Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid

Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid
© Stefani Reynolds

Politics, for Massachusetts Democrats, is a blood sport.

The latest episode is a high stakes Senate primary pitting promising young Congressman Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyKennedy, Markey neck-and-neck in Massachusetts primary: poll Budowsky: Bloomberg-Obama or Klobuchar-Kennedy? Kennedy, Markey spar over experience in first Senate primary debate MORE against a long-term respected lawmaker, incumbent Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyKennedy, Markey neck-and-neck in Massachusetts primary: poll Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development MORE.

This has Bay State Democrats squirming on choosing sides — as if there hasn't been anything like it.

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This makes veteran political observers smile. They remember 1962 when a 30-year-old Ted Kennedy ran against the state Attorney General Edward McCormick.

Kennedy was the president's brother; McCormick, was the nephew of the Speaker of the House. Kennedy won a bitter battle; decades later, pols still talked about who you were with in 62.

“This (Kennedy v. Markey) is nothing compared to the Teddy-Eddie fight,” recalls Dick Flavin, who was starting in politics then, going on to become press secretary to Boston Mayor Kevin White, a celebrated broadcaster and now poet laureate of the Boston Red Sox. “That was the Grand Opera.”

Now Rep. Kennedy, the 38-year-old four-term House member, challenging Sen. Markey — a freshman in the Senate, but previous 18-term member of the House — is firmly in the tradition of Massachusetts Democrats who've dominated politics in the state since President Kennedy.

Two years after the Ted Kennedy-Edward McCormick contest — the most memorable moment was when the Attorney General charged, “If your name was Edward Moore your candidacy would be a joke” — Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti challenged and defeated the incumbent Governor Endicott Peabody.

The Republicans won that fall, paving the way for a decade of state house control.

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That ended in 1974 when Democrat Michael Dukakis won. Four years later he was defeated in the primary by a right-wing populist, Edward King.

Four years later, Dukakis came back and beat King.

Two of the current Massachusetts Congressional House Democrats — Seth MoultonSeth MoultonTrump set to confront his impeachment foes Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa The DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo MORE, who had a brief presidential run this year, and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyProgressive Democrat confronts Rep. Cuellar at parade, calls for him to debate her: report There's no such thing as a free bus Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms MORE, one of the four vocal House freshmen called the squad — beat incumbents.

Ed Markey first came to the House at age 30; he has been a forceful liberal advocate in foreign policy, the environment and telecommunications. He passed up several Senate opportunities… but when John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents John Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' MORE became Secretary of State in 2013, he ran and won the Senate seat.

Markey is a politician with few enemies, and his camp initially was stung by reports of a challenge from Joe Kennedy, the grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

This new Kennedy is widely considered one of the party's brightest future leaders. There were personal calculations: He has a young children, and a six-year Senate term may be more family-friendly. Chiefly, it was politics. House Democrats have done a poor job of elevating younger members; even a Kennedy is a backbencher.

In Massachusetts, if Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE isn't elected president, there won't be a Senate contest for five years. The current Republican Governor, Charlie Baker, a Trump critic who’s up in 2022, is enormously popular.

Moreover, if Kennedy didn't run, Rep. Moulton might challenge Markey — and if successful, he’d have become the young leading light in Massachusetts politics.

There won't be any ideological divide in the Massachusetts contest; both candidates are down-the-line, anti-Trump liberals.

These factors won't matter much; with a 35-year age difference, the focus will be on generational change. Markey can take solace that the three leading Democratic presidential candidates — Warren, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (I-Vt.) — are septuagenarians.

Thus far, Markey is winning the endorsement battle, backed by Sen. Warren, the mayor of Boston, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the popular left-wing New York congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

But the history of big intra-party battles in Massachusetts — going back to 1962 — is clear-cut: The insurgent or younger candidate wins.

Mostly, going for it is in the Kennedy political genes. When Jack Kennedy announced his campaign for the presidency at age 42, he was told it was too soon. Two years later, the Kennedys were warned Teddy wasn't ready. The other brother, Robert F. Kennedy, regretted he didn't get into the 1968 Presidential race soon enough. (He may have been on the way to the nomination before he was assassinated that June.)

In 2007, Ted Kennedy counseled a young freshman lawmaker: When there's an opening go for it — don't wait. That was Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Biden, Sanders battle over Cuba, Obama Biden attacks Sanders at debate over Obama primary MORE.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.