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JK3 Is Next

Joseph P. Kennedy III is coming for Ed Markey.
August 23, 2019
JK3 Is Next
(Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for RFK Human Rights )

It may not be humanly possible for the American press to cover Joseph P. Kennedy’s possible campaign for Senate without the “S” word. Breaking the news that Rep. Joseph P Kennedy III (or “JK3” as he’s known among the Tweeps) has been in the field polling a possible primary challenge to incumbent Senator Ed Markey, the New York Times described the race as “a generational showdown between a scion of the state’s most famous family and a more than four-decade-long fixture of Massachusetts politics.”

After getting scooped by the NYT in its own backyard, the Boston Globe whipped up its own story about “the 38-year-old scion of the nation’s most famous political family…testing a matchup against the 73-year-old Markey.”

And in an Atlantic piece entitled “The Last Kennedy,” a profile so full of fluffery it should have come with a coupon for free dry cleaning, Edward-Isaac Dovere described JK3 as “the scion of America’s great political dynasty.”

“He’s young, has a national profile, and has come at economics and other issues more thoughtfully and more forcefully than most of the people who are running for president.”

Dovere managed to score a twofer in the “How to Cover Kennedys” stylebook, working “scion” and “dynasty” into a single sentence. (“There’s growing chatter in Massachusetts that the last member of the Kennedy political dynasty has an eye on a Senate seat in 2020.” –Politico) All he needed was “family touched by tragedy” for the Camelot trifecta.

The Bay State punditocracy is nearly unanimous in declaring that JK3 is a lock to beat Markey and become the third Kennedy to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.

“If Joe Kennedy gets into the race, not only is he the frontrunner, he wins that race,” longtime Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh told a Boston TV station.

“Ed Markey’s only hope is to cash in all his favors and keep Kennedy out of the race,” one of the (many) Massachusetts strategists who didn’t want to speak on the record told me. “But if he formally gets in, Markey should say ‘I’ve had a great run, but times are changing,’ and immediately endorse Kennedy. He doesn’t have a shot.”

There are a few holdouts. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is sticking with Markey for the moment. And on Monday Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a video “to throw my full support” behind his re-election, though nobody in Massachusetts believes she has a passionate preference between the two. Perhaps because they’ve both endorsed Warren for president.

So, is Joe Kennedy III going to become the latest in a line of Kennedy “dynasty scions” to be handed political power? Is the magic of the Kennedy name enough to make him a U.S. Senator?

“No,” says Massachusetts progressive activist and commentator Sue O’Connell.

O’Connell is the publisher an LGBTQ newspaper in Boston and provides political analysis for New England Cable News. She grew up in a classic Irish-Catholic Massachusetts home: “My mom was involved in the local fight for civil rights, and she loved the Kennedys. She would never call the senator ‘Teddy’ around the house. It was always ‘Edward.’ And my dad was a union truck driver, which meant we would have Teamster magazines with Jimmy Hoffa on the cover right next to RFK campaign material. Oh, the irony.”

Yet she believes the era of Kennedy magic is over, even in Massachusetts. “The Kennedy presidency was the middle of the last century, and there was no ‘bridge’ generation between JFK and today. For Millennials and GenZ’ers, the Kennedy story is ancient history.”

She’s not alone. Arnie Arnesen, a longtime New England activist who ran for governor of New Hampshire, agrees.

“Today, a Kennedy is evaluated as a candidate, not a Kennedy. It’s no longer about the DNA. We learned that lesson from the Bushes,” she says. “The Kennedys are not front and center in my mind. If they were, I’d be like Joe Biden—living in the past.”

And if Democrats did dream of reviving the spirit of Camelot, JK3 wouldn’t fit the lead role.

As a congressman, Kennedy’s biggest claim to fame is delivering the Democratic response to Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address. Or as it’s known in political circles “Chapstick-aquiddick,” due to Kennedy’s over application of balm that caused his lips to glisten on national TV.

