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Joe Kennedy Isn’t Your Usual Upstart Primary Challenger

It’s rare for an elected incumbent U.S. senator to lose reelection in the primary; the last time it happened was in 2012, when tea party conservative Richard Mourdock defeated then-Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.1 But it could happen again in 2020. On Saturday, Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III officially launched a long-rumored primary challenge to Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, and, amazingly, it looks like he has a good chance of unseating the incumbent.

At first glance, Massachusetts may seem like a strange place to try to take down a sitting senator. After all, no incumbent U.S. senator from the Bay State has ever lost a primary election since the direct election of senators began in the 1910s. And Massachusetts politicians, like former Sen. Ted Kennedy (Joe’s great-uncle), who served for almost 47 years, and former House Speaker John McCormack, who was a congressman for 42 years, have a reputation for longevity. But that could be changing. On the House level at least, two long-serving Massachusetts congressmen have been felled in primaries this decade: Seth Moulton unseated incumbent John Tierney in 2014, and Ayanna Pressley toppled incumbent Michael Capuano in 2018.

This year, Markey will play the role of the grizzled incumbent (though he has only been in the Senate since 2013, he was a U.S. representative for 36 years before that), and Kennedy will play the young upstart (he turns 39 next week). But in reality, the race doesn’t break cleanly along “establishment vs. progressive” lines. First, the primary is not about ideology. Kennedy has a -0.423 DW-Nominate score — DW-Nominate measures politicians on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative) based on their congressional voting records — while Markey’s score is a similar -0.507, so if anything, the incumbent is more progressive than his challenger. And while Markey has marshaled the endorsements of most of the political establishment — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a majority of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, the leaders of the state legislature — he is also the pick of several progressive state legislators and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Most notably, he has also received the endorsement of democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom Markey has worked closely on the Green New Deal. Despite coming to power herself by primarying a longtime incumbent, Ocasio-Cortez has called Markey “the generational change we’ve been waiting for,” arguing that generational change is about issues, not necessarily age.

But Kennedy is far from a political newcomer. He is a four-term congressman and, more importantly, belongs to one of the most famous families in American politics; nothing says “Massachusetts political establishment” like the name Kennedy.2 The grandson of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy II (who still has $2.8 million in his dormant campaign account), Kennedy will surely benefit from his family’s connections and voters’ residual goodwill for the dynastic clan. According to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll conducted earlier this month, 64 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they had positive feelings about the Kennedy name (just the name, not any specific Kennedy) while only 7 percent reacted negatively to it.

And, unlike a traditional insurgent candidate, Kennedy starts off the race ahead according to that same poll (which was conducted before Kennedy jumped in the race); it found Kennedy had the support of 35 percent of voters and Markey had 26 percent support. (Three lesser-known candidates who were already primarying Markey registered at 1 percent or less.) That said, Markey was quite popular among Massachusetts Democrats in the poll, with a 59 percent favorable rating and a 16 percent unfavorable rating; it’s just that Kennedy was even better-liked (73 percent favorable, 6 percent unfavorable). However, there’s plenty of time for those numbers to change, and there are still lots of votes up for grabs — 36 percent of respondents in the poll were undecided.

Ultimately, despite the lack of a clear contrast with Markey, Kennedy may simply be running because he’s an ambitious politician who senses an opportunity. Even though there is a chance that Massachusetts will have an open Senate seat in the near future (if Warren’s presidential campaign is successful), Kennedy may have decided to jump in now because he thinks he has a better shot in a one-on-one primary against an incumbent than in a crowded field that could include several other potent opponents, like Pressley, state Attorney General Maura Healey or Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.3 Pressley’s own win in 2018 is a point in favor of this hypothesis, and Kennedy has even indicated he will use the same blueprint of turning out traditionally overlooked voters, like people of color.

But there are obvious differences between Kennedy and Pressley: Namely, she is a black woman and Kennedy, like Markey, is a white man. With age as the main demographic differentiator between Kennedy and Markey, the 2020 Senate primary in Massachusetts could be a good test of whether recent Democratic primary upsets like Pressley’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s were driven more by race, gender, ideology … or simply a desire for a fresh face.

From ABC News:

Who is Rep. Joe Kennedy III?

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.


  1. Yes, Sen. Luther Strange also lost his primary in Alabama’s 2017 special election, but Strange was an appointed senator.

  2. Although it’s worth noting that the Kennedys have a long history of taking on the rest of the Democratic establishment. For instance, Robert F. Kennedy primaried incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and Ted Kennedy did the same to President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

  3. I would be remiss if I didn’t note here that Pressley hasn’t yet closed the door on running for Markey’s seat herself; unlike most Massachusetts representatives, she has not endorsed anyone in the race, and when The Boston Globe asked about her political future, she would only say, “I’m not thinking beyond the next hour, and that is the truth.” According to The New York Times, she is “widely thought to also be eying a Senate bid, whether if against Mr. Markey or if Ms. Warren were to be elected president.”

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.