There is no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., but the death march of politics grinds on. One lesser-known race is the upcoming Massachusetts Senate primary on September 1, where Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III is running a primary challenge against incumbent Senator Ed Markey — one of the most reliable liberals in the chamber, particularly on climate change.
Polling has been scarce in the race, but so far it seems Kennedy has a sizable lead, probably thanks to unparalleled name recognition and his quiet but deep support among big donors and the party establishment. It's a maddening example of everything that is wrong with the Democratic Party.
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of Kennedy's challenge is how it is totally at odds with the typical Democratic establishment line on primaries. When it comes to challenges from the left, the party reacts with furious outrage and swift action. In 2019, the House leadership threatened to blackball any political consulting firms that worked with primary challengers. When Jessica Cisneros, a young immigration attorney, challenged Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), a conservative anti-abortion zealot and Big Oil lickspittle, Nancy Pelosi endorsed him and campaigned for him. (Thanks to Pelosi and a tidal wave of money from right-wing business lobbying groups, Cuellar squeaked out a victory.) Cisneros was just one of several candidates who lost in this way.
The reaction to Kennedy's challenge, however, has been muted at best. Most Democratic senators say they support Markey, and some even expressed contempt at Kennedy's impudence. But there hasn't been any scrambling, full-throated attempt to save him. The most biting attacks on Kennedy have been delivered anonymously. Meanwhile, other party grandees are lining up behind the challenger — including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and even Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a vice chair of the so-called Congressional Progressive Caucus. Kennedy, of course, is raising more money than Markey by far.
It's particularly odd in this case because, at least rhetorically, there is practically no daylight between the two. Both claim to support virtually the same positions — save that in Markey's case, he actually has a long record of doing so. Kennedy was clearly to his right until quite recently, only coming around to supporting Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal in the last couple years as he positioned himself for a run, while Markey was a co-sponsor and the primary sponsor of each respectively, as well as one of the major supporters of cap-and-trade legislation a decade ago. For lack of anything to criticize, Kennedy has had to try to gin up a campaign flame war over the flimsy issue of Markey supposedly not spending enough time in Massachusetts.
Markey is somewhat older, but still more than 13 years younger than the oldest sitting senator, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and there is no sign he is losing control of his faculties. He's almost certainly got another term in him, and at just 39, Kennedy can afford to wait for a bit. Indeed, there is a strong chance Elizabeth Warren (the other Massachusetts senator) will have some place or another in a Biden administration, in which case Kennedy could surely win the open seat.
Since he started his campaign, Kennedy has faced the question "why?" Let's not be children about this. The real reason for Kennedy's run is that he is currently the most prominent scion of a famously rich, powerful, and well-connected family, and a Senate seat is simply the next rung on the ladder of ambition. Stomping on a dutiful liberal who has loyally served the Democratic Party for 43 years is just unfortunate collateral damage on the way up. Elite connections are why Kennedy got to deliver the 2018 response to the State of the Union — it certainly wasn't his speaking ability. Even sympathetic profilers admit that his "electric last name" that can "charge any event, any handshake, and any election with an excitement most politicians spend their careers trying and failing to incite," as Michael Damiano writes in Boston Magazine, is one of his most important political assets.
Almost certainly the family is setting him up to run for president, just like John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy before him. (Ted Kennedy was supposed to do the same thing, but got one too many of his staffers killed in a highly suspicious car crash to pull it off.)
So the Democratic establishment is largely twiddling its thumbs or actively supporting a Johnny-come-lately progressive attempting to knock off a loyal party man because of his glamour, money, and powerful friends. A great deal of donor money that would be better used trying to defeat Republicans in other states will be spent on both sides. If Kennedy wins, he will be either about the same as Markey, or (they likely hope) quickly pivot to the right to join the conservative Democrats who vote for financial deregulation and subsidies for insurance companies. Kennedy is the perfect modern Democrat: a guy whose only demonstrated aptitude is defeating the left; a young and handsome face who can mouth the right slogans while quietly keeping the revolving door and the wheels of the corrupt Democratic consulting apparatus well-greased.
Now it's possible that Kennedy could really have had a change of heart, or views following RFK's lefty trail as the smart political move. But the balance of probability is against it. Ed Markey is a known pretty good quantity — a rare thing indeed in the Senate — without nearly the same connections to corporate interests. Massachusetts voters, I beg you, don't change horses in mid-stream.
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