BOSTON — Joe Kennedy was once thought to be such a lock to defeat Sen. Ed Markey that there was widespread speculation in Massachusetts that Markey might just retire to avoid a humbling end.
But Markey is piling up endorsements and closing in on the young congressman in the polls by running a policy-heavy campaign that seems tailored for the moment. There’s growing sentiment that Kennedy underestimated the backlash he’d face for challenging the veteran incumbent, who has become beloved among progressives for his work on the Green New Deal.
“What Markey hadn’t done in the past was flex his muscles, flex his policy muscles.” said Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos. “Now he’s doing that and I think Kennedy is realizing policy runs deep in Massachusetts. Personality and persona are important too, but in Massachusetts policy runs very deep.”
Markey’s once-lackluster approval rating and name ID helped explain why two lesser-known Democrats — Shannon Liss-Riordan and Steve Pemberton — launched primary challenges to the low-key incumbent. But they dropped out when Kennedy, the heir to the state’s best-known political dynasty, entered the contest in September. Right away, Kennedy bolted to an early lead: A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed him with a 14-point lead over Markey even before he officially announced his campaign.
But authoring the Green New Deal earned Markey the very public support of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the Democratic Party’s leading millennial. Ocasio-Cortez cut a television ad for Markey at the end of July, and the campaign has spent more than $240,000 putting it on the air.
Markey also has the backing of another of the party’s leading liberals, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — the policy wonk of the 2020 presidential primary. Warren, the state’s senior senator, has sent fundraising emails for Markey, but is close with Kennedy and has stayed relatively quiet over the course of the primary.
Markey’s campaign has made his policy record central to his bid. The lawmaker, who was first elected to the House in 1976 touts his work on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed the House in 2009, and a host of other issues.
“I could keep going on and on, because I have more than 500 laws that are on the books,” Markey said during a recent interview on the podcast “Lovett or Leave It.”
Markey’s decades long record has also presented an opportunity to his rival in the Sept. 1 primary. The Kennedy campaign has slammed Markey on his vote for the Iraq War, his vote for the 1994 crime bill and his past stance against abortion.
More recently, Kennedy has hammered Markey for not doing more to support the family of Danroy “DJ“ Henry Jr., an Easton, Mass., native who was killed by police in 2010. Henry’s family is pushing the Department of Justice to reopen his case in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
Henry’s father, Danroy Henry, released a video saying he felt dismissed by Markey when he asked for help after his son’s death. Kennedy brought Henry’s parents as his guests to the State of the Union in 2015.
But from the start, Kennedy failed to establish a clear reason for voters to unseat Markey, some Kennedy supporters concede.
After spending $2.4 million on TV ads this spring, the congressman quietly replaced his ad consultant with Tad Devine in July. Devine is a longtime Kennedy ally, known for producing award-winning television ads for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the congressman’s great uncle.
Allies express concern that Kennedy’s campaign is getting worse — not better. Even after a strong debate performance last month, a series of campaign gaffes took the spotlight off Kennedy’s message and placed it on his mistakes.
In the hours before the July debate, Kennedy’s campaign tried to underscore its theme that Markey doesn’t spend enough time in the state by sending a memo to reporters suggesting the senator was so out of touch that he was unfamiliar with the state map. But the Kennedy campaign made an embarrassing error: They blasted Markey for leaving three towns off his website without realizing that those towns had been flooded to create a reservoir in the 1930s. The map mistake went viral, and ended up on the front page of the Boston Herald.
The next day, the Boston Globe ran a story that showed, based on travel records, that Markey is in Massachusetts less than any member of the state’s congressional delegation. But that report — which underscored a key Kennedy argument — was blunted when the Globe’s editorial board endorsed Markey in the same edition of the paper. The Kennedy campaign penned another memo, this time to campaign supporters, blasting the Globe for protecting the status quo for its “disproportionately white, well-off, well-educated readers.”
Kennedy allies who spoke to POLITICO expressed frustration that the letter simply drew more attention to the Globe endorsement — and buried the Markey travel records story.
Kennedy’s campaign pushes back on claims that he’s lost his wide polling margin. They contend early internal polling never showed him with such a wide lead over Markey.
It’s hard to know who is ahead in the race — there’s a public polling drought in Massachusetts, where the Globe and other outlets have pooled resources to poll issues related to Covid-19 and police brutality, rather than a Senate contest where the seat is all-but-certain to remain in Democratic hands in November.
A late July survey from Louisiana pollster JMC Analytics showed Markey with a lead within the margin of error; both campaigns acknowledge a tight race and give Kennedy the edge at the moment.
With voters already casting ballots for the Sept. 1 primary as part of the state’s coronavirus-inspired vote by mail program, both candidates have a limited amount of time to make their case.
There is one debate left on the calendar before the end of the month, but outside money might prove to be just as important as the face-to-face encounters.
Single-issue climate groups — including the Environment America Action Fund and another super PAC called United for Massachusetts — have spent nearly $3 million boosting Markey’s campaign.
A pro-Kennedy group called New Leadership PAC has reserved $2.5 million in television ads, according to the Globe. Members of the Kennedy family are making fundraising calls for the endeavor, including his twin brother.
“They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t in their own polling see the race was either flipping to Markey or within the margin of error,” said Paleologos. “Kennedy’s going to have to make the decision, ‘Do I go negative on Markey?'”
And he has. The pro-Kennedy super PAC just began airing an attack ad against Markey, which points out votes he missed in the Senate. The Kennedy campaign has also put out an online-only ad featuring a union member who is dressed like Markey, walking around Markey’s hometown of Malden and criticizing him for eliminating union jobs through the Telecommunications Act.
With the race in the home stretch, many in state political circles wonder whether Kennedy’s father, former Rep. Joe Kennedy II, may shift the $2.8 million in his now-defunct campaign account to his son’s Senate bid. The super PAC won’t file another disclosure until after the primary.
“I’m sure your father’s watching right now. Tell your father right now that you don’t want money to go into a super PAC that runs negative ads,” Markey said in their most recent debate. “Just tell your twin brother and tell your father you don’t want any money to be spent on negative ads in Massachusetts.”
“I’ve said that multiple times,” Kennedy responded.
“Have you told your father that?” Markey hit back.
Even with an infusion of additional funds, Kennedy allies worry that time is running out for the congressman to sharpen his message.
“All serious campaigns are about savoring the good days and surviving the bad,” said political consultant Michael Goldman, who is neutral in the primary race but worked for Kennedy’s father. “Anyone who didn’t think this race would have its ups and downs doesn’t understand the dynamics of Massachusetts politics.”