BOSTON (CN) — Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary in Massachusetts is a marquee battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between its traditional working-class wing and the younger progressive movement seeking to usurp it.
It features Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert Kennedy who is vying for the seat held by his grand-uncles John and Ted. Kennedy comes from a line of wealthy patricians who have promised to help the working class achieve the American dream, a role recently infringed by President Trump.
In the other corner is Ed Markey, a progressive who was the lead sponsor of the Green New Deal along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey appeals to a younger, wealthier and more educated flank who question the American dream itself and lean toward more socialist solutions.
If someone named Kennedy can no longer win in Massachusetts, there would appear to be no surer sign of the party’s transformation.
And that may well be the case. Although Kennedy had a 17-point lead in an early poll last year, he was trailing Markey by 12 points in the latest survey conducted by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion. Another poll released this week showed Markey with an 8-point lead.
The Massachusetts race is an ironic reversal of recent primary challenges in which an establishment Democrat has been picked off by a more left-leaning challenger, in the model of Ocasio-Cortez.
Instead, the 74-year-old Markey — who spent 37 years in the House before winning a 2013 special election to replace Senator John Kerry when he became Secretary of State — is facing a challenge on the right from Kennedy, who at 39 is roughly half his age.
The party itself is split. 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.
Kennedy has served in the House since 2012, representing a district that stretches into the Boston suburbs but consists mostly of exurban areas bordering Rhode Island.
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, according to 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.
Votes are continuing to flood in, O’Malley said. And despite the pandemic, she expects a healthy turnout on Election Day itself because the state has “a pretty strong culture of voting in person.” Prior to this year, all absentee ballots required proof of an inability to get to the polls and many localities in the state operate via town meetings.
Kennedy has adjusted his rationale over the course of the campaign to reflect the changing nature of the party. He initially billed himself as representing a generational change, reminiscent of President Kennedy’s promise in his nomination speech of “a new generation of leadership.”
But he quickly realized that Markey’s progressive agenda and focus on climate change were popular with young people once they started paying attention.
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 percentage points. And young people have been active in supporting Markey on social media.
Markey also leads by 24 points among voters with a six-figure family income and by 37 points among voters with a college degree. Voters who didn’t go to college favor Kennedy by 15 points.
The generational change argument ironically seems to work best with more mature voters. Anne Quirk, who is on the Belmont Democratic Committee, 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.”
Perhaps to compete for younger voters, Kennedy has moved to the left, endorsing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. And he has begun aiming his pitch 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.
Markey shot back at another debate, calling Kennedy “a progressive in name only.”
But like former Vice President Joe Biden, Markey has evolved into a progressive over time. Biden and Markey both opposed busing in the 1970s and voted for the Iraq War, NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the race is that, 11 years after Ted Kennedy’s death, Markey feels comfortable using 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 has acknowledged that, amazingly, his family name may have become a liability in his home state.
“Literally my entire life, no matter what I’ve done, people have leveled the criticism of ‘You’re doing this because you’re a Kennedy.’ Literally everything,” he told The Atlantic. “So I hear that. That is up to me to disprove.”
Kennedy is giving up his House seat and the Democratic primary to replace him in his district — which 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 had 12% in the Data for Progress poll and was tied for first place with Jesse Mermell, a former aide to Governor Deval Patrick who has been endorsed by Attorney General Maura Healey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and more than 20 labor unions.