Joe Kennedy doesn’t just have to beat incumbent Ed Markey to win a Senate seat. He’ll also have to trounce Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Senate Democrats campaign arm — and maybe AOC.
The 38-year-old congressman and grandson of Robert F. Kennedy will confront a buzzsaw of Washington Democrats if he takes the leap to challenge Markey in Massachusetts, which would create a massive distraction for the party in a safe Democratic seat amid a battle for both the White House and the Senate majority.
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“That kind of intra party fighting is not good in the long term. And I don’t think it will be good for Joe Kennedy,” warned Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “I’m a survivor of the Kennedy-Carter fight. I know how long those sentiments last.”
With Kennedy flirting with the race and leading early polls, Markey has moved quickly to shore up support from both the D.C. establishment and prominent progressives. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has endorsed him and Schumer said the party is “fully behind Senator Ed Markey.” Kennedy called Schumer about the race but the Senate minority leader didn’t divulge what was said.
Markey also asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for her support, according to a source familiar with the matter. The liberal firebrand said endorsing Markey is “in the realm of possibility.”
Yet Kennedy isn’t without allies. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a moderate Democrat who served with Kennedy in the House, is urging him to run and told Markey of her decision on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon.
“Joe Kennedy is an outstanding champion for his state,” Sinema said. “He’s a fresh thinker who can bring people together to get things done. He will make a terrific U.S. senator and I couldn’t be more proud to support my friend.”
But the support of Schumer and moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for Markey, along with his close relationship with Ocasio-Cortez as original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, demonstrates that the potential Senate race won’t revolve around ideological conflicts like the GOP’s tea party wave of a decade ago.
Instead, the contest is shaping up to be generational: The youthful Kennedy and his famous family brand against Markey’s 40-plus years of service and lengthy liberal record.
“I don’t understand how anyone wants to run against him — I mean he is the progressive leader on climate in the United States Congress,” Khanna, a leading liberal lawmaker, said of Markey. “The progressive base is 100 percent for Markey — it’s 110 percent for Markey.”
“I would tell Joe to wait,” said Manchin, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat. “Those type of fights when two people are aligned ideologically? What’s the fight?”
The Massachusetts delegation is behind Markey, save for three members of the delegation that have yet to weigh in, including progressive star Ayanna Pressley, who upset longtime Rep. Mike Capuano in a primary last fall. Kennedy’s challenge to the old guard has perplexed senators, who see him as trying to climb the political ladder at the expense of his state’s seniority.
But many of his House colleagues are quietly rooting for him, eager to demonstrate one of their own can advance without waiting until senators retire or their longtime leaders depart the top rungs of the House Democratic Caucus.
And Markey’s supporters in the Senate aren’t exactly trashing Kennedy. After all, he could be a future colleague or presidential candidate given his lineage and reputation as an ascendant voice in the party.
“Ed has been a great partner in the Senate and I was glad to endorse him last February. Joe is doing a terrific job in Congress. They both are longtime friends,” Warren said in an interview. Warren was Kennedy’s professor at Harvard.
In an interview on Wednesday, Markey touted his endorsement from NARAL, League of Conservation Voters, senators and state lawmakers. Asked about polls showing Kennedy has an edge, he replied: “I’m getting tremendous support.”
“So far the response I’m getting is overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “I’ve led on climate change, led on gun reform, led on reproductive rights and protections for women … people are grateful.”
Markey said he hasn’t spoken to Kennedy recently.
Kennedy is expected to make a final decision by the end of the month, according to a campaign aide. Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman said the congressman is still deliberating but is “encouraged” by his support.
“If he decides to run it will be based on the people of Massachusetts — and them alone,” Kaufman said.
Despite Kennedy’s famous last name, he’s kept a low profile since arriving in the House in 2013. He has resisted calls to join House leadership, focusing instead on elevating younger members of a caucus run by septuagenarian leaders. He did deliver the State of the Union last year, a job usually reserved for the party’s rising stars, although is mostly remembered for the prominent smudge of lip balm that some viewers mistook for drool.
After nearly 40 years in the House, Markey won a special election to replace John Kerry in 2013, and is a leading liberal lawmaker in the Senate, though not necessarily a partisan firebrand. He has one of the thickest accents in Congress, sometimes referred to as Ed “Mahkey.” He voted present on war with Syria shortly after being sworn in, annoying “literally everyone,” as Boston Magazine put it.
Several House Democrats were hesitant to weigh in on the potential primary. Some said privately they’re convinced Kennedy is running. And they offered effusive praise for the four-term lawmaker, who has developed a cadre of friends on both sides of the aisle.
“Joe Kennedy might be the most popular member of the Class of 2012 in both parties,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). “Massachusetts and the country will find a good place for Joe Kennedy to serve. It may not be in House leadership but he has a great future.”
As the heir to the Kennedy dynasty, Kennedy appears an instant frontrunner in any statewide race. There’s private skepticism among some Democrats that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will spend money in a primary in a state seen as uncompetitive in a general election, though DSCC Chair Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) says the party is firmly behind Markey. The primary would be in September 2020 — poor timing for party unity.
Kennedy has a double-digit lead in early polls in a potential race against Markey. And he could potentially scare Markey into retirement or position himself for the next Senate vacancy if Warren becomes president.
But Markey isn’t surrendering and there’s really no room to his left for Kennedy to pursue. He’s telling fellow senators that he is not retiring and will run hard against Kennedy, according to those who have spoken with him.
“It’s ambition,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of Kennedy’s motivation. “For Ed’s sake, I don’t want a primary … he’s clearly running for reelection. And I’m going to help him in any way I can.”
The show of support from top Democratic leaders and progressives suggests there’s some worry that Markey could lose to Kennedy or at a minimum drain money from the party’s coffers. So if Kennedy runs, Democrats are preparing for a wild ride.
“That’s life in a blue state,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), himself a former DSCC chairman. “The Kennedy name probably has a little bit of stroke in Massachusetts. So chances are it might be” competitive.
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.