Joe Kennedy III loses Democratic primary in Senate seat held by JFK

Veteran legislator Ed Markey fended off challenger by touting working-class roots and work on Green New Deal

Andrew Naughtie
Wednesday 02 September 2020 15:29 BST
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Ed Markey defeats Joe Kennedy III in Massachusetts Senate race

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Joe Kennedy III has become the first member of his legendary political family to lose a Massachusetts election, failing to capture a Senate seat once held by John F Kennedy.

With 82 per cent of the vote counted, Mr Kennedy was 11 points behind incumbent senator Ed Markey, who has held the seat since 2013 after serving in the US House of Representatives since 1977.

Mr Kennedy’s loss comes after a long and at times acrimonious primary campaign in which he spent millions of dollars to try and unseat his opponent, who managed to reinvent himself as something of a progressive insurgent even after more than four decades in Washington.

Mr Markey is the Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal, and early on in the race bagged the endorsement of its steward in the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A picture of him standing outside his house in a mask and high-top sneakers quickly became a meme, and his volunteer base grew increasingly younger as the race developed.

Mr Kennedy struggled to articulate why he was running for Congress, especially since he hardly differed from Mr Markey on the major themes of the progressive movement. And as the campaign wore on and the incumbent Mr Markey built up a hefty lead, Mr Kennedy was reduced to trading on his family name.

In the campaign’s closing weeks, as the congressman fell behind, senior Kennedy family members spoke up for his campaign, and he even put out a flyer featuring him alongside a picture of his grandfather, assassinated presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy. “For Joe Kennedy, this fight is in his blood,” it read.

Many voters bridled at this, with younger progressives in particular proving relatively immune to the family brand and turned off by what they saw as establishment entitlement.

Mr Markey, meanwhile, made much of his working-class roots and long history of backing progressive causes – in particular environmental regulation, consumer protection and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

He also ran an ad both touting his own record and riffing on John F Kennedy’s most famous line: “With all due respect,” Mr Markey said to camera, “it’s time to ask what your country can do for you.”

The ad helped drive Nancy Pelosi into endorsing Mr Kennedy, apparently enraged at seeing the Kennedy name traduced – a shocking turn against an established member of Congress with whom she has served for decades. However, with Ms Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren at his back, Mr Markey was hardly left out in the cold.

In his victory speech, the 74-year-old credited young organisers with assembling a “movement” that helped him keep his seat by a satisfying margin.

“To the young people fighting in this movement for change, here is my charge to you: march in the streets. Protest. Run for school committee, or city council, or the state legislature, and win. But don’t just challenge the status quo – dismantle it. Take things over.

“When they say slow down, go faster. When they say not now, start that day. When they say not that way, redraw the map. When they say you’re too young, show up with your friends.

“Every reason the critics and cynics offer to give up or give in is proof positive that you should push forward – and hard.”

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