Eric Davis: Old guard faces a legacy candidate
Voters in Massachusetts will cast their ballots in that state’s primary election over the next several days, by mail, at early voting sites, and at the polls next Tuesday. Turnout is expected to be high, with over 1 million voters already requesting mail ballots. The Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate is the contest that is receiving the most national attention.
Massachusetts is a state that has long punched above its weight in national Democratic politics. Over the past six decades, Massachusetts has provided one President, John F. Kennedy, two other Democratic presidential nominees, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, and two more Democratic senators who sought the presidency, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren.
Two Democratic Speakers of the House, John McCormack and Tip O’Neill, were members of Congress from Massachusetts, and House members from the Bay State have often been chairs of major committees. Massachusetts tends to elect House members at a relatively early age. Because the state is so strongly Democratic, these members remain in the House long enough to accumulate the seniority needed to chair a committee. Currently, members from Massachusetts chair two of the most important House committees, the Rules Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.
Next Tuesday’s Senate primary involves a challenge by Rep. Joseph Kennedy III to Sen. Edward Markey’s renomination. Markey, age 74, was elected to the Senate in 2013, to fill the vacancy left when John Kerry became Secretary of State in President Obama’s second term. Previously, Markey had been a member of the House since 1976. Kennedy, age 39, was elected to the House in 2012, succeeding the retiring Rep. Barney Frank. Kennedy’s father also served in the House, from a different district, from 1987 to 1999. Joseph Kennedy III is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and the grandnephew of John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.
Markey may be, at the margin, somewhat more progressive than Kennedy. Markey was the principal sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate and was also an initial co-sponsor of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All legislation. However, the issue differences between Markey and Kennedy are small compared with the differences between either of them and President Trump’s Republican Party.
For many voters, the Massachusetts Senate primary has come down to Kennedy’s family name. Since John F. Kennedy first ran for the House in 1946, no Kennedy has ever lost an election in Massachusetts. Over that time, members of the family have accumulated a total of 56 years representing Massachusetts in the Senate and 26 years in the House.
There are many voters in Massachusetts Democratic primaries who will vote for a Kennedy family member any time they appear on the ballot. Some of Kennedy’s recent ads, including film clips of his grandfather and great-uncles, are designed to appeal to this sentiment.
Markey argues that Kennedy has no reason to justify his campaign beyond personal ambition. Markey’s ads note that he grew up in modest circumstances in Malden, and that he spent his breaks during college driving a Hood ice cream truck in the Boston suburbs rather than summering in a family compound on Cape Cod.
One of Markey’s strengths in the campaign has been the enthusiasm for his candidacy on the part of college students and other young people, many of whom see Kennedy as motivated only by entitlement. Markey’s young supporters have worked hard on social media and other online platforms to communicate Markey’s message in a year in which there has been little in-person political campaigning.
Whoever wins the primary will be elected in November. If Markey returns to a Democratic-majority Senate, he will be an important legislator, especially on environmental issues. If Kennedy moves from the House to the Senate, his name might very likely be added, sometime in the future, to the list of senators from Massachusetts who will have sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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