Markey defeats Kennedy in Massachusetts Senate race


Rep. Joe Kennedy III fell short in his bid to unseat incumbent Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey on Tuesday, ending a fractious Democratic primary by becoming the first member of the Kennedy family to lose an election in the state.

Kennedy, 39, attempted to portray himself as the change candidate against the 74-year-old Markey, who has only held the Senate seat since 2013 but began representing Massachusetts in the House in 1976. When Kennedy first launched his campaign, polling showed him ahead of Markey, a relative unknown compared to some of the other names to recently represent the Bay State in the Senate (Ed Kennedy, John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren).

But Markey surged with the help of grassroots energy and youthful support, boosted by an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his ally on the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez appeared in a widely seen TV ad for Markey and urged supporters to phone bank for him, tweeting on Election Day: “It’s not your age that counts — it’s the age of your ideas.”

The Sunrise Movement, a youth climate change organization, also threw its support to Markey.

"Ed Markey might not be from our generation, but he is the candidate of our generation because whether it’s racial justice or climate change or COVID, he’s shown he’s ready to stand up to corporations and the fossil fuel industry and fight for our generation and working families,” Stevie O’Hanlon, the Sunrise Movement’s communications director, told Yahoo News.

Warren, Markey’s Senate colleague who mounted an unsuccessful presidential bid this year, endorsed him before Kennedy was even in the race, but had essentially stayed out of the fray until earlier this summer. Markey also received the endorsement of the Boston Globe, which wrote, “Kennedy has not made a persuasive case for removing Markey.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Ed Markey
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., with Sen. Ed Markey. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Markey combined appeals to his working-class upbringing (citing his father’s job as a milkman) with a strong digital campaign that capitalized on the enthusiasm generated by the Ocasio-Cortez endorsement and his record on climate change. In mid-August, Markey released a 3-minute biographical video that was viewed more than 3 million times.

Kennedy argued that while he and Markey agreed on many issues, it was he that could be counted on to work for liberal progressive goals for many years — implying that Markey was nearing the end of his career anyway. He won the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In the race’s closing weeks, Kennedy countered Markey’s attempts to portray him as entitled and overly ambitious with accusations that Markey was out of step on racial issues and was papering over a more conservative past.

Kennedy had tried to hit Markey on a number of his past votes — including his support of the 1994 crime bill and the Iraq War — while claiming that he simply hasn’t done enough to leverage his role as senator. Kennedy has also been critical of Markey on various other issues, including missing congressional votes and for opposing busing desegregation in the 1970s.

Kennedy, the son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy II and grandson of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, has aspired for years to continue his family’s legacy.

A win would have represented a chance to restore a sense of vigor to the family name, to rebuild some of its lost luster. It has been over a decade since the death of former Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the so-called Lion of the Senate. But even Teddy, as he was known, had to work many years as a legislator to achieve something akin in national stature to what his brothers had achieved as president and attorney general.

And a new Kennedy as senator, one with a spotless personal record, would have been able to graft a reputation for personal integrity on to that of a skilled lawmaker. Ted Kennedy’s personal life achieved a large measure of redemption in his later years after he met his second wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, but his checkered past haunted him in the minds of many Americans.

Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy III
Sen. Ed Markey debates Kennedy on Aug. 18. (Barry Chin/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In contrast, even as far back as Joe Kennedy III’s college days, he abstained from alcohol entirely, drinking only milk.

But Kennedy’s ambition was easily portrayed as entitlement. The American electorate, with a deep populist streak, proved especially challenging this year for the Kennedy scion. Decades of loss of trust in institutions and other factors created an egalitarian ethic that views the past with more skepticism.

Even his name, with “the third” as suffix, could be conceived as more fitting for a bygone era of hereditary wealth and privilege.

Markey’s attempts to use the Kennedy name against the congressman seemed to slightly backfire at first. Pelosi jumped into the race and endorsed Kennedy after the incumbent turned one of John F. Kennedy’s most famous and venerated speeches upside down.

In his 1961 inaugural address, President Kennedy closed his speech to the nation by calling on a spirit of volunteerism: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

In August, Markey’s campaign video ended with Markey saying, “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out. We did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

Pelosi endorsed Kennedy in part in response to Markey’s attack. “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family, and I thought Joe didn’t ask me to endorse him, but I felt an imperative,” she said.

Any regret Markey may have felt over the tactic faded in the final days of the campaign. He repeated the line in his final rally the night before Election Day.


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Originally published