“I am running against somebody who’s been in elective office in Massachusetts for 47 years,” Rep. Kennedy, 39, said Thursday, rattling off the extent of his opponent’s career in politics. “I think by all accounts, he was pretty much a figure of the political establishment.”
Morse, the four-term mayor of Holyoke in western Massachusetts, is trying to unseat Rep. Richard E. Neal (D), a 30-year incumbent who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in the state’s Sept. 1 Democratic primary. And Kennedy, a four-term member of the House from outside Boston, is running against Sen. Edward J. Markey (D), whose first congressional oath of office in 1977 took place before Kennedy was born.
Yet Morse and Kennedy find themselves in opposite corners of today’s Democratic moment, a political interchange that is confusing with its mixed paths of generational challenges and ideological purity tests.
Morse has the full backing of the liberal groups that have helped knock off a handful of veteran Democratic incumbents in the past two years, paving the way to Congress for a younger, more diverse array of lawmakers. Most of the same groups have rallied behind Markey, despite his being a 74-year-old White man, after he forged an ideological alliance with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose upset primary win in June 2018 served as a bolt of lightning for these far-left liberals.
That’s left Kennedy running defensively at times, as if he is the establishment incumbent. The endorsement he received Thursday from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who cited her family’s 60 years of ties to the Kennedys, delivered a much-needed jolt but also reinforced the idea that, despite his youth and inexperience, Kennedy was not an insurgent.
Victories by Morse and Markey would be heralded by the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party as a sign that it was on the march and that the liberal movement was defined by ideological purity and not by age.
Wins by Neal, 71, and Kennedy would suggest that being a familiar figure is still the best thing in politics.
And there also is the possibility of a split verdict, in which both 30-somethings or both 70-somethings win, in which case experience, or the lack of it, would be seen as the driving factor for voters.
The outcomes will do little to determine which party controls Congress, as the winner of each primary is all but certain to win the general election in a blue stronghold.
But Massachusetts has an outsize influence on the national Democratic Party. Its House delegation has produced two House speakers since the early 1960s. The current crop includes Neal’s powerful gavel and that of Rep. Jim McGovern (D), a Pelosi confidant who chairs the influential Rules Committee.
In the Senate, every Democrat elected from Massachusetts in the past 70 years — two Kennedys, John F. Kerry, Paul Tsongas and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — has run for president.
Except for Markey.
Markey has suffered from a perception that he lacks the fire and ambition. He’s just as likely to spend the weekend in the Washington area as he is back home, definitely not charging around the country pushing his agenda.
“A United States senator from Massachusetts has an enormous opportunity to go out there and use that political power to push an agenda and to help people,” Kennedy told The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel in an interview in Worcester, Mass., this past week. “And I don’t think the senator has done what the people in Massachusetts, in our country, really need.”
Markey, rather than bowing out last year when Kennedy announced his challenge, doubled down on his alliance with Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal climate legislation, which they co-wrote.
As he pulled closer in the race and, in some public polls moved ahead, Markey grew confident enough to start taking shots at the Kennedy mythology. First, in a debate this month, he accused Kennedy’s father, former congressman Joe Kennedy II, of funding super PAC ads against Markey.
And then a three-minute Web video, produced by the Sunrise Movement, made Markey out to be one of the most powerful figures of the past 40 years on Capitol Hill, touting his work on a range of issues including nuclear disarmament and climate change. It ended with Markey turning a famous phrase from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address inside out.
“With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you,” Markey said.
Joe Kennedy convened a news conference Monday to defend his family’s legacy, highlight votes of Markey’s on racial justice that do not fit today’s political times and accused the incumbent of not doing much in Congress.
“He’s asking you to trust that he can lead a movement that he has never been a part of. He’s telling you that he deserves a mantle that he has not earned,” Kennedy said at the news conference.
In western Massachusetts, Neal has grown tired of such attacks from Morse, an openly gay politician who was elected mayor at age 22.
As the Ways and Means chairman, Neal never fails to tout his work on the more than $2 trillion Cares Act, the coronavirus relief package, as an example of what it means to deliver, for the nation and the district, and that Morse announced that he would have opposed the bill.
“It is the most irresponsible position that a candidate for Congress could have taken,” Neal said during Monday’s debate. “Elizabeth Warren voted for the Cares Act. Edward J. Markey voted for the Cares Act.”
In the interview, Morse called parts of the legislation worthy but said there was a “larger point about not getting what you don’t fight for,” suggesting that Pelosi and Neal need to “grow a backbone” and fight Republicans harder in negotiations.
He uses Neal’s national prominence against the incumbent, saying that he no longer shows up to participate in town hall meetings with constituents. Morse claims his internal polls show a tightening race, even after revelations that as an adjunct professor at the nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he had sexual relationships with students.
He has maintained that the relationships were consensual and violated no college policy and said he is cooperating with an internal review. He has alleged that a group of college Democrats close to Neal ran a “coordinated political attack” on him that was homophobic in nature.
Morse says he has had a surge in fundraising and drawn more support from around the country. “People understand the national implications of this race,” he said.
Kennedy is less certain about how to draw insight from his state this summer.
“As objective as I can be in this race, as a candidate, I think that the lines in this race are messy,” he said.