Markey trounces Kennedy in Senate primary

Veteran pol steamrolls challenger from state’s storied political family

OUT OF TRAGEDY an enduring image was crafted that likened the Kennedy hold on the public imagination to the magic of a “brief shining moment.” For voters in Massachusetts at least, that moment lasted more than six decades. 

But it ended Tuesday night in a race of striking role reversals, as Sen. Ed Markey, a 74-year-old Washington fixture, rode a wave of young insurgent energy to defeat 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy, who was not even born when Markey arrived in Congress but was unable to sell himself as the candidate of change who would take on the status quo.  

Markey, who started the race in the unusual position of being an incumbent underdog, roared back over the summer with the support of party loyalists, more affluent liberals, and young voters and wound up trouncing Kennedy in the Democratic Senate primary.

Incomplete returns available Tuesday night had Markey with 54 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 46 percent. 

It marked the first time a Kennedy has lost an election in Massachusetts, and underscores the fading clout of the storied family name in the state that launched three of its sons to national and international renown. 

Speaking just after 11 pm from the Malden Public Library, where he said he learned to read and later studied as a commuter student at Boston College, Markey invoked his working-class roots and offered a tribute to young activists who became a key drivers of the “Markeyverse,” the largely online campaign he was forced to operate because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Tonight’s victory is a tribute to those young people and their vision,” Markey said. “They will save us if we trust them. We must look to them, listen to them, we must follow these young people.” 

About 30 minutes earlier, Kennedy addressed disappointed supporters outside his Watertown headquarters.

“Obviously these results are not the ones that we were hoping for,” he said.

Kennedy said his campaign was focused on speaking up for those often pushed the margins. We built a campaign for the people that our politics often locks out and leaves behind,” he said. “We built a campaign for working folks of every color and every creed, who carry the economic injustice of this country on their backs.”

Markey will be heavily favored to retain his seat in the November election when he will face Republican Kevin O’Connor, a Dover attorney and first-time candidate.

Early on, Markey hitched his fortunes to the idea that, despite his age and years in Washington, he was the true change agent and champion of progressive causes in the race. That message was hammered home in no small part by his most significant supporter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey teamed up to cosponsor the Green New Deal with the 30-year-old New Yorker, who became the youngest woman ever elected to the House when she toppled a Democratic incumbent two years ago. Ocasio-Cortez has become the de facto national leader of the Democratic Party’s insurgent new left, and Markey wanted everyone to know they were as good as joined at the hip. 

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says that Ed Markey is the generational change which we need in our country,” Markey said in an early June televised debate with Kennedy. “It’s the age of your ideas that are important.” 

Markey touted his long record championing environmental causes, fighting nuclear proliferation before it was fashionable, supporting health care expansion, and standing up against the gun lobby. There was little of substance to distinguish his progressive positions from those of his challenger, and Kennedy struggled to make a convincing case for voters to throw Markey out. 

His victory marked a stunning turnaround. In early September of last year, before Kennedy officially jumped in the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed him with a 14-point lead over Markey in a potential primary matchup. Another poll in late August of last year had Kennedy with a 17-point lead. 

In a June 2019 Boston Globe/Suffolk poll, 36 percent of Massachusetts voters either had never heard of Markey or had no opinion, favorable or unfavorable, about him. In a poll three months later of likely Democratic primary voters that number was down to 24 percent, but hardly a reassuring sign for an elected official who has been in the state’s congressional delegation since Gerald Ford was president. 

While Markey may have been well-known to the swath of voters in the House district he represented for more than 35 years, he only became a statewide officeholder in 2013 with his election to the Senate, and has often been overshadowed since then by the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren. 

With Markey’s lack of strong statewide standing, and Kennedy’s name giving him instant recognition far beyond his House district, it looked as if voters might almost view the race as a contest for an open seat, rather than a referendum on a well-known incumbent. 

What Kennedy’s campaign didn’t seem to recognize until it was too late was that the blank-slate quality to Markey’s profile for many voters also meant he had lots of running room to introduce himself to a statewide electorate.

“Ed Markey has been in a unique position to kind of reframe himself as the way that voters see him right now,” said Politico’s Stephanie Murray on last week’s episode of The Codcast. “He took his greatest weakness and turned it into one of his biggest strengths.”

If the Kennedys have long tapped the powerful effects of mythologizing, Markey’s campaign showed that they could play the game, too. 

Over the course of the campaign, Markey’s public image underwent a remarkable reinvention. He was transformed from a blue-suited Beltway lifer into a retro cult figure, sort of hip — in an endearingly dorky way. He became the aging uncle rocking a septuagenarian’s idea of cool, with khakis and a classic pair of worn Nikes his go-to get-up. 