In very un-Kennedyesque fashion, he’s made it through four terms in Congress without any stories of wild carousing, womanizing, or even a single “waitress sandwich.” And while his political skills are pedestrian (at best) he’s widely viewed as a steady, conscientious member of the state’s delegation. In other words, no more formidable an opponent than any of the other eight members of Congress from the Bay State.

So why is everyone writing Ed Markey’s political epitaph? Because of…Ed Markey.

No one has ever mistaken Ed Markey for a “scion.” In fact, people rarely notice Markey at all. According to a June poll, his 39 percent approval rating narrowly edged out his 36 percent “never heard of/no opinion” number. For any sitting senator, that number would be bad.

But for a politician who was first elected to Congress in 1976, it’s awful. Markey’s 36 years in the House make him the longest-tenured congressman ever elected to the Senate in American history. And yet somehow more than a third of his constituents don’t even know who he is.

By the way: in that 36 years Markey only faced four contested primaries, winning the most recent in 2002 with 85 percent of the vote. Like most Massachusetts Democrats, getting elected is essentially a one-and-done prospect. Which means he’s utterly unprepared for a political fight at the Kennedy level.

For instance, on Monday Markey’s top campaign aide Paul Tencher re-tweeted the message “@EdMarkey, co-author of the green new deal, is a great Senator. @joekennedy should focus on his family’s considerable mental health issues.”

As if that’s the way to come at JK3. Markey has already been forced to apologize for this political misstep. Taking a cheap shot at the Kennedy family over mental illness just weeks after the overdose death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill?

Good luck with that.

Ed Markey’s big-picture problem is his microscopic political footprint. The lifelong pol could walk through the average Boston bar right now without getting a second glance. That’s the real reason Kennedy is considered a shoo-in to shove Markey out the door. If there’s a “dynasty” movement behind JP3’s potential candidacy, its initials aren’t JFK or RFK. They’re AOC.

Markey is vulnerable for the same reason Mike Capuano, a 20-year veteran of Congress and die-hard liberal, just got booted from his Massachusetts seat by Ayanna Pressley. Like progressive activists across the country, Bay State liberals are prioritizing identity ahead of ideology.

As a senator, Joe Kennedy will cast the exact same votes as Ed Markey. He just won’t be an old white guy while he does it. A group of Massachusetts progressives who launched the “Jump In, Joe!” Facebook page admitted as much in their public statement:

It is true that you can find many Democrats who support these same [progressive] policies, but we believe Congressman Kennedy brings a fresh perspective and renewed passion to these issues. The Senate currently lacks a bench of next-generation progressive champions—those who have the moral conviction, vigor, and strength of character to be a voice for the voiceless—and to aggressively challenge [Mitch] McConnell’s agenda.

In other words, the political breakup equivalent of “It’s not you, Ed. It’s me.”

Which is where the Kennedy name may actually matter. Markey already faces a primary challenge from Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor activist who is pitching herself as a “fresh voice.”

And in this moment of (as Pete Buttigieg likes to put it) “generational change,” other upcoming pols like Pressley or the state’s ambitious Attorney General Maura Healey must be eyeing Markey’s seat, too. By acting now, Kennedy may be able to use his family name and its fundraising power—he already has $4.3 million on hand, despite having never faced a credible GOP challenger—to get a clean shot at Markey’s seat before some other young turk claims it for their own.

Plus, the Kennedy name is, in an odd way, its own brand of identity politics. The red-haired, freckle-faced JK3 can’t run as a “Ginger-American,” but the name buys him enough celebrity credibility with the AOC crowd to give him a pass on being white, cis-male, and straight.

The desire for fresh faces and primary challengers is so strong in Massachusetts that Kennedy faces one of his own. Ihssane Leckey, a 34-year-old immigrant from Morocco, former Wall Street regulator and self-declared Democratic Socialist has already announced she’s running in the 4th congressional district primary.

In a sense, Kennedy is getting out—or rather “up”—while the getting is good. Well, good for him.

For Senator Ed Markey, not so much.

Michael Graham

Michael Graham is politics editor at New Hampshire Journal.