“Everyone’s going to pull out the stops now — on both sides — for the rest of this race, all the way to Sept. 1. And there’s not a lot of time left,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Markey is running like someone who doesn’t feel like he’s in the lead but he’s fighting hard to make up the difference there. And Joe Kennedy’s fighting to make sure he wins.”
Before the pandemic upended his campaign, Markey was focused on winning the state convention in May. The annual gathering of Democratic activists — Markey’s base — would have been a significant moment for his camp, a reminder of his progressive credentials and longstanding ties to rank-and-file party activists.
But the convention had to be scrapped as the state scrambled to contain the outbreak. Both campaigns agreed to declare Markey the winner of the convention because he had won the most delegates in local Democratic caucuses; those delegates would have voted at the convention. But it was a small consolation — Markey was deprived of the opportunity to deliver a bruise to Kennedy, a high-profile speech to hundreds of the state’s die-hard Democratic activists, and benefit from the likely resulting fundraising bump, viral social media clips and news coverage.
That wasn’t the only setback. Markey has also had to rethink his ground game since his campaign cannot mobilize a door-knocking effort by his young supporters, many of whom have flocked to him after Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 primary race.
The primary has instead moved almost entirely online, where Kennedy’s digital operation far outpaces his opponent. Kennedy broadcasts daily to a massive audience of 1.1 million Facebook followers, while Markey, who also hosts frequent livestreams, only has 58,000 fans on the network. Markey has 9,428 followers on Instagram, while Kennedy has 39,600. The pair are more evenly matched on Twitter but even there, Kennedy has the edge — he has 91,900 followers to 70,800 for Markey. The senator’s campaign recently sought to boost the size of his Twitter following by promising to release a childhood photo of him dressed as a cowboy when it crossed the 70,000 threshold.
Despite odds that seem stacked against him, Markey’s proven to be a formidable opponent. Some political watchers in Massachusetts at first speculated the 73-year-old senator might look at the primary contest ahead of him and retire. Instead, Markey has reintroduced himself to voters as a staunch progressive with a working class background.
“Both camps are taking their gloves off, for lack of better words,” said Boston consultant Wilnelia Rivera, who was a strategist for Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s primary campaign in 2018. Rivera was also an adviser to Steve Pemberton, the businessman who announced last year he’d challenge Markey in the primary, but has already dropped out of the race.
Both candidates were armed with opposition research against each other and fired up at the Monday debate — a noticeable change of tone from past debates and the months spent running their campaigns mostly via Zoom.
Markey’s campaign ran with the “progressive in name only” attack on Kennedy and shared the video on Twitter, which went viral. The next day, Kennedy countered with a video from Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, who called Kennedy “a leading progressive voice in Congress.”
The video countered Markey’s claim that Kennedy isn’t progressive, and also underscored Kennedy’s institutional support — an unusual asset for a primary challenger. Among his backers: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who was a special guest at a Kennedy fundraiser last month.
Quarter after quarter, Kennedy has had a fundraising advantage, which is rare for a Senate primary challenger. He’s already used his $6.2 million war chest for $2.4 million in television ad buys. Markey, by contrast, has $4.4 million in cash on hand, and he has not bought space on the airwaves.
A perennial criticism of Markey is that he spends too much time at his home in suburban Maryland instead of Massachusetts, and Kennedy has made that a part of his campaign messaging. But Markey has sought to counter that message by embracing the modest Malden home he grew up in.
When a Boston Globe reporter drove by Markey’s house this week to see if he was there, the senator happened to be standing in the driveway.
“Welcome to the compound,” Markey quipped, a sly reference to the famous Kennedy compound in Hyannis.
“It seems like Markey is going with his working class roots and his dad being a milkman and being very much, you know, kind of a scrappy working class Democrat coming up from Malden,” said pollster David Paleologos of Suffolk University. “And Joe Kennedy is going to go with change, that he could do more and has more energy.”
Both candidates will need to account for one more significant coronavirus disruption. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill are still deciding how to expand vote by mail options for the Sept. 1 primary. Issues including same-day voter registration, and whether voters should request ballots or receive them in the mail automatically, are still up in the air.
“All the signs you build your campaign on in terms of who your voters are and who you think is going to come out to vote is related to the mechanics of GOTV and Election Day,” Rivera said. “Without knowing fully what the September primary will look like in Massachusetts, it’s really making it hard right now, from where we sit, who can win.”
The state legislature could send a vote by mail bill to the governor as soon as this week, but lawmakers are cutting it close with the primary less than three months away, according to Quentin Palfrey, the Boston-based chair of the Voter Protection Corps, a nonpartisan voter protection group.
“The example I come back to is the Iowa caucuses, where they came up with a new system and it wasn’t thoroughly tested and it didn’t work out very well,” Palfrey said. “The closer you get to the election, the harder it is to make fundamental changes.”
One variable that’s become more concrete this month is the role of outside cash. Kennedy has pushed Markey to sign a so-called People’s Pledge to limit outside money in the race. Markey championed the pledge when he ran for Senate in 2013, which requires that candidates donate their own campaign funds to charity every time an outside group spends money on their behalf. The original People’s Pledge was made popular by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Sen. Scott Brown in their 2012 showdown.
This time around, Markey has refused to sign the pledge, calling instead for an agreement that allows outside groups that keep their messaging “positive” and disclose their donors. In the absence of a truce, outside groups are already preparing to spend money in the primary race.
Environment Massachusetts said it would spend $200,000 for Markey in the coming weeks through the Environment America Action Fund, and a pro-Kennedy operation emerged in a matter of hours after the environmental group’s announcement. The consultant organizing the Kennedy independent expenditure, Doug Rubin, is well-known in Massachusetts for working with Markey’s campaign manager, John Walsh, to elect former Gov. Deval Patrick. Most recently, Rubin worked for Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign.
Kennedy discouraged the group in the debate from spending on his behalf, but did not go as far as to say he’d abide by the pledge without Markey on board.
“The People’s Pledge takes effect when all parties sign. We’re still waiting for Sen. Markey to sign. I hope he does,” Kennedy told reporters after the debate.
Rivera, the Boston consultant, isn’t convinced the primary contest will draw tons of outside money. In a year with President Donald Trump on the ballot and Democrats contending to flip the Senate from Republican control, a blue-state Senate race where the eventual winner will almost certainly be a Democrat is unlikely to draw much interest from donors.
“Even though this is a fight that has national implications,” said Rivera. “It still is, in some ways, a Massachusetts family fight about our future.”
“That’s not a rallying call for money when you’re trying to flip Kentucky,” Rivera added.