The new Markey imagery helped drive the idea that the Malden-born milkman’s son was the natural ally of young environmental activists and older issue-focused suburban liberals.  

An Emerson College poll conducted in late August had Markey with support of 70 percent of likely primary voters aged 18 to 29. 

Former congressman Barney Frank had voiced misgivings about Kennedy challenging an incumbent fellow Democrat. But when he marveled recently at the Markey makeover he seemed to suggest it didn’t involve just shrewd strategizing but a bit of dissembling to boot. 

“Markey has done a very skillful job of reinventing himself — as a politician I have admiration for the skill he’s done it with,” Frank, who remained neutral in the race, told the New York Times earlier this week. “He was to Pelosi’s right,” he said of the suddenly ultra progressive Markey’s positions compared with those of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed Kennedy with less than two weeks remaining the race.

Markey also seemed to benefit from a strong sensibility among voters that was resentful of Kennedy’s privilege and questioned his ability to champion the causes of the little guy. 

Though Markey has been more associated in recent years with his comfortable life in a tony Maryland suburb than the Malden neighborhood of his youth that critics said he rarely visited, he was back to his roots for much of the campaign. When Globe columnist Joan Vennochi decided to pop by his modest Malden home one day in early June, she was surprised to see Markey in the driveway. “Welcome to the compound,” he quipped, a not-too-subtle reference to the famous Kennedy spread on Cape Cod.  

Lydia Edwards, an African American Boston city councilor, penned an op-ed last week in the Boston Herald suggesting her ability to identify with Markey made a big difference. “I see myself in Ed,” she wrote, likening his working-class roots to her own upbringing by a single mother who struggled to provide for her and her twin sister. She voiced “deep respect and admiration” for Kennedy and his family. “But, I, like so many people, will never be a Kennedy. I am, however, an Ed, We all are,” she wrote, “when you think about the workers, the immigrants, those of us that are striving to honor our parents’ sacrifices and achieve more than they could.” 

Kennedy could never decide how to handle the double-edged sword of his famous name. Waving off talk of a famous lineage is always something of a twofer: You seem intent on being judged on your own merits, while reaping the benefits of your name anyway. 

A series of jabs at the family brand by Markey, including a campaign ad that turned JFK’s inaugural call to national service on its head — and darker attacks that emerged on social media — put the Kennedy name front and center in the closing weeks of the race. It prompted Kennedy to swing into full family-identity mode. “For Joe Kennedy, this fight is in his blood,” read one campaign flier showing side-by-side pictures of Kennedy and his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy. 

He made it clear he was proud to claim the legacy of his grandfather and great uncles JFK and Ted Kennedy. But there was also an air of desperation in the shift, a sense that his forebears’ images had been stored behind a pane reading, “break glass in emergency.” 

It was just over a week after her husband’s assassination in November 1963 that Jackie Kennedy gave an interview at the family’s Hyannisport compound to Theodore White, the Dorchester-born chronicler of US presidential elections. It was there that the lasting image of the Kennedy mystique was born when she told White that a favorite line of her late husband’s was from a musical that ended a successful run on Broadway earlier that year. 

“The lines he loved to hear were, ‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot,’” she told White.

The Kennedy mystique grew under Joe Kennedy’s grandfather, whose focus on the poor and minority communities Kennedy tried to replicate in his Senate run. 

Kennedy struggled from start to fashion a strong rationale for his campaign to take out a well-respected progressive Democrat. Many observers thought the driving force was not that complicated. 

“I honestly think it’s about ego and political ambition,” Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, said in late May. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as a campaign slogan, ‘I want this seat’ isn’t that compelling.”

Kennedy hinged his whole run on the idea that he has “shown up” for people and communities often overlooked by Markey. It seemed to have poignant resonance when Kennedy spoke of his efforts on behalf of a black Easton family’s quest for more answers concerning the police killing of their son. The young man’s father, Danroy Henry, accused Markey of being disengaged when he met with him. 

But Kennedy was unable to get significant traction out of the somewhat nebulous “showing up” theme, a message that his campaign unhelpfully muddled when it accused Markey of ignoring several towns that had, in fact, been abandoned and flooded over decades ago to create the Quabbin Reservoir. Further undermining the message that Kennedy is closer to the ground was a union ad for him last week in the Worcester Telegram that misspelled the name of the state’s second-largest city. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

With Kennedy’s hold on Massachusetts voters looking increasingly tenuous as the race progressed, he looked to working-class voters and minority communities, where his support seemed to remain strong. Kennedy, a former Peace Corps worker who is fluent in Spanish, continued to try to channel his grandfather’s strong bond with those groups, focusing a lot of his attention in recent weeks in the state’s Gateway Cities. 

The campaign hoped that the message that “Joe shows up” would lead enough voters in those communities to do the same for him at the polls. In the end, not enough of them did.