The U.S. Senate showdown between incumbent Ed Markey and U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy III intensified this past weekend, with both candidates braving the COVID-19 waters to show their mask-covered faces across the Commonwealth.

Markey launched his “Leads And Delivers Tour” on Friday, while Kennedy claimed 40 stops over the weekend on his “Jobs And Justice Tour.”

It isn’t just new forays on the hustings, either. Markey began airing his first TV ad of the campaign this Thursday. Kennedy is stepping up criticism of Markey’s record. Both campaigns have rolled out new endorsements, and made new use of surrogate campaigners.

The increased activity, during these normally doldrum mid-summer New England days, is not entirely due to relaxing of lockdown requirements in the state.

It’s also because this election, increasingly viewed as too close to call, might very well be decided this week.

That’s because applications for mail-in ballots are now arriving in the mailboxes of some 4.6 million registered voters across the Commonwealth.

Nobody really knows how that’s going to affect the primary election, to be held—or, more accurately, completed—on September 1. Voting by mail is new to Massachusetts, just signed into law this month out of concerns for in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But most people close to the campaigns agree on two things. The first is that people who quickly fill out and return the ballot application when it arrives, will likely do the same when their ballot arrives—while people who set the ballot aside, out of disinterest, misunderstanding, or procrastination, will probably end up missing out on mail-in voting, and skipping the election altogether.

So, both campaigns have been running modified versions of the Get Out The Vote operations usually seen in the final days of the in-person election.

That includes contacting likely supporters, to inform and remind them about the importance of the ballot application. Markey’s campaign has devoted part of its web site to educating and assisting people with the ballot application process. Kennedy’s campaign replaced its usual digital ads with new ones offering advice on “how to vote by mail for Joe!”

The second point of wide agreement is that large-scale participation in the primary by relatively low-intensity voters should benefit Kennedy.

That assumption might not end up holding true, of course. But the thinking has been that Markey has a strong following among committed Democrats and progressives, who follow national politics closely and are familiar with his decades of strong work on liberal issues. They are more apt to be so-called “super-voters” who rarely miss a chance to cast a ballot.

Kennedy, by contrast, has broader popularity thanks in part to his family name, and the resulting attention he’s received for actions he’s taken over seven years in Congress. The 39-year-old Kennedy also represents the next-generation change that seems to be in vogue among some Democratic voters. And, he figures to appeal to moderate Democrats and unenrolled voters who aren’t so keen on the Green New Deal and other liberal positions fully embraced by Markey.

In short, the theory goes, Kennedy supporters tend to be found among traditionally low-turnout groups: they are Black, Hispanic, working-class, moderate, unenrolled, young, or some combination thereof.

All of that is an overgeneralization, to be sure, but with enough truth behind it to guide tactics on both sides.
So, on the one hand, things have looked good for the Markey campaign. He has run a very good campaign, consolidated most institutional support, and erased most of Kennedy’s initial polling lead. He has gained momentum and a fundraising boost from some important backers, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, the Sunrise Movement, and the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts.

Markey has watched as Kennedy spent on early advertising that has seemed to gain him nothing in the polls—leading to that campaign bringing in veteran ad maker Tad Devine for the stretch run—while Markey saved up and gained ground.

Yet the Kennedy team has reason for optimism. After months unable to trot out their energetic, appealing candidate, they finally have him out making connections and attracting press coverage.

Now, they just need thousands and thousands of Bay Staters, who normally can’t be bothered with politics this time of year, to grab that ballot application and fill it out.

They are encouraged, looking around the country at Democratic primaries held elsewhere this year, at signs of higher than usual turnout—especially in states that, like Massachusetts, instituted mail-in voting this year.

In fact, that played out earlier this month in a New Jersey congressional primary. In that race, one pollster observed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, increased turnout from mail-in balloting probably helped the winner overcome the influence of major party backers of her opponent.

Oh, that candidate had something else in common with Joe: she is Amy Kennedy, wife of Joe’s cousin—and former Rhode Island congressman—Patrick Kennedy.