Kennedy and Markey appear headed for 'brutal' primary showdown

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

The original Kennedy family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was fond of saying that “if there’s a piece of cake on the table, you eat it.”

That aggressive sense of entitlement spurred John F. Kennedy to the presidency, his brother Bobby to the role of attorney general, and their youngest brother, Teddy, to the U.S. Senate at the ripe young age of 30. It’s what drew Bobby and Teddy into challenging incumbent Democratic presidents in 1968 and 1980.

Now Bobby’s grandson, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, is following the same playbook. Despite some rather heavy criticism from fellow Democrats, Kennedy appears poised to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Ed Markey.

Kennedy, a 38-year-old Democrat who was elected to Congress in 2012, is expected to announce soon — perhaps as early as next week — that he has decided to run for the seat that Markey won in 2013.

Markey is trying to head off the challenge at the pass. His best shot might be to keep Kennedy from running by stressing the damage it would do to the national Democratic Party in 2020, a year when the party’s main focus will be defeating President Trump.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. (Photos: Elise Amendola, Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“It’s going to be brutal,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said of a yearlong primary battle between Kennedy and Markey. (The primary in Massachusetts is not until September 2020.)

“I called Joe and told him I hoped he wouldn’t do it,” former Rep. Barney Frank, who represented parts of Boston and its southern suburbs in Congress for 32 years, told Yahoo News. “Having these primary fights when there are no issues weakens us when we need to beat Republicans.”

Markey got perhaps his most significant endorsement so far on Friday when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old freshman lawmaker from New York who co-sponsored the Green New Deal legislation with Markey, released a video heartily endorsing his reelection and making arguments that cut against Kennedy’s youthful appeal.

“He’s not just resting on his record of the past,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Markey. “He’s aggressively pursuing an agenda for the future.”

“In a time right now when we have to have conversations not just about holding this administration accountable, but changing the Democratic Party for the future, Ed Markey has a very critical role in making sure that climate change, as well as a bevy of other issues — health care and beyond — are critical core issues in how we fight for working people and working families in the United States,” she said.

Markey will speak to the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention on Saturday in Springfield. Kennedy will not, but the congressman will be working the room while Markey stands onstage.

Frank said he still thinks there’s a chance Kennedy will back off the challenge.

“I’d say there’s a chance he wouldn’t run. Joe has a very good reputation for being a guy who really is public-spirited and works well with others,” Frank said. “He’s running into some flak. … He may decide it’s more than he wants to deal with.”

But Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in the state who has worked for Ted Kennedy and former Sen. John Kerry, said there’s no way Kennedy will back down.

“Joe is running. Period. Full stop,” she wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

In a phone interview, Marsh predicted that it will be Markey who drops out, potentially just a few weeks from now.

“I’d be looking at Columbus Day,” she said. “The longer this goes on and the more he’s out campaigning, the more he’s going to realize how hard this is going to be.”

Marsh said she expects Kennedy to announce next week or the week after, and pointed to a recent Boston Globe/Suffolk poll that showed Kennedy ahead of Markey by 14 points in a head-to-head matchup.

“I don’t know how he digs himself out of this,” she said.

Markey won his seat in a special election to replace Kerry, who was named secretary of state by then-President Barack Obama. In the Democratic primary that year, he defeated Rep. Stephen Lynch in an election in which 542,704 Democrats cast ballots.

More than double that number of Democrats — 1.2 million — cast ballots in the 2016 presidential primary, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton narrowly beating Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

A larger electorate likely favors someone with greater name ID like Kennedy, whose family has dominated the imaginations of Democrats in the state for more than half a century.

Some Democrats in the state are hedging their bets — another sign that Markey’s standing is not as solid as he’d like it to be.

Freshman Rep. Lori Trahan hesitated when asked on WCVB Channel 5 in Boston if she would reconsider her current support for Markey should Kennedy challenge him.

“I would just have to wait and see what happens,” Trahan said.

Even support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who is a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, is not as assured for Markey as it might seem.

Days after news of Kennedy’s potential challenge broke in mid-August, Markey released a video of Warren endorsing him.

But asked by reporters at the time about her stance in the race, Warren went out of her way to emphasize that she had taped her video endorsement of Markey “six months ago, seven months ago.” She spent more time, in fact, stressing her admiration for Kennedy and her personal connection to him and his wife, Lauren, both of whom she taught at Harvard Law School.

“Eddie has been a great partner in the Senate. I think I know why you're asking me, and if it's about Joe Kennedy, I will also say Joe Kennedy is also a great partner,” Warren said. “He and Lauren were both my students and I worked with Joe before either one of us was in politics, and have worked with him ever since he's been in Congress. He's really an amazing person.”

Frank said that when he spoke to Kennedy, the congressman assured him he would not turn the race into a bitter and costly intraparty fight that hurts the Democrats.

“He told me it wouldn’t be like that,” Frank told Yahoo News.

But Frank, a wily political veteran, didn’t buy it.

“The most frequent lie told by politicians is, ‘We ran against each other and we’re still friends,’” he said.

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