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 KennedyOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Trump escalates fight over tax on tech giants Sanders's Massachusetts state director 'moves on' from campaign MORE against a long-term respected lawmaker, incumbent Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyUS must act as journalists continue to be jailed in record numbers Warren proposes 'Blue New Deal' to protect oceans There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down 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 MoultonOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Pentagon leaders: Trump clemencies won't affect military order and discipline Deval Patrick beefs up campaign staff MORE, who had a brief presidential run this year, and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire Booker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair 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 KerryThe Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface UN chief warns unchecked climate change will mean 'survival of the richest' Conservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' 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 WarrenBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll Advocates call for ObamaCare open enrollment extension after website glitches The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface 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 BidenBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll Schumer asks McConnell for Mulvaney, Bolton to testify in impeachment trial Nadler: Giuliani trip to Ukraine shows 'crime in progress' is being committed against American democracy MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface Sanders should fix the child food programs we already have before creating new dysfunction 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 ObamaSchiff: I 'hope to hell' I would have voted to impeach Obama if he had committed same actions as Trump Impeachment nears: What would John McCain have done? Moderate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? 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.