The U.S. Senate campaign of Joe Kennedy III predictably inspired plenty of nostalgia and inevitable comparisons to others in the famous political family.
But it turned out that Ed Markey was the one who best emulated a Kennedy legend: Ted Kennedy. The Ted Kennedy of 1994, to be precise.
Kennedy, although understood to be a top-notch legislator and advocate for constituents, had become an easily-caricatured embarrassment. He was a man of failed presidential ambitions, tales of debauchery, and a starring role among the seemingly out-of-touch old men of Congress.
With the help of new wife Vicki, and the motivation of polls showing him in real danger of losing to appealing Republican Mitt Romney, Kennedy shaped up literally and figuratively. He brought renewed vigor to retail campaigning, and sharp elbows to slicing up Romney’s image.
Finally, in televised debates, Kennedy completed his self-renovation. Where voters, media, and Romney himself had once expected the “Palm Beach boozer, lout, and tabloid grotesque,” as Time Magazine called him, here was a sharp-minded, prepared, disciplined, verbal sharp-shooter.
Markey’s reputation was nothing like Kennedy’s, of course. But it wasn’t great.
He’s been seen as the aging guy, more comfortable in Maryland than Medford, without fire in his belly — the one who passed up opportunities that carried any risk. He ran for Senate in 2013, people said, only because he thought he had assurances of a cleared field (spoiled by Stephen Lynch running against him), and because he didn’t have to give up his House seat to run in the special election.
Many, if not most in Massachusetts politics were sure that Markey would hastily retreat to retirement if he received a serious primary challenge.
Instead, he rose to the challenge, and found the steel within himself that few imagined was there.
Over the course of the campaign, Markey became an energetic, disciplined, scrappy campaigner — and, as with Ted Kennedy, the renewed candidate popped into view from the debate stage. The often long-winded, overly patrician, cautious old man had been replaced by a sharp debater, eager to throw jabs and even get into the mud a little.
He also, with the help of campaign manager John E. Walsh — the grassroots legend best known for steering Deval Patrick to victory —repeatedly outmaneuvered Kennedy.
Markey, for instance, was able to pile up establishment endorsements and flip-flop on his past condemnation of Super PACs, knowing that a Kennedy could not, as hard as he tried, position himself as the anti-establishment insurgent.
It was bad luck for Kennedy that COVID shut down his energetic, “he shows up” campaign style; but he wasn’t nimble enough to pivot to something else. Markey, meanwhile, used the opportunity of virtual campaigning to demonstrate his youth-savvy comfort level with new tech.
And from the very outset of the campaign, Markey saddled Kennedy with the burden of disproving the charge of running from pure entitlement. No matter that Kennedy had done Peace Corps and served as a prosecutor, before putting in four terms of head-down work as a U.S. Representative. He was said, repeatedly, to be unable to articulate a reason for running, as if all U.S. Representatives in the state aren’t perpetual Senate candidates in waiting — including Markey in 2013 — until the moment they perceive a likelihood of winning one of those upper-chamber seats.
Most importantly, Markey parlayed the support of young change agents, most notably the iconic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, into a new persona as a sort of generational change agent — exactly the role that Kennedy was trying to adopt against him.
By the end, Kennedy was forced to essentially concede the white, college-educated progressives who felt they already had their champion. He had to bank on working class, and Black and Hispanic voters; that’s when he fully embraced and played up the family legacy, which holds special power with those groups. It was too late by then to maximize that benefit.
A New Start?
Kennedy’s 1994 re-election mattered not just because he won, but because in the process of winning he rejuvenated his career.
Had his career ended that year, or even if he had staggered along as before, it’s unlikely that Kennedy would be remembered as the legendary lion of the Senate. His new discipline, and heightened stature, launched his late-stage career of legislative successes, and public leadership on issues such as opposition to the Iraq War.
Markey heads back to the Senate with a similar opportunity. Not quite the same, to be sure. Ted Kennedy was only 62 when he beat Romney; Markey is already 74. Kennedy had three decades of seniority; Markey is still junior even to Elizabeth Warren.
But, he now combines a Capitol Hill veterans’ experience and contacts, with a supportive army of national progressives. They will look to him as a movement leader on issues from climate to racial justice. Media will pay more attention to him, as a Kennedy-slayer. He might even get an opportunity to seize more committee power, depending on how much of a shake-up comes from a potential President Biden pulling Democratic Senators into his cabinet.
And after all, clearly Markey found within himself a year ago reasons to fight for that Senate seat. He discovered that he cared enough to fight for it. Now he’ll have a chance to show us why.