SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Home-state Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be the headliner when Massachusetts Democrats gather for their annual state convention Saturday. But her rising presidential campaign fortunes won’t be the only thing delegates are buzzing about.
An impending primary election clash between Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III has the party holding its collective breath, awaiting a potentially epic and expensive race that stands to divide the state’s political class and reverberate across the ballot next year.
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Already, incumbents up and down the ballot are wondering about the implications for voter turnout and media coverage of their own races. Some are wondering about the potential effect on Democratic fundraising both at home and nationally, since Boston is a key East Coast fundraising hub.
Kennedy has not yet confirmed that he will challenge the 73-year-old senator. He is expected to make a decision by the end of the month. But he is gearing up for a run just in case, and the prospect has heightened intrigue in a political election cycle that is already shaping up to have an unusually high number of primary challenges in Massachusetts.
“I have to say, it’s part of a trend. I am disappointed about this outbreak of primaries in which there are no issue differences. I told Congressman Kennedy I was disappointed he was doing this,” said former Congressman Barney Frank. “What it means is money and energy that Democrats should be spending on beating the Republicans, a lot of it is being diverted into these internal fights.”
Kennedy addressed that criticism late last month, after news broke that he was considering a Senate run.
“I hear the folks who say I should wait my turn, but with due respect — I’m not sure this is a moment for waiting. Our system has been letting down a lot of people for a long time, and we can’t fix it if we don’t challenge it,” Kennedy wrote in a Facebook post.
But donors are already expressing concerns that the race has the potential to suck up money, attention and resources in Massachusetts that some feel would be better deployed against President Donald Trump and in states where Democrats could flip Republican Senate seats.
“Ed is gonna fight, fight, fight, and Joe has got his reputation on the line,” said one Boston-based donor, who has not decided whether to support Kennedy or Markey. “Among the donor class, we’re like ‘Really? Really?’ We’ve got a lot of other fish to fry, and this is one that we’d prefer not to, but so be it.”
“Everybody I talk to says ‘I love Joe, I love Ed.’ You know, I think you’ll see the establishment-type people gravitate toward Ed, and the more non-establishment-type people gravitate toward Joe,” the donor added.
Markey and Kennedy have largely avoided each other since Kennedy‘s interest in his seat became known. When Markey addresses the convention Saturday, Kennedy won’t be in the hall: he scheduled office hours on the other side of the state. But the 38-year-old congressman will make an appearance at the convention later in the afternoon.
Early polling shows Kennedy with an edge. He has a 14-percentage-point lead over Markey in a head-to-head match-up, according to a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll conducted just after Labor Day. Against Markey and his already-announced Senate challengers, Steve Pemberton and Shannon Liss-Riordan, Kennedy leads by 9.
Markey has announced endorsements from 116 Democratic state lawmakers and has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Warren and most of his Senate colleagues. On Friday, Markey nabbed a high-profile endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom he partnered with on the Green New Deal.
Although he has not declared his candidacy, Kennedy already has the backing of a union that supported Markey in his 2013 special Senate election victory.
The majority of the state’s all Democratic congressional delegation — rocked last year by Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s upset primary win over longtime incumbent Mike Capuano — is backing Markey.
Still, some are privately expressing relief over the prospect of a blockbuster Senate race that could soak up media attention and deny critical oxygen to their own primary challengers, according to an aide to a member of Congress who faces a primary this cycle.
A Kennedy-Markey race is likely to take attention off other primary challenges, and become the state’s dominant political story, the aide said.
But Frank cautioned that the contest could do the opposite, and actually deliver a boost to those who are taking on Massachusetts incumbents.
“I think it sort of legitimizes the notion of a challenge,” Frank said. “There will be the notion of ‘Why are you running against an incumbent?’ and they can say ‘Well, you agree with Joe Kennedy doing it.’ It legitimizes it for other people.”
Almost every member of the House delegation has a challenger this cycle, in a state where competitive congressional primaries were virtually unheard of until Rep. Seth Moulton trounced incumbent John Tierney in 2014. Tierney’s nonprofit, the Council for a Livable World, made a rare primary endorsement to back Markey.
“I have nothing bad to say about Joe, he’s a great member of the House,” Tierney said. “It’s unfortunate they could be running against each other.”
“I have my own opinion, for obvious reasons, why it doesn’t make sense to take on somebody making the right votes,” Tierney added. “We should be rewarding people in there who do hard work to continue on that path. Why would you knock them out just because they’ve been in Congress for X number of years?”
Tierney’s successor, Moulton, faces two announced primary challengers, and Tierney is considering a comeback himself. Veteran Reps. Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch are also facing primary challenges from the left. First-term Rep. Lori Trahan is raising money under the assumption that her 2018 primary rival Dan Koh will challenge her to a rematch.
One prominent lawmaker who has been conspicuously silent is Pressley — she’s hasn’t endorsed Markey or Kennedy. Asked whether a Senate primary would be an unwise use of resources when President Donald Trump is on the ballot, Pressley deferred and said she will “bet on the American people.”
“I’m betting on and believing in the American people to continue to organize so that we can take back the White House, and there are also opportunities in the Senate … to convert states from red to blue,” she said.
In Kennedy’s congressional district, which runs from the Boston suburbs to the state’s South Coast, a shadow primary to succeed him is already playing out. More than a dozen people have signaled their interest in running for his seat if he runs for Senate. One state lawmaker even issued a press release declaring her intention not to run for the seat, which is not open yet.
“So it’s not just the money that will be spent on the Kennedy-Markey race if it goes forward, but there will be millions of dollars spent by congressional candidates,” Frank said.
The list of would-be candidates is a mix of state lawmakers, activists and Democrats who were scared out of the race by Kennedy when Frank retired in 2012, and have been itching to run ever since.
State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg — who might have otherwise had modest interest in her scheduled convention speech Saturday — will find her words under especially close scrutiny: she, too, has been reaching out to donors and operatives since the beginning of August about a potential run for Kennedy’s seat.
“The 4th District is just gonna be a scrum,” said the undecided Boston donor. “And I think that’s the one which is probably going to create the real divisions.”