While it’s always tempting to see the current historical moment as unusually dramatic, the 2020 Massachusetts Primary Election really does stand out.
After all, in the midst of a devastating pandemic that’s transformed the way we vote, the state’s political establishment is being challenged to an extent unprecedented in recent memory, and possibly ever.
In the Democratic primary, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey is facing a tough challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Incumbent Congressman Richard Neal, the chair of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, is trying to fend off Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. And Congressman Stephen Lynch, who’s been in office for nearly two decades, has a credible challenger of his own in physician Robbie Goldstein.
Factor in the two Democrats — Angus McQuilken and Jamie Belsito — seeking to unseat Congressman Seth Moulton, who’s seeking re-election after a failed presidential bid and an unsuccessful attempt to oust Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, and the tumult roiling Massachusetts politics right now is hard to overstate.
“There’s a lot of talent in the Democratic Party,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist and dean of the May School of Arts and Sciences at Stonehill College. “And people are no longer content to wait their turn.”
There’s also a crowded Democratic contest in the state’s Fourth Congressional District, where seven candidates — Jake Auchincloss, Becky Grossman, Alan Khazei, Ihssane Leckey, Natalia Linos, Jesse Mermell and Ben Sigel — are vying to fill the seat currently held by Kennedy. (Two other candidates, Dave Cavell and Chris Zannetos, are on the ballot, but have publicly dropped out and thrown their support behind Mermell.)
The Fourth District features a Republican contest as well, with two candidates — Julie Hall and David Rosa — vying to take on the Democratic winner. And two Republicans, Shiva Ayyadurai and Kevin O’Connor, are making U.S. Senate bids.
Whatever the outcome on primary day, the Republican victors in the Senate and Fourth District contests will face an uphill battle heading into the general election, when Massachusetts residents will also be voting for president. Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump here four years ago, getting 60 percent of the vote to his 33 percent, and a May Suffolk University / WGBH News / Boston Globe poll put the president’s approval rating at just 25 percent.
“There is no pathway to a victory for a Republican Party that’s embracing Donald Trump in this state, in this year,” Ubertaccio said.
“They have one of the most popular governors in the country, [but] the Republican Party here is more often than not at odds with their own governor,” he added. “Charlie Baker shows them how they can win. It’s a lesson they choose not to take.”
The Markey-Kennedy contest is the highest-profile in the state. Early polling suggested that Kennedy, a scion of one of America’s best-known political dynasties, was the favorite despite being the challenger. But recent polls show Markey leading in the campaign's final stretch.
“There hasn’t been a Democratic primary for Senate like this in generations,” Ubertaccio said. “[Ted] Kennedy and [John] Kerry held the seats for so long. [Elizabeth] Warren really cleared the field when she ran. And when Markey first ran [in a 2013 special election], he and Lynch duked it out, but the race never really caught fire."
"So the suspense around this — and the fact that it’s a progressive, incumbent Democratic Senator [being challenged] — just makes this really unusual,” he added.
Throughout the campaign, Kennedy has portrayed Markey as an out-of-touch Washington insider who’s inattentive to racial issues and the communities he represents. Markey, in turn, has talked up his legislative record and cast himself as a progressive hero, focusing frequently on the fact that he co-authored the Green New Deal with New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Markey, while Pelosi, the House speaker, is backing Kennedy.
The result of this back-and-forth, UMass Boston political scientist Erin O’Brien argues, is a campaign narrative that overstates the differences between the two candidates.
“We talk about symbolic politics a lot in political science — you load beliefs, fears, values onto political objects — and candidates are political objects,” O’Brien said. “The fact that Joe Kennedy, who’s a good liberal, has been cast as this sort of corporate moderate doesn’t [fit] his voting record or his behavior, but that’s the way voters understand him. And Ed Markey isn’t the second coming of Bernie Sanders ... but that’s the way he’s been cast.”
The race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks. Markey has attempted to leverage Kennedy’s family name against him, accusing Kennedy’s father of bankrolling a pro-Kennedy PAC and inverting a famous exhortation from President John F. Kennedy — Joe Kennedy’s great uncle — in a video advertisement. (The ad, which went viral, closes with Markey saying, “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”)
For his part, Kennedy has accused Markey of disrespecting his family’s political legacy and turning a blind eye to ugly behavior online, including online threats that evoke the assassinations of JFK and Robert F. Kennedy, Joe's grandfather.
The tone in the First Congressional District primary contest has also sharpened recently, after Morse was publicly accused of inappropriate personal behavior by the College Democrats of Massachusetts and barred from the group’s events. Subsequent reporting by the Intercept suggested that Morse had been targeted in a premeditated scheme with links to the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
While Morse has acknowledged having relationships with adult college students, he’s insisted that any such relationships were consensual. He’s also suggested that Neal was involved in the allegations against him, which he has characterized as homophobic.
Neal has denied any involvement, while also saying individuals who’ve raised questions about Morse’s behavior deserve to be heard.
Morse has been endorsed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Sunrise Movement and the Progressive Democrats of America, among others.
Neal’s backers include the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Human Rights Campaign, and — as of a few days ago — Gov. Baker, who backed Neal in a tweet.
Despite the fact that Baker is a Republican and Neal is a Democrat, O’Brien says that given Neal’s role as Ways and Means chair, it wasn't surprising to see Baker enter the fray.
“They have a symbiotic relationship,” O'Brien said. “Charlie Baker can pick up the phone and get stuff for Massachusetts with Richie Neal in that position. If Morse wins, he isn’t going to have that.”
All this political instability comes as the state implements a new voting system in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time ever, Massachusetts made it possible for any voter to request and receive a primary ballot they could then cast by mail.
Amid concerns about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle increased voting activity nationwide, Secretary of State Bill Galvin recently urged voters to drop off those mail-in ballots in person at their city or town halls, since ballots received after 8 p.m. on Primary Day won’t be counted.
“A lot of the processing of the early by-mail [voting] is underway right now,” Galvin said Friday afternoon.
In some communities, he said, up to 40 percent of eligible voters have already cast mail-in ballots.
While those ballots can’t actually be counted until Election Day, Galvin added, preliminary preparations should make it possible to announce the results of Tuesday’s contests in a relatively timely manner.
“Our expectation and our hope is, we’ll have results given after the polls close,” he said. “Does that mean nine o’clock? Probably not. Does it mean two o’clock in the morning? Maybe. Does it mean four o’clock in the morning? Maybe. [But] I don’t anticipate it being three or four days.”