CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (CN) — As Massachusetts voters go to the polls in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary, there’s a sense that they might do something that was once unthinkable: reject a Kennedy.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III, a grandson of Robert Kennedy, is vying for the Senate seat once held by his grand-uncles John and Ted. He’s trying to unseat Ed Markey, a longtime veteran of the House who won a 2013 special election to replace Senator John Kerry when he became secretary of state.
But many voters say the Camelot era is over.
“We don’t need any more Kennedys,” said Dan Thomas, one of many voters in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, who told Courthouse News that they’re choosing Markey, best known as the lead sponsor of the Green New Deal along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“There’s not much point in bringing in a less experienced person just because his name is Kennedy,” said Paul Stansifer, who voted just steps from the Harvard campus where Joe Kennedy and seven of his famous relatives graduated.
“I don’t like political dynasties,” added Graham Noblit.
Although Kennedy had a 17-point lead in an early poll around the time he announced his bid, he was trailing by 12 points in the latest survey conducted by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion. Another poll released last week showed Markey with an 8-point lead.
“Markey’s not a great senator, but he’s a known quantity,” said Rosie Sarafoudi, who is worried that Kennedy would use the Senate seat merely as a stepping-stone to the presidency “like his uncle.”
A redheaded 39-year-old, Kennedy billed himself early on in the campaign as representing a generational change from the 74-year-old Markey — a move reminiscent of President Kennedy’s promise in his nomination speech of “a new generation of leadership.”
But it turned out that many younger voters feel more in tune with Markey and his focus on progressive issues such as climate change.
“The Green New Deal is very important to me,” said Jessica Bryant, a younger voter who supports Markey.
Although a MassINC poll from October 2019 showed that 70% of voters under age 30 had no opinion or had never heard of Markey, a recent UMass Amherst poll showed Markey leading among young people by an astonishing 51 points. And young people have been active in supporting Markey on social media.
Ironically, the argument for generational change seems to work best with an older generation. Anne Quirk, who is on the Democratic Committee in Belmont, a suburb of Boston, said she’s voting for Kennedy because Markey would be 80 at the end of his term and she’s concerned about the “gerontocracy” in Congress. But she added, “I suspect my children are all voting for Markey.”
Sally Johnson said her 89-year-old mother voted for Kennedy “because she wants to bring back Camelot and the 1960s.” Johnson chose Markey.
Markey “has voted in favor of the younger generation all his life,” Johnson explained.
Fred Dow said he likes Markey because “he’s an elder statesman — there’s a value to time and maturity.”
Many voters said they saw no reason to make a change. “What’s the point of challenging a progressive?” asked Thomas, who said Kennedy offered nothing new or different and simply represented “120 years of privilege.”
“Do we need a change? My answer is a decisive no,” added Bruce Leslie-Pritchard.
Because Kennedy and Markey have similar stands on the issues, Leslie-Pritchard compared the race to Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 primary challenge to 10-term incumbent Mike Capuano.
“But in that race, there was a reason to make a change,” Leslie-Pritchard said. “We need more Black women in Congress. But it’s not like we need more redheads in Congress.”
Pivoting away from young people, Kennedy has recently aimed his campaign at lower-income, minority and rural voters, claiming that Markey simply isn’t focused on them.
“There is so much more that is needed at this moment than just someone who files the right bill and says that’s enough,” Kennedy said at a debate.
Markey shot back at another debate, calling Kennedy “a progressive in name only.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has had her own disagreements with Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed Kennedy, whom she selected in 2018 to deliver the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address. But former Vice President Al Gore has publicly backed Markey, as did the Boston Globe.
The race has galvanized the state. As of last Wednesday some 650,000 people had already voted, surpassing the total for all presidential-year primaries since 1992, noted Debra O’Malley at the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office.
And that’s true even though Massachusetts held its presidential primary earlier this year and there are no other statewide races on the ballot.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the race is that, 11 years after Ted Kennedy’s death, Markey has successfully used the Kennedy name and mystique against his opponent, including jokingly referring to his own modest home as his “compound.”
In one campaign video Markey declared: “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.”
The video had more than 2.5 million views on Twitter in the first 24 hours.
Kennedy is giving up the House seat he has held since 2012. The Democratic primary to replace him in his district — which consists mostly of exurban areas near Rhode Island and hasn’t voted for a Republican since World War II — is a free-for-all with nine candidates, all of whom have little name recognition.
A remarkable Data for Progress poll conducted August 10-14 showed that 45% of voters were still undecided and no candidate was polling at more than 12%.
The Boston Globe endorsed Newton city councilor and former Marine captain Jake Auchincloss, but the endorsement of a former Republican was internally unpopular and at least one Globe columnist published a rebuttal.
Auchincloss has been criticized for suggesting that flying a Confederate flag is a free-speech issue and for a 2010 Facebook post in which he said of burning the Quran, “So we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?”
Auchincloss was tied for first place in the Data for Progress poll with Jesse Mermell, a former aide to Governor Deval Patrick who has been endorsed by Pressley; Attorney General Maura Healey; and more than 20 labor unions.
Another key congressional race is in western Massachusetts where Richard Neal, the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, faces a primary challenge on the left from Alex Morse, the 31-year-old openly gay mayor of Holyoke.
The race is being closely watched because Neal, 71, has a number of advantages over other top Democrats who have recently been toppled by progressive primary challengers. A Morse win would be a major victory for the party’s progressive wing and suggest that many more traditional Democrats are vulnerable.
That possibility “scares Pelosi shitless,” said Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee, whose firm has done work for Morse.
Neal represents a rural district that is 83% white and by all accounts he hasn’t lost touch with his constituents. But he is also Congress’ top recipient of money from corporate political action committees, a fact that ads for Morse have emphasized.
The race is competitive enough that the state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, weighed in and endorsed Neal. No Republicans are running for Neal’s seat.