Kennedy vs. Markey- Why Now?

Jacquelyn Martin

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. speaks about the Grand Canyon, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, in Washington, prior to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a twenty year ban on new mining claims near the Grand Canyon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)


On September 21, 2019, Joseph P. Kennedy III announced that he was running for the Senate instead of retaining his seat as Congressman in the Fourth Congressional District in Massachusetts.  What makes the decision unusual is that he will be challenging a sitting Democrat incumbent- Ed Markey.  Kennedy is the grandson of Robert Kennedy and grand-nephew of JFK.  His father, Joe Kennedy II, served in Congress before him and he himself has served four terms in the House.

It is not as if Ed Markey has done anything wrong within the Democrat caucus in the Senate.  In fact, he has done everything quite right.  He sponsored the Senate version of the Green New Deal and won praise from the Leftist base of the party for that action.  According to Morning Consult, he has a 51% approval rating in the state against 25% disapproval- numbers that almost guarantee reelection barring some unforeseen scandal or action.  Although 73 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down and unlike Biden, does not appear or sound senile.

So why is Kennedy challenging Markey?  Part of the equation is ambition and when talking about a Kennedy from Massachusetts, ambition defines that family.  In strong blue (or red) states, the ladder to the top is often blocked by long-time serving incumbents, like Markey who has been serving in Congress since when Jimmy Carter was president.  While the probability of knocking off Markey is low, the chances are not zero, especially when you have the Kennedy surname in Massachusetts.

Likewise, being a strong blue state, the Democrat bench is deep in the Bay State.  Some have noted that high-powered state attorney general Maura Healy and Congresscritters Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley are politicians-in-waiting.  If Kennedy waits beyond 2020, it could be another 4-6 years before he gets another chance.  By then, these other politicians will have burnished their credibility and become even more formidable.  Perhaps something or someone told Kennedy that Markey was vulnerable and/or that waiting would lessen his Senate chances in the future.

Also, Kennedy possesses a better ability to channel populist Democrat anger than does Markey.  Markey is more a policy wonk and less inspiring and more technocratic.  Despite his constant harping on climate change, his legislative legacy is telecommunications policy which is hardly the stuff that ignites a rabid Leftist base.  Kennedy most likely senses a visceral anger with Trump among the Democrat base in Massachusetts.  They want their Senator to be more combative.  Markey really does not fit that mold.

Yet, reality has to be considered here.  Since 1992, 36 incumbent Senators faced a primary challenger who managed to pull in at least 30% of the vote.  Regardless, 75% of the incumbents prevailed.  Where they did not, there were extraneous reasons- scandal, advanced age (greater than 80), or they were appointed due to a vacancy and never really ran for the Senate seat.  Others were challenged by a candidate with vast ideological differences.

Absolutely none of these dynamics are in play in this contest in 2020.  The voting records of Markey and Kennedy in their respective chambers of Congress match up almost perfectly.  Additionally, in only six instances over three decades has a sitting Congressman relinquished his seat in the House to challenge an incumbent Senator from the same party for that Senate seat.

One must also consider whether and if Kennedy should pull off the almost impossible.  In two of the nine instances where an incumbent lost a primary to a challenger, two of them went on to win their seat back as an independent- Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in 2006, and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska in 2010.  It is doubtful Markey, at age 73, would choose that option to run as an independent.

And there is some credibility to the possibility of a Kennedy victory.  Some consider Markey the most vulnerable of any incumbent to a primary challenge within his own party.  One poll shows Kennedy leading Markey 42%-28%.  When more names are added to the mix, the lead shrinks somewhat.  Shannon Rios-Jordan, for example, is another candidate challenging Markey in the primary and she has generated support from the grassroots, more radical Left in Massachusetts.

In response to the Kennedy announcement, Markey shook up his staff in December anticipating a tough fight.  It should also be noted that virtually every one of the state’s nine-member delegation in the House is a Democrat and they have drawn primary challengers.  The inspiration seems to be Ayanna Pressley who, like AOC in New York, upset an incumbent (Mike Capuano) in a primary challenge.  As one observer of Massachusetts politics, Robert Boatright of Clark University, said: “Plenty of older, white, not-all-that charismatic Democrats in safe Democratic places have opponents.”

Is that what Kennedy fears in 2020?  Win, lose or draw, in Massachusetts, he can always fall back on his name.