Democrats unifying against Joe Kennedy Senate bid

Senate Democrats are nearly united in their opposition to Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), the scion of their party’s most fabled family, in his bid to unseat Sen. Ed Markey (D).

Kennedy, a 39-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, is putting his political career on the line by taking on a Democratic incumbent who has been a fixture in Congress since 1976. His campaign also marks the best hope of putting a Kennedy back in the Senate or White House in the foreseeable future.

{mosads}The Kennedy name has captivated Democrats going back 60 years, when John F. Kennedy ushered in the era of Camelot by winning the 1960 presidential election. 

But it seems that magic is starting to wear off 10 years after the last Kennedy to hold a Senate seat, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), died while in office. 

Senate Democrats, including those who may have been inspired by JFK when they launched their political careers, are standing by Markey, who they consider a loyal party soldier, even if he sometimes steals the spotlight or finds a way to horn in on their pet issues. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) are solidly behind Markey.

“We’ve endorsed him publicly. We will be there to work with him and his team to ensure that they have the resources they need to get his message out,” said Masto. “The state in general knows he’s a progressive and a fighter on so many issues. He’s taken a lead on net neutrality and climate change, on so many important issues that matter to his constituents.”

Masto said she didn’t want to “speculate” on how much the DSCC will spend to defend Markey from Kennedy’s challenge but declared “we are absolutely 100 percent behind him.” 

Markey later told The Hill, “Chuck Schumer and Catherine are being absolutely great.”

“Chuck is all in,” he added. 

Some Democratic senators are indignant that Kennedy is wasting party resources on an internal fight and bristle at the thought that the only reason he dreamed of taking on a well-established Democratic incumbent is because of his famous name. 

Markey, by contrast, has earned the admiration of his colleagues for his dogged climb up the ladders of power since serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the mid-1970s.

Colleagues who are backing Markey point out that he is the son of a milkman, a far more humble background than his opponent, the grandnephew of the 35th president of the United States.

{mossecondads}“Joe Kennedy is not running against him because they have policy disagreements. Markey gave up his seat in the House, where if he had stayed there he would have been chairman of one of the most powerful committees, Energy and Commerce,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity.

“The only reason Kennedy has the ability to run and be a serious contender is because his last name is Kennedy,” the senator added. “It’s offensive to have someone work to displace him not on principle but because he can and because he has an organization paving his path to run for the presidency and thinks this is a step in that process.” 

Publicly, Democratic senators are more restrained in their views on the primary race, though they express disappointment that Kennedy is trying to knock off Markey now instead of waiting perhaps for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to win the White House.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who represents a neighboring state, called Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey “too bad.” She’s backing Markey and noted they’ve “served on the Foreign Relations Committee together.”

Emily Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Kennedy’s campaign, said her boss is more focused on connecting with voters in Massachusetts than senators in Washington.

“Congressman Kennedy has been spent the last six weeks traveling to every corner of the Commonwealth. He is focused on earning the support of voters across Massachusetts, as this election will be decided by them — and them alone,” she said.

Democratic senators say they expect Markey to run a hard campaign to defend his seat. A Suffolk University Political Research Center poll showed Kennedy leading the five-candidate field by 9 percentage points. The same survey showed him winning a head-to-head match-up with Markey by 14 points. 

A late August poll by Change Research, a San Francisco survey firm, showed Kennedy with 42 percent support among Democratic voters compared to 25 percent support for Markey.

Markey’s defenders note that he has a 51 percent approval rating in Massachusetts, with just a 25 percent disapproval rating, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

One Democratic lobbyist who is friends with Markey predicted the incumbent senator will consider dropping out of the race and announcing his retirement instead of ending an illustrious career in defeat.

But if Markey is thinking about going that route, he’s given no indication of it.

Democratic senators say that Markey has courted them aggressively behind the scenes, hoping to secure their endorsements and fundraising muscle to match Kennedy dollar-for-dollar on the airwaves.

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, both from neighboring Rhode Island, have already done a fundraiser for Markey, with other events in the works, according to his campaign.

Warren, Massachusetts’s most high-profile politician who is also at the front of the Democratic presidential primary, has already endorsed Markey, though she says she likes Kennedy, too.

Kennedy, meanwhile, has endorsed Warren for president, making the relationship between the two political stars even more awkward.

Markey told The Hill that his colleagues have been very enthusiastic to his entreaties and expressed strong optimism despite the worrisome poll numbers. 

“People are being great,” he said. “The response I’m getting is just overwhelmingly positive. First the whole state, everyday, where I go. So I’m very much enthused by the level of support.”

Markey’s senior campaign director, John Walsh, told The Hill: “Sen. Markey is grateful to have the support of his Democratic colleagues as he continues to criss-cross the state to fight on the frontlines for the issues that matter to the people of Massachusetts.”

Markey raised $1.1 million in the third quarter of 2019, compared to Kennedy’s $650,000. But Kennedy didn’t formally enter the race until Sept. 21.

Markey had $4.4 million in the bank heading into the fourth quarter, while Kennedy had $4.2 million.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who served as DSCC chairman during the 2018 election cycle, said much of the conference is already behind Markey, including himself. 

“I, like a lot of members of the caucus, have told him we’ll be with him this election,” he said.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told The Hill he’s also backing Markey.

Only Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a former classmate of Kennedy’s in the House who often skips the weekly Senate Democratic lunches and is happy to play the role of stylish rebel in the caucus, has publicly endorsed the challenger. 

Several Senate Democrats have fumed to their colleagues about the DSCC having to spending potentially significant money to defend Markey from a fellow Democrat when they are trying to wrestle back control of the Senate majority from Republicans in 2020.

A second Democratic senator who said colleagues grumble about “wasted resources” nevertheless said Kennedy has a right to run for higher office and that fellow Democratic senators shouldn’t be spared from competition just because they represent deep-blue states.

“I know that people say that it’s a waste of resources, but we all only have one life,” the lawmaker said. “If you’re more fulfilled advocating for things you care about at a different level, everyone has the right to make a run for office.”

Tags Catherine Cortez Masto Charles Schumer Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Incumbent Jack Reed Jeanne Shaheen Joe Kennedy Massachusetts primary challenger Sheldon Whitehouse

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