a generational shift, the similarities end there. If Pressley ran at Capuano from the left, Kennedy and the district he represents are a little more to the center than Markey and the state as a whole.
The 7th Congressional District now represented by Pressley is a bit of an outlier in Massachusetts politics. It is the state’s only majority-minority district by residential population (its registered voters are still majority white). An MPG analysis of voter file data finds that registered voters in the 7th are 53 percent white, 58 percent under the age of 45, and 51 percent registered Democrats. Statewide, voters are 84 percent white, 42 percent under age 45, and 32 percent registered Democratic. The 4th Congressional District, which Kennedy currently represents, is a little whiter, older, and less Democratic still.
As the party registration statistics suggest, the 7th is by far the most liberal district in the state. Take stock of its elected representatives, from Pressley to State House reps and even Boston city councilors, and you’ll name some of the most liberal figures in Massachusetts politics. The Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the national average. The 7th is the most Democratic district in the state by far (and the 15th most in the entire country), with a PVI of D+34. Kennedy’s 4th District, by contrast, is a D+9. Ed Markey’s old House district, now represented by Rep. Katherine Clark, has a PVI of D+18.
The ideology of the state’s delegation roughly aligns with the partisan lean of their districts. According to GovTrack, which analyzes congressional voting records from the most recent Congress, Kennedy is solidly in the ideological middle of the Democratic caucus as a whole. He’s actually the third most conservative member from the Massachusetts, after Seth Moulton and Richard Neal. While no data are yet available for Ayanna Pressley, the member she beat, Michael Capuano, was the third most liberal member of the delegation, after Clark and Jim McGovern.
These ideological rankings suggest the 2020 Senate race will be a very different campaign than last year’s 7th District tilt. Typically, a Democratic challenger runs to the left of an incumbent, banking on turnout from hardcore partisans. So it was with Pressley and Capuano. Here, the roles are reversed. Markey is the more liberal candidate, while Kennedy comes into the race with a more middle-of-the-road record (for a Massachusetts Democrat), and from a slightly less Democratic leaning part of the state.
As the challenger, Kennedy has one thing that Pressley never did: a lead in the polls. A recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows Kennedy with a 14-point lead over Markey in a head-to-head match-up among primary voters. While 29 percent of voters say they are undecided, Kennedy’s name recognition rivals Markey’s, and his favorables are better than the sitting senator’s. Famously, Ayanna Pressley proved that polls, especially well out from election day, can be overcome. But a year out from the primary Kennedy has quite a head start.
Ever since Seth Moulton knocked off the scandal-damaged John Tierney in 2014, young Massachusetts Democrats have been emboldened to toss party decorum aside in the name of vitality. However, just as Pressley’s race was not seen as a repeat of Moulton’s performance, Kennedy’s challenge should not be viewed as a rerun of Pressley’s race.Each campaign has its own players, terrain, challenges, and opportunities. In a state as blue as Massachusetts, it’s easy to paint with a broad brush, but the candidate who understands the subtle shading of the state’s Democrats may eventually win the day.
Maeve Duggan and Richard Parr are research directors at the MassINC Polling Group.