In one of the most widely watched Democratic primaries of the 2020 cycle, on Tuesday night 74-year-old Sen. Ed Markey cruised to victory against 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy. The win represented the first time a Kennedy has ever lost an election in Massachusetts, and now with his House seat also on the ticket tonight, he’ll soon be out of elected office altogether. With 32 percent of precincts reporting, Markey had a 10-point lead with 55 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 45 percent, and Kennedy has conceded the race. At least $29 million was spent between the two candidates for the safe blue seat.
For the last 12 months, voters and reporters have pressed Kennedy to explain why he was running in the first place, since his policy positions largely mirror Markey’s and Democrats are under great pressure to focus energy — and cash — on reclaiming the White House and Senate. His answer largely boiled to the idea that he felt he could “leverage” a Senate seat better than the incumbent, that there’s more to being in the upper chamber than bills you sponsor and the votes you cast.
While Kennedy acknowledged that he has not used his platform in the House of Representatives to bring national attention to policy issues like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ayanna Pressley, he has said he’s leveraged his time in the House by traveling across the country during the 2018 midterm cycle to help raise nearly $5 million for other Democratic candidates and flip the House. He served then as a regional Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee vice chair and stumped for candidates in at least 15 states and Washington, D.C.
But as The Intercept previously reported, this commitment to unseating Republicans represented a shift for the Massachusetts congressman, who, when he began his time in Washington, was not as keen to build Democratic power in the House. He would make a point to defend his tea party colleagues, even in the midst of the 2013 government shutdown, and after the Democrats lost more seats in the 2014 midterms, he quickly rejected the idea that he could help lead the DCCC going into 2016. “It’s an important job,” Kennedy told the Boston Globe at the time. “But it’s not something that interests me. If I do the job right, I would be finding ways to beat those guys.”
Massachusetts voters didn’t seem to buy it, and many speculated that the bid was driven by Kennedy calculating his chances of entering the Senate. Massachusetts has no shortage of strong Senate hopefuls waiting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to find a place in a potential Biden administration. Both Pressley and state Attorney General Maura Healey are widely assumed to be interested in running in an open seat, and Kennedy’s chances against those women are much slimmer than his shot at ousting Markey appeared to be as he geared up for the run. As young as Kennedy is, it was now or never for him.
There were clear signs that Kennedy’s campaign was growing more desperate in the final month of the race. While he had spent most of his political career trying to prove that he was more than just a guy who coasted to power on his famous surname, leading up to Election Day he regularly invoked his family’s political legacy and reminded Massachusetts voters of his beloved heritage.
Markey, on the other hand, took the unusual step of doubling down on attacks against Kennedy’s family, long a sacred cow in Massachusetts politics. Throughout August, Markey contrasted the wealth and privilege of Kennedy’s upbringing with his own modest childhood. In a viral campaign video released mid-month, Markey says, “It’s time to start asking what your country can do for you” — a jab at Kennedy’s famous great-uncle, John F. Kennedy.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who came out with a late-stage endorsement of Kennedy, cited the digs against the Kennedy clan as motivating her endorsement. “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family,” she told the Washington Post. “Joe didn’t ask me to endorse him,” she added, “but I felt an imperative to do so.” Pelosi had donated $5,000 to Kennedy’s campaign earlier in August, and $5,000 to Markey’s campaign in 2019.
Following Pelosi’s endorsement — which was slammed by progressives who thought it was hypocritical that she backed a primary challenger in the Senate given her opposition to primary challengers in her chamber — Markey nabbed new House endorsements from House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler and House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney. Ocasio-Cortez, who co-authored the Green New Deal resolution with Markey, has also been campaigning for him all year. Kennedy’s campaign said it raised $100,000 immediately after Pelosi’s endorsement, while Markey’s campaign said it raised more than $300,000 during that same period.
Another sign that Kennedy’s campaign seemed to be flailing was the amount of energy he spent in August decrying “cyberbullying” from some of Markey’s online supporters, an unmistakable reference to the kinds of attacks Sen. Bernie Sanders received from his opponents during the 2020 presidential primary. Kennedy’s campaign accused the Markey camp of encouraging the attacks and repeatedly pressed the Senator to condemn online trolls. Kennedy also beefed up his security detail in light of what he described as increasing death threats.
Trying to tie Markey supporters to the image of hostile “Bernie Bros” may have been an attempt to try and win supporters of Warren who, while still brooding over the presidential primary and how they were treated, supported Markey this primary en masse. Polls throughout the campaign showed Markey doing best with affluent, college-educated, suburban voters, the same sort of demographic that Warren excelled with. Kennedy, by contrast, polled better among lower-income voters, rural and Black voters, and those without a college education. Sanders notably declined to endorse Markey in the primary.
With the help of an army of progressive activists, Markey transformed the narrative around his candidacy from where it stood a year ago. Last July, before Kennedy jumped into the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed that 45 percent of likely voters in the state were undecided about supporting Markey for reelection and 14 percent said they had never heard of him. Two months later, in September 2019, another Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found Kennedy ahead by 14 points in a Senate head-to-head, and more Massachusetts voters viewed Kennedy as the more liberal candidate and a better fighter for Democratic priorities than Markey.
Polls started to suggest the race was tightening by the spring, when a UMass-Lowell poll released in early May showed Kennedy up by just 2 points. Although another poll released around the same time showed Markey trailing by 16 points, the UMass-Lowell one was enough to allow the incumbent to start running ads framing himself as a surging underdog. By August, a flurry of new polls showed Markey in the lead, with margins of 2 points, 10 points, 8 points, and 12 points, respectively.
The decision by the millennial left, led by Sunrise Movement, to make Markey its top priority of the cycle did not come without costs, as it drained resources that could have gone into other competitive Senate primaries — including in Delaware, where Sen. Chris Coons, who is openly hostile to the party’s progressive flank, is facing a spirited challenge from the left — or into House races like Alex Morse’s challenge to Ways and Means Chair Richie Neal or that of Robbie Goldstein, who launched a viable but largely overlooked challenge against a Democrat opposed to single-payer health care. Even Ihssane Leckey, a would-be Squad member in Kennedy’s district, could have been more competitive with some national attention, but on Tuesday night she wasn’t in the top three candidates.
Choosing Markey, though, sent a message to Democratic incumbents that the new generation of activists does not consider age or length of service disqualifying credentials. This ought to have been clear given the youth support for the presidential campaigns of Sanders, yet it still seemed to mystify pundits covering the race, who marveled that young people were somehow not supporting the young person.