Joe Kennedy-for-Senate backers mount drive to drum out Ed Markey


Joe Kennedy, Ed Markey

Rep. Joe Kennedy (left) and Sen. Ed Markey protest against the Trump administration in 2017. A potential Kennedy challenge to Markey is taking place against a generational conflict within the state Democratic Party. | Darren McCollester/Getty Images

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There’s growing chatter in Massachusetts that the last member of the Kennedy political dynasty has an eye on a Senate seat in 2020.

Updated


BOSTON — Standing before a group of donors at a Cape Cod fundraiser last weekend, Sen. Ed Markey joked about his current political predicament.

When you run for public office, he told them, you either run unopposed or you run paranoid. The quip, according to a source who was present, was meant to convey that Markey takes his two announced primary challengers — business executive Steve Pemberton and labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan — seriously.

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But Markey has an even bigger reason to be paranoid: growing chatter in state political circles that the last member of the Kennedy political dynasty has an eye on his Senate seat in 2020.

A mysterious July telephone poll that tested Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III against Markey in a head-to-head contest first sparked speculation about the young congressman’s intentions. Then came the formation of a grass-roots group that aims to draft Kennedy into the race.

The “Jump in, Joe!” group — formed by members of Kennedy’s Boston Pride Parade Committee — launched a website, a Facebook group and a petition earlier this week.

In less than a week, the Facebook group to draft Kennedy swelled to nearly 600 members. The petition has 160 signatures.

“This is not about the incumbent. It’s not about Sen. Markey. We admire his public service over the past 43 years,” said Jamie Hoag, one of the people who launched the group. “This is about Joe Kennedy and why we think he would be the best fit for the U.S. Senate.”

The prospect of the 38-year-old Kennedy challenging the 73-year-old Markey is taking place against the backdrop of generational conflict within the state Democratic Party. One year after Ayanna Pressley took down then-Rep. Michael Capuano in a primary election, almost every member of the state’s congressional delegation is being pressed by a primary challenger in 2020.

But there’s another possibility making the rounds in state political circles: That the draft-Kennedy push could be designed to nudge Markey to retire rather than risk seeing his political career end in a primary defeat.

Kennedy’s campaign hasn’t directly denied he is angling for Markey’s job. He has said in the past he would consider a Senate run if a seat opened up, but right now, his campaign says he’s staying put in the House.

“Congressman Kennedy is humbled by the support of so many folks in Massachusetts. As he has said, he is running for reelection in the 4th District,” Kennedy spokesperson Emily Kaufman told POLITICO in a statement.

Kennedy’s campaign declined to comment when asked whether they conducted the July mystery poll, which pitched positive and negative campaign messaging for Kennedy and Markey, including on issues like marijuana, “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.”

Kennedy’s campaign would not say whether the congressman has seen the results of that poll. “We review all kinds of poll numbers, like any campaign. But that’s not something we discuss publicly,” Kaufman said.

In any case, potential candidates in Kennedy’s 4th District are already making calls behind the scenes in the event he vacates the seat. At least two people — state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and Jesse Mermell of the Alliance for Business Leadership — are quietly reaching out to donors and operatives just in case, according to people who have spoken with them.

One candidate has filed to run in the primary regardless of Kennedy’s intentions: Ihssane Leckey, a Democratic socialist and former Wall Street regulator.

Markey himself is a cautionary tale about the perils of waiting around for a Senate seat to open. As an ambitious young congressman in 1984, he initially ran for the Senate seat left vacant by Paul Tsongas. He withdrew from that race, however, and had to wait nearly 30 years before it opened up again when John Kerry resigned to become secretary of State.

While Massachusetts’ other Senate seat would open if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the presidency in 2020, a special election to fill her seat would likely feature a crowded, open field of Democratic candidates. Though Kennedy would likely be a top-tier candidate, other heavyweight candidates would likely make a play for the seat in that scenario.

While Markey is among the top 10 most popular senators in the country, according to Morning Consult approval ratings, there are also signs of vulnerability in a primary. The senator has support among 44 percent of voters, but about as many voters say they are undecided about who they would vote for in a Democratic primary, according to a Boston Globe and Suffolk University poll released in June.

The September statewide primary is more than a year away, but Markey is already in campaign mode.

“Senator Markey is running for reelection no matter who enters the race. He is crisscrossing the state and will run his campaign hard every day,” Markey spokesperson Giselle Barry said in a statement.

Markey has rolled out a series of early endorsements over the past several weeks, from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Coalition for Social Justice, the Blue Mass Group political blog, and former Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair John Walsh. Markey is also backed by six of the 10 other members of the state’s congressional delegation, according to a Boston Globe survey. Kennedy did not say whether he’ll back Markey next fall.

Markey has also ramped up his digital spending. The senator has spent $111,000 on Facebook ads over the past year, and around $6,700 over just the past seven days, just a few weeks after the telephone poll.

Markey has $4 million in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission data. Kennedy is just ahead of him with $4.2 million in cash on hand in his campaign account.

“[Markey] is all in,” said Walsh, the former party chair and an aide to former Gov. Deval Patrick. “It’s hard to even make a case of why Ed Markey would retire. He is the national leader on the most important issue of our time: climate change.”

If Kennedy were to jump into the Senate race, it would change the calculus for Markey and his existing primary challengers.

Kennedy has high name recognition, goodwill in the party and a formidable fundraising network. Plus, he’d be able to tap into Kennedy nostalgia that still exists in Massachusetts.

“If Joe Kennedy got into the Senate race, he would immediately become the front-runner,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a political strategist at Dewey Square Group in Boston. “It would be the toughest race Ed Markey has ever faced.”


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