NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Is Massachusetts headed for a monumental U.S. Senate primary fight?
Speculation is mounting that Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and scion of the Bay State’s most iconic political family, could mount a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, who is up for re-election in 2020.
The chatter began to ramp up after a scoop by Politico Massachusetts’ Stephanie Murray about an extensive recent poll testing how Kennedy would fare against Markey. The survey is now widely believed to have been paid for by Kennedy’s campaign.
Then late Friday night, influential New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin reported that in a conversation earlier this week, Kennedy told “a senior Democratic official” he is weighing a Senate run and will “decide in the coming weeks.”
Emily Kaufman, a spokesperson for Kennedy, did not deny the Times report. “Right now Joe is running for re-election,” she told WPRI 12. “He’s grateful for the recent show of support from folks across Massachusetts.”
Earlier this week, it was widely noted that Kennedy declined to endorse Markey when the Massachusetts delegation was polled about whether they are backing the senator.
Paul Tencher, who recently left as Markey’s chief of staff to become his campaign senior adviser, insisted the Kennedy clan could not scare his boss out of the race. The incumbent senator, who won his seat in 2013 after John Kerry became secretary of state, has already been holding campaign events, including one Wednesday at the Coalition for Social Justice in New Bedford.
“Senator Markey is running for re-election no matter who enters the race,” Tencher told WPRI 12. “He is crisscrossing the state and will run his campaign hard every day as the leading progressive on issues like income inequality, the Green New Deal and gun safety legislation.”
Appearing on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers in June, Kennedy didn’t deny his interest in a Senate run — though the question was about whether he’d seek to fill U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s seat should she win the presidency, not a primary challenge to Markey.
“If another seat is to come open, at that point I’ll take a look at it,” Kennedy said. “Again, my family’s been involved in elective office for a while. The number one rule on that is, before anything else, that is a family decision, because it impacts your family almost more than — other than military service — any other job you can get.”
“So I’ve got to make sure that’s right for my family, two little kids, and there’s a whole host of other factors, and if it does, we’ll take a look at it when it comes,” he said. “But not on the agenda.”
Markey and Kennedy have much in common as white male progressives and pillars of Massachusetts’ Democratic establishment. But there would be a clear generational contrast between the pair: Markey is 73 and has served in Congress since 1976; Kennedy is 38 and was first elected in 2012.
“A Massachusetts senator has not lost a renomination fight since the 19th century,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor and dean of arts and sciences at Stonehill College. “If the congressman jumps into the race, it’ll be the singular most important nomination fight in the commonwealth since the Dukakis-King battles of the late ’70s and early ’80s.” (Mike Dukakis and Ed King were rivals for governor then.)
A Markey-Kennedy primary would likely be enormously expensive. Kennedy had $4.2 million on hand as of June 30, while Markey had just over $4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — and both could be expected to raise far more if they wound up in a contest.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook