When Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) began his campaign to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, he had his family’s long legacy of involvement in American public life hanging over him. No Kennedy had ever lost an election in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Kennedys were attractive, charming, well-educated, and wealthy—all qualities that have traditionally led to success in politics.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States. After months of campaigning, a member of the Kennedy family had been elected to the most coveted office in one of the most powerful countries on Earth. JFK’s rise to political prominence was individually meteoric, but as a Kennedy, it was a long time coming.
77 years earlier, Kennedy’s grandfather, P.J. Kennedy, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, becoming the first member of his family to enter politics. JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was the first chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and would later become the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K.
The ambassador had nine children and of them, JFK, Robert, and Edward would eventually become U.S. senators. JFK’s brother, Robert Francis or “Bobby,” served as Attorney General during the Kennedy administration, as the U.S. Senator from New York, and as a leading presidential candidate in the 1968 election. Another one of JFK’s brothers, Edward Moore or “Ted,” represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate from 1962 until his death in 2009.
Ted’s son, Patrick, served a congressman for Rhode Island’s 1st district from 1995 to 2011 and Bobby’s son, Joseph, served as a congressman for the 8th district of Massachusetts from 1987 until 1999. More recently, JFK’s daughter, Caroline, served in the Obama administration as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. This year, Caroline and her son made an appearance and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
The “Kennedy curse” of tragic assassinations and accidents has cemented the place of the Kennedys in history. High approval ratings for deceased and living members of the family show that America still likes the Kennedys. So how, exactly, did Joe Kennedy III, a man who unmistakably looks like a Kennedy, bring the family its first loss in Massachusetts?
While the congressman is well-liked in his home state, his opponent, incumbent Senator Ed Markey, is similarly popular. The similarities do not end there. The two Boston-raised Irish Catholics both have political experience under their belts, with Kennedy representing the 4th district of Massachusetts since 2013 and Markey first serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1973 to 1976, then as a U.S. congressman from 1976 until 2013, and as one of the state’s U.S. senators since 2013.
Markey, like Kennedy, was young when he was first elected to office, and like the Kennedy family until this year, he, too, has never lost an election in the Bay State. Both candidates were progressives with nearly identical positions on the issues and strong track records. Markey, most notably, was the co-author of the Green New Deal in the Senate and Kennedy is known for delivering the Democratic response to President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.
While some might look to Markey’s long career in politics as the mark of an establishment politician, his outspoken support for progressive policies and endorsement by Democratic upstart Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have set him apart. Cadee Stefani, a Markey campaign fellow who The Politic interviewed, first met Markey at a climate strike and came to support him after seeing his “drive for raising climate change awareness” and his advocacy for other issues important to her, like Medicare for All. In comparison, Kennedy received the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and has been a national leader on mental health issues, something that led Renuka Balakrishnan, an intern on the Kennedy campaign who spoke with The Politic, to support the congressman. Balakhrishnan said that it was refreshing to see a politician take charge on issues so important to people her age.
Markey grew up as the son of a milkman in Malden, a suburb of Boston, and supported himself while he earned his B.A. and J.D. from Boston College. Stefani added that another reason she supports Senator Markey is because she sees herself in his working class background. Kennedy, on the other hand, was born to Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and today, has one of the highest net worths in Congress.
After graduating from law school, Markey worked as a private lawyer and joined the U.S. Army Reserve before his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives at 26 years old. Kennedy attended Stanford University, served in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer, attended Harvard Law School while co-chairing his great-uncle’s reelection campaign, and served as an assistant District Attorney before his election to the House in 2013. Stefani agreed with Senator Markey’s characterization of Kennedy as a “progressive in name only,” citing the fact that Kennedy worked for a Republican DA as an example.
During the campaign, Markey pointed to his humble beginnings and accomplishments in the Senate, namely, having more than five hundred laws on the books as a reason why voters should be excited about voting for him. Kennedy did not attack Markey personally, but stated that he was out of touch with his lower-income and minority constituents. Markey spends the least time in-state out of the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation and even less time than Senator Elizabeth Warren while she was running for president. In an interview with The Politic, Balakrishnan agreed with Congressman Kennedy’s criticism of Markey and shared that she feels “people can be really complacent about the fact that [Massachusetts] will always be blue and progressive.” She said that Kennedy’s campaign had “a more personal style and that he really wanted to get to know the individual and what the individual was looking for.”
While the two candidates held nearly the same positions, Markey won partially because he was perceived to be ideologically purer than his opponent. The progressive movement, comprised of many young voters, has a distaste for elitism and the establishment. AOC’s endorsement of Markey stands in stark contrast to Pelosi’s endorsement of Kennedy. Both Stefani and Balakrishnan felt that social media, and more specifically, Students for Markey, an Instagram page made to support Markey that became a youth-led movement, made a significant impact on his victory in the primary. According to an Emerson poll from August, 70 percent of 18-29 year olds indicated that they supported Markey.
Imagine, for a moment, that Kennedy had won the primary. The Senator from Massachusetts would be advancing the same policies as Markey, and he would have the potential to become a major player in the Democratic Party. His seat would be secure, he would be young, and as a Kennedy, he would garner an outsized amount of attention from the media. In an election between two “good” candidates, is it better to vote for the one who you like more, the one who has better policies, or the one who is capable of enacting the most change?
The primary posed a difficult choice for voters. Again, both candidates were well-liked and both had similar policies. At the end of the day, the key consideration is which candidate is more capable of advancing the causes they claim to support. Some candidates, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg, suffered because even though they were sufficiently-liked, they were relatively unqualified. Others, like Bill de Blasio and John Delaney, suffered because while perfectly qualified, they were not very popular.
Occasionally, voters sacrifice qualities they would prefer in an ideal candidate to vote for someone they feel will be the most effective choice. This is what led Democrats to nominate Joe Biden this year. While there was no Donald Trump to face off against in the Senate primary, if progressives want progressive causes to succeed, the sort of pragmatic calculus that led voters to elect Biden should have been used in Massachusetts to elect Kennedy.
Naturally, with every decision and thus, with every vote, there are important implications to consider. Markey has been reelected, meaning he can continue to keep doing what he was already doing: serving as a reliable progressive in the Senate. He can use the connections he has already established and his relationship with Ocasio-Cortez and her coalition to continue advocating for progressive legislation. Progressives should view Markey as a good pick, but also as a known quantity.
Now, what if Kennedy had won? The Kennedy name still goes a long way in the United States. Most people outside of Massachusetts don’t know Senator Markey, but a Kennedy winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts is national news. Kennedy giving a speech or proposing a policy would reach more people because of America’s continued interest in his family.
If the Senate flips and Biden wins the presidency, Kennedy can author and sign onto progressive bills. But what if those things don’t happen? It is possible that either Republicans maintain a slim majority in the Senate or, despite his dwindling reelection chances, that Trump is reelected. In fact, both could happen. With the coronavirus, the passing of Justice Ginsburg, and a number of other issues, this has been a turbulent and unpredictable year that has proved that anything can happen.
In a situation where Democrats can’t actually legislate, all that matters is bringing attention to the issues, something Senator Kennedy would be able to do. Electing Kennedy also means the creation of a presidential contender down the line. Not only a contender, but one who could make progressive ideas more palatable to moderates and swing-voters. Progressives would certainly prefer Senator Kennedy over a Republican to win the presidency in 2028, 2032, or whenever it may be. The contrast between a polished Kennedy and a populist like Trump would be strong.
In politics, everyone is aiming at an ideal, no matter how pragmatic they are. This is why it is better to use practical reason when deciding between two candidates who are aiming at what is essentially the same ideal. Even though they despise Biden, many die-hard Bernie supporters are voting for him. This is because they have analyzed the situation and determined that while a Biden presidency is not ideal, it is closer to their ideal than the alternative.
We need to consider both the short- and long-term effects of our votes. Something might appear a certain way on the surface level, when in reality, a deep dive into probable outcomes could lead us to a different conclusion.
This is to reiterate that Joe Kennedy III’s victory in the Massachusetts Democratic primary would have ultimately been better for progressive causes than Markey’s victory. Elitism in politics and the very notion of political families may be disliked in progressive circles, but used properly, the connections and attention they have can allow them to be some of the most effective advocates for the causes they care about.