Markey’s team chafes at the suggestion—made by Marsh and former Representative Barney Frank, among others—that he reinvented himself, or that he campaigned as somebody he’s not. “With all due respect,” the senator’s campaign manager, John Walsh, told me on the eve of the primary, “I think it is one of the feeblest explanations of what happened here that I've heard.”
Walsh began, as he often does, to recite the biography of a senator whose fights—on behalf of minorities and working families, against nuclear proliferation, for the environment—often took place out of the spotlight, or in the committee rooms of Congress. In the 74 years since a young John F. Kennedy first ran for Congress, no Kennedy had lost a race in Massachusetts. But in the 47 years since he first ran for office, neither had Ed Markey. Walsh acknowledged, however, that perhaps the voters of Massachusetts were not familiar enough with their senator. “I would concede,” Walsh said, that “it was necessary to tell this story because Ed has consistently done this work but then moved on to the next project, the next issue.”
Kennedy struggled to articulate a rationale for his candidacy and could not effectively puncture Markey’s remade image as a progressive icon. And unlike Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in their 2018 midterm victories, Kennedy, despite his youth, could not claim to be a leader of underrepresented communities. As a white, male heir to political royalty, Kennedy posed no challenge to the dominant power structure of the Democratic Party. So younger voters, those of his own generation, flocked to the much older Markey, just as they had to Sanders.
When I wrote about the race earlier this summer, Kennedy’s advisers told me that they always thought the race would end up close and acknowledged that their candidate was relying on higher turnout from infrequent Democratic voters, which was more uncertain than ever during a pandemic. He did end up barnstorming the state as Massachusetts reopened, showing off his hustle and charisma as a contrast to Markey, whose in-person campaigning was more sporadic. But during a primary in which nearly 1 million Massachusetts voters cast their ballots early by mail, Kennedy found fewer and fewer Democrats to persuade. By this past weekend, every public poll showed him losing, a few by double digits.
When I interviewed Kennedy last month in Worcester, before the race had fully turned against him, he told me he had “no desire to commit career suicide.” But he briefly considered the possibility that he might lose. “At the very least,” he said, “even if I'm not successful, you're going to get a senator that’s going to run the race of his life and be far more connected and far more energized, and far more engaged in Massachusetts.”
At 39, Kennedy likely still has a political future, despite the embarrassment of this defeat. And he’s probably right about the ultimate impact of his primary challenge, too. Massachusetts voters aren’t getting a new senator, but in the suddenly hip, influential Ed Markey, they have a reinvigorated one for sure.