The Massachusetts Senate primary is less than a month away, and incumbent Sen. Ed Markey and his challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy have taken very different approaches to getting their names out there. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with WBZ News Political Analyst Jon Keller about the candidates' ads and what they say about their campaign strategies. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Before we dig into the ads themselves here, just the landscape, Jon, of a race that has a lot of people scratching their heads. There hasn't been a heck of a lot of polling [or] a lot of research that we can get our hands around here. And there have been massive distractions, of course, beginning with the pandemic, that's limited any kind of retail politicking that we'd be used to. So where does this race stand?
Jon Keller It's got to be the weirdest race ever. And as you point out, there's no way of knowing how much attention voters are paying. Joe, I recently did interviews with all nine of the Democratic candidates for the seat Joe Kennedy is vacating — the 4th Congressional District seat. Several of them told me that when they do make contact with voters, which is no easy trick these days, more often than not, they think Joe Kennedy is running for reelection to the House. So that tells you how below the radar this whole thing is.
Mathieu: That's a problem. Well, okay, and that's why we have things like political ads. And, Jon, maybe they play a more important role this time because people aren't knocking on our doors the way they used to. We're going to listen to a couple of portions of each campaign's ad production, if you will, and begin with Joe Kennedy. The approaches, Jon, as I mentioned, are very different. This is an ad, or at least a piece of an ad, from Joe Kennedy that's called "We Need Relief." It began running early on in the campaign and it features images of him at home in the pandemic. He's zooming with people [and] he's talking to supporters.
Clip of ad from Rep. Joe Kennedy: Right now, our country's hurting. We need relief. That's why I'm fighting for life-saving medical equipment. COVID testing for everyone. Direct cash payments and paid sick leave for all. It will take shared sacrifice and progressive will power to fix the damage done by President Trump. But together we will recover.
Mathieu: "We need relief," he says, "we will recover," Jon Keller.
Keller: Yeah, the focus is on health care, which has been a consistent theme of the Kennedy campaign. His most recent ad also talks about health care during the pandemic. And that ad underscores the difficulties now; you've got the mediocre audio. He's trapped at home just like you. Other ads feature him out joining the protest marches over the murder of George Floyd and so forth. But yeah, it's just difficult to break through, even though you've got a captive audience; everybody's at home, more or less, watching TV. It's just entirely unclear whether any of this is actually breaking through. Although you should note that Kennedy was up with his first ad in early May. Markey didn't jump in until late July. And yet, if we're to believe the polls, the race is close to a dead heat.
Mathieu: We're going to hear a piece of that Markey ad next here. But worth noting, Jon, that the Kennedy ad, even though he's trapped at home, there are images of him sharing a screen with lots of faces on Zoom. And in his other ad that you referred to, out in public, marching with people and in many cases surrounded by people, albeit at an appropriate distance. But the idea here is the grouping of Kennedy and his supporters and draws what a contrast to this Ed Markey ad, where he is walking the streets of Malden alone.
Clip of ad from Sen. Ed Markey: This is where I'm from. My father was a milkman. I drove an ice cream truck to pay for college. Lessons I learned here still drive me today. Don't be scared of the tough fights. That's why I was an original sponsor of Medicare For All and why I wrote the Green New Deal to fight climate change.
Mathieu: With a specific focus on his high-top sneakers as he's walking, and in a shot from high above him, Jon Keller. What does this one tell you?
Keller: Yeah, those sneakers are very clean, first of all. That was a little disturbing. This ad was awkward on a number of levels. First of all, when you're an incumbent who's been around for more than four decades, it's unfortunate that you feel you have to reintroduce yourself to the electorate of the state, but apparently they felt that. And then the shots of him walking, he doesn't do the jacketless, tieless street walk quite as elegantly as the younger man, Joe Kennedy, does. In fact, in one scene in that ad, he appears to be waving — and I've seen politicians do this in parades — to an empty parking lot or perhaps a dog or fire hydrant. It's not quite clear exactly who he's waving to. But it did serve the purpose of at least trying to make him look hipper, and he followed up on that with an on-camera endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Mathieu: Do you want to hear a portion of that? You don't hear an ad without a reference to the Green New Deal. And that, of course, is a direct line to AOC. With the Malden ad, though, celebrating the frump is working for Ed Markey, right? He's not dressed up, he's got the slacks with high top sneakers. People seem to be embracing this Bernie Sanders sort of frump. Is that fair? There's something authentic about it.
Keller: Yeah, and Ed Markey is authentically a townie, which is why I don't think all the criticism about him not even living here is especially damaging to him. But look, they would like there to be a contrast between the son of a milk man story of Ed Markey and the fact that Joe Kennedy is, after all, a Kennedy with all the advantages that that implies. Again, hard to tell whether that's catching on, Joe.
Mathieu: Enter AOC.
Clip of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: And Ed Markey is that champion. He was an original co-sponsor of Medicare For All. He coauthored the Green New Deal with me last year.
Mathieu: That first person reference, "he coauthored with me." Jon Keller, how does this one hit you?
Keller: Among party activists, staunch Democrats, that's going to help Ed Markey. AOC is a big star within the party right now. I don't suspect there are a whole ton of moderate to conservative Democrats and independents [that] are going to be voting in this, but I think it's worth noting that the further right you get, the bigger of a problem AOC is. She's been demonized hard by the hard right. But, Joe, there was one line in that ad that I think brings this confusing race into a little more focus. She says when it comes to progressive leadership, it's not your age that counts. It's the age of your ideas. Now, I'm not even sure I understand what that means. Is she's saying his ideas are are young, even though he's old? It illustrates the defensiveness of the Markey campaign to one of the core issues here, at least what Kennedy wants to be one of the core issues, the yawning generation gap between the two men.