Markey vs. Kennedy: Welcome to the most unusual Senate primary in decades

Over the past quarter century, there hasn't been another Senate primary challenge quite like it

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KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is facing a strong primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D, MA-4) in 2020. While challenges to entrenched incumbent senators aren’t an everyday occurrence, the Markey-Kennedy race is especially unusual in recent Senate history

— Most senators who attract primary challenges are weakened in some way — they face questions about their advanced age, their party loyalty, or a brush with scandal — or else face a challenge on ideological grounds. Yet none of these factors fit the Markey-Kennedy contest.

— Over the past three decades, even the top-performing primary challengers had a no better than one-in-nine chance of ending up in the Senate. Yet at this point, Kennedy — bucking history — seems like a modest favorite in the race.

Markey-Kennedy: A unique primary battle

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) will be facing the fight of his political life this year. He’s being challenged in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D, MA-4), scion of the legendary political family.

The clash of Massachusetts political titans was sure to generate public and media interest regardless. But it’s worth pondering just how unusual Kennedy’s primary challenge is.

Markey has been serving in Congress since 1976, first in the House and now in the Senate. He’s 73, but shows no sign of being hobbled by advanced age. He sponsored the Senate version of the Green New Deal to counteract climate change, winning him plaudits from his party’s activist liberal wing. And the most recent 50-state senatorial approval surveys by Morning Consult show Markey to be popular, with 51% of voters approving and just 25% disapproving. That’s the 13th best showing of any senator in the nation.

So why is Kennedy challenging Markey in the primary?

It appears to be a combination of ambition and style.

For a Kennedy, the ambition part is obvious. He’s the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and the grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, each of whom served in the Senate. His father, Joe Kennedy II, previously served in the House. Kennedy III has already been elected four times to his House seat.

“The problem for ambitious Democrats in a heavily Democratic or Republican state — a state like Massachusetts — is that the ladder to the top statewide offices is often blocked by long-time incumbents,” said Steve Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in the Senate.

“The probability of knocking off such an incumbent is low, so primary challenges are uncommon. But a candidate with ambition and non-zero chances of winning may come to a ‘now or never’ decision.”

If Kennedy were to wait, a future Democratic primary “could see high-powered contestants like Attorney General Maura Healey or Reps. Seth Moulton or Ayanna Pressley,” said Maurice T. Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts-Boston political scientist. “If an opening does not come up in 2021, it could be four to six years — or even more — before a Senate seat opens. Polling told Kennedy that Markey is vulnerable, and the possible candidates down the road are all formidable.”

As for style, Kennedy seems to have a stronger ability to channel populist anger than Markey does. Markey has tended to be a technocratic workhorse in Congress; one of his most enduring legacies from his House tenure is telecommunications policy, not exactly the kind of issue that energizes the grassroots.

“The context of his challenge is the visceral anger Massachusetts Democrats feel toward President Trump and their frustration at not being able to do very much about the way he conducts himself,” said Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. “They want their members of Congress to be fighters — to take Trump to the woodshed and give him a whuppin’. Sen. Markey’s personality doesn’t fit well into that. Markey is calm and reasoned, and those are good qualities in a political leader. But they’re not enough for at least some voters here. This creates an opportunity for Congressman Kennedy.”

Historically, though, political ambition and stylistic differences have not been sufficient to oust an incumbent senator — or even to inspire a primary challenge in the first place.

For this article, we tabulated the past three decades of Senate incumbents who faced more than trivial primary challenges. We found 36 incumbent senators since 1992 who have faced a primary in which the challenger ended up winning at least 30% of the vote.

Three-quarters of those challengers nonetheless lost. And none of them were facing an incumbent as seemingly capable and popular as Markey.

In essentially every credible Senate primary challenge since 1992, the incumbent has been viewed as vulnerable because of some apparent weakness — advanced age, scandal, party-switching, or lack of true incumbency on account of being appointed to the Senate and never having run for the seat before. The others who were primaried typically faced an ideological challenge from another wing of their party.

In the Markey-Kennedy contest, none of these typical incumbent weaknesses seem to be apparent. And where ideology is concerned, “there are no significant differences between the candidates on public policy,” Berry said.

Another unusual factor about the Markey-Kennedy race is that Kennedy will have to give up his House seat in order to make the challenge. “It is pretty rare for a sitting House member to challenge a senator in the primary,” said Robert Boatright, a Clark University political scientist and author of Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges. We found fewer than a half-dozen examples in the past three decades.

For all his political skills, Kennedy likely would not be able to get away with challenging Markey if it were not for his famous name and deep connections. “There’s probably not another resident of Massachusetts who could give Markey a serious contest, in either a primary or general election,” said Richard E. Cohen, lead author of the Almanac of American Politics.

Let’s take a closer look at the nine incumbent senators since 1992 who were primaried and lost — the ones who, presumably, Kennedy is looking to model his insurgency on.

Table 1: Senators who have lost primaries since 1992

Alan Dixon: Dixon, an old-school pol known as “Al the Pal,” had completed two terms in the Senate but faced a dual primary challenge in 1992 from Carol Moseley Braun, the Cook County recorder of deeds, and deep-pocketed trial lawyer Albert Hofeld. “Dixon looked tired, old, and out of touch — he had broad but very shallow support and had not had a tough race in more than 20 years,” said University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield. “Everyone, including him, did not take the challengers seriously at first, and this allowed Hofeld and Braun to get traction.”

Braun’s base was in Chicago; she pitched herself as an alternative to old-style politics. “Race and gender were very important in framing her campaign and energizing her base,” Redfield said. Dixon took hits for voting to confirm Clarence Thomas. Crucially, Hofeld ran a big TV ad campaign targeted at Dixon; it hurt the incumbent while effectively sparing Braun, who went on to win, 38%-35% over Dixon, with Hofeld securing 27%. Braun won in November.

Sheila Frahm: Frahm was appointed to succeed Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who was running for president against Bill Clinton. Frahm was quickly challenged in the primary by first-term GOP Rep. Sam Brownback. “This matchup reflected a growing rift in the Kansas GOP between moderates and conservatives,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. Frahm was considered competent but not well known, whereas Brownback was a dynamo among social conservatives. “With an unknown, moderate, not-really incumbent in Frahm, it was bound to be a tough race for her,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. Brownback prevailed in a brief, hard-fought primary campaign and then won the seat in November.

Bob Smith: As a congressman, Smith won an open Senate seat in 1990, when winning the GOP Senate primary in New Hampshire was tantamount to winning in November. He was “accidentally” reelected senator in 1996 after pre-election polls and exit polls had predicted he’d lose to former Democratic Rep. Richard Swett. In the Senate, Smith was seen as too socially conservative and anti-abortion for New Hampshire, whose GOP tended more towards libertarianism and fiscal conservatism. Smith complicated matters further when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, then withdrew, then renounced his GOP membership, then ran for president under the Taxpayers Party banner, then flipped to independent, and finally dropped out of the race.

“This episode soured many in the New Hampshire GOP, who saw Smith as unelectable for 2002,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire survey center. Party elders turned to Rep. John E. Sununu to challenge Smith in the primary; Sununu was well-respected and more moderate than Smith, and also had a golden last name, thanks to his father, former Gov. John H. Sununu. Sununu easily defeated Smith in the September GOP primary and won the seat in November.

Joe Lieberman: Lieberman had become a national figure as Al Gore’s 2000 running mate, and he ran for president again in 2004. By the time of his 2006 reelection race, Lieberman had been a prominent supporter of the Iraq War even though more and more Democrats were turning against it. Ned Lamont, a wealthy Democrat, decided to challenge Lieberman. “By 2006 they were ready to pounce and found their vessel in a candidate willing to spend part of his family fortune.” said Kevin Rennie, a former Connecticut GOP legislator and commentator.

“Local party organizations still mattered in 2006,” Rennie said. “Lamont dove into the drudgery of visiting local Democratic town committees, allowing him to hone his message without attracting attention. Lamont won more than a third of the delegate votes at the party convention that spring, stunning Lieberman.” Lamont proceeded to win the primary narrowly, but he fizzled in the general election, as many Republicans and a portion of Democrats pulled Lieberman to victory as an independent. (Lamont is now Connecticut’s governor.)

Bob Bennett: Bennett, with three terms under his belt, was running for reelection in the peak Tea Party year of 2010; he lost thanks to an energized core of conservatives who were able to leverage a favorable nomination system in his home state. At the time, Utah candidates had to go through a party convention to get on the primary ballot. If no candidate won at least 60% of the delegates’ votes, the top two vote-getters proceeded to the primary. In 2010, the top-two finishers in delegate votes were two strong conservatives, Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, leaving Bennett — who was painted as a moderate and a creature of D.C. — shut out of the primary ballot. Lee won the primary and continues to serve as a senator.

“Bennett admitted later that he didn’t start campaigning until too late — he hadn’t faced a primary since 1992 and hadn’t adequately geared up for 2010,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “However, he could have run a perfect campaign and still lost at the convention. He recalled that his office had never received such a high volume of intensely angry calls as it during that time.” A post-script: Utah changed its nominating process after Bennett’s loss in a way that makes this scenario less likely to recur.

Arlen Specter: Specter’s moderate leanings kept him at near-constant risk of a primary challenge in the Senate. He prevailed — narrowly — in 2004 against GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, and six years later, facing the prospect of another primary challenge by Toomey, Specter switched parties and became a Democrat. But he didn’t escape a primary challenge on the Democratic side, either, as Rep. Joe Sestak took him on. “Sestak’s media campaign attacking Specter’s claim to now be a Democrat was very effective,” said Franklin and Marshall University political scientist Terry Madonna. “In the end, Specter’s party switch was too much” for voters.

Lisa Murkowski: Murkowski fended off a primary challenge in 2004 after she had been appointed to a vacant Senate seat by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. But she faced an even tougher predicament when she ran for a second full term in 2010. In a late-August GOP primary, Joe Miller — an Army veteran and political novice endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Tea Party groups — defeated Murkowski. Murkowski proceeded to run as a write-in candidate in the general election against Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams. Murkowski’s moderate stances won enough Democratic votes, including those of Native Alaskans, to engineer a historic write-in victory.

Dick Lugar: Lugar was a widely respected, moderate voice in the Senate, but he was 80 years old in 2012 and was perceived as having been inattentive to political matters back home, including failures to tend to local party organizations that had turned hard to the right in recent years. The socially conservative primary electorate disliked Lugar, who had collaborated extensively with then-Sen. Barack Obama, the Tea Party’s bete noire. In the primary, social conservative Richard Mourdock won, 60%-40%. In the general election, however, Mourdock all but disqualified himself with comments about rape, enabling Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly to win in November.

Luther Strange: Strange was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Sen. Jeff Sessions was named attorney general by President Donald Trump. Trump, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, backed Strange in the special election primary, which included three major GOP candidates — Strange, Rep. Mo Brooks, and former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore. Moore ran about as far to the right as any candidate could in solidly red Alabama, and in the primary, Moore finished with 39% to Strange’s 33%. In the runoff, Moore once again prevailed, defeating Strange, 55%-45%. Eventