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Rep. Kennedy calls Markey a ‘good senator’ but argues for ousting the incumbent

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), left, and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) square off in the first Senate primary debate Tuesday in Boston.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), left, and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) square off in the first Senate primary debate Tuesday in Boston. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH/AP/Pool)
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BOSTON — Rep. Joe Kennedy called fellow Democrat Edward J. Markey a "good senator" who has made significant contributions to Massachusetts and the nation, but the congressman insisted Tuesday that he should replace the incumbent in the U.S. Senate.

In their first televised debate, the two were in agreement on a range of issues, including ensuring a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, a more equitable criminal justice system, fighting climate change and support for Medicare-for-all. They both said President Trump represents an existential threat and must be replaced by a Democrat in November.

But Kennedy, 39, argued that the nation was in a crisis in the Trump era and that simply voting the “right way” was insufficient. He said the next U.S. senator to represent Massachusetts must leverage “every ounce of power” for major change.

“For this election, this time around, everything we care about is on the line,” Kennedy said, expressing support for ending the Senate filibuster and doing away with the electoral college.

Markey, 73, who served in the House before Kennedy was born, focused on his record and work with the newest members of Congress. He twice mentioned joining forces with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the Green New Deal, the manifesto that calls for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years, and guaranteeing jobs for all.

“I have led and delivered for the people of Massachusetts,” Markey said.

The Green New Deal is generating lots of left-wing enthusiasm. But not every Democrat is on board.

Although officially running against each other, Markey and Kennedy often sounded more like they were campaigning against Trump and the Republican-led Senate.

Kennedy, serving his fourth term in Congress, lashed out at the president for the actions he has taken against immigrants.

“The way this administration has gone about tarnishing the immigrant community is one of the most abhorrent things I’ve seen over the course of my time in office,” Kennedy said before slipping in a reminder of his own immigrant family members, who rose to the highest levels of government in the United States.

Markey, a second-term senator, highlighted his legislative accomplishments despite the Republican hold on the Senate, including funding for research on Alzheimer’s disease and gun-control legislation.

He spoke of his success in securing $25 million in research money to study gun violence in last year’s bipartisan spending bill to fund the government. He also talked in personal terms about helping his father care for his mother as she battled Alzheimer’s, as well as the importance of battling Trump’s policies against immigrants.

“We have to fight Donald Trump every single step of the way,” Markey said. “Take him to court. Not cooperate. This is fundamentally a challenge to who we are as Bostonians.”

Both men spoke of their records and their liberal efforts — supporting action against climate change, limiting U.S. troops in the Middle East, providing more affordable housing and redressing centuries of government-supported racism.

But they both kept coming back to the fight against Trump and his agenda as their top priority, and trying to sell themselves as the best positioned to lead that fight.

Kennedy highlighted his youthful energy and passion, sounding near tears at some points, and emphasized the importance of wielding the power of a Senate seat against the president. Markey tried to overcome the public impression of a policy wonk lacking in fight.

“I fight. I win. I have fought, I have led and I have delivered,” he said to the media after the hour-long debate, televised on WGBH public television and radio across the state.

Neither man stumbled in the wide-ranging, open-format discussion that covered everything from a local fight over a natural gas compressor to America’s health-care system.

Some members of the studio audience said both men had their moments. They did not seem convinced by either one but said they now want to study up and learn more about them before the Sept. 1 primary. Jaquell Sneed, 28, of the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, said she still wants to know “who’s going to make it happen.”

Because of the state’s Democratic leanings, whoever wins the primary is likely to win the Senate seat in November, several political scientists and strategists said.

Rep. Kennedy announces Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Markey

Kennedy is a fourth-generation politician with a famous political name that belonged to a president, senators, former congressmen and other politicians. He has served in the House since 2012, when Rep. Barney Frank decided not to seek reelection.

Markey has been in the Senate since 2013, when longtime senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry stepped down to become secretary of state. Before that, Markey had served as a congressman for 37 years.

Kennedy’s challenge to the incumbent is rare, especially in light of their near-mirror-image voting records and policies. The congressman has one advantage — greater name recognition than the sitting senator. “Most people think this is a race and that [Kennedy] can win,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist.

Kennedy announced his candidacy in September, proclaiming “now is not the time for waiting.” He has made nearly 300 campaign stops across the state since entering the race and held 11 town halls in January alone.

On fundraising, Kennedy has the edge, with $5.5 million cash on hand to Markey’s $4.6 million.

“It’s really a choice based on personality and sense of who is going to represent Massachusetts going forward in a way that counters President Trump,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Kennedy’s big challenge will be articulating why voters should support him for Senate when the state already has a Democratic senator with a similar record, Berry said.

To be competitive, Markey has to use the campaign to raise his profile, said Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Voters, Jenkins said, don’t “dislike Markey, they just don’t know him.”

Age is likely to be a big factor in the race, though exactly how remains unclear. Markey has drawn support from some younger voters who appreciate his long-standing work to protect the climate. But Kennedy has also drawn support from older voters, who may fondly remember when his great-uncle was president and when his grandfather represented New York in the Senate and then served as U.S. attorney general.

“The legend is that no Kennedy has lost an election in Massachusetts in 130 years,” said John Cluverius, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

As the younger candidate, Kennedy also may have an advantage by being seen as the candidate of change. He already has strong support from the LGBTQ community, as well as 19 labor unions.

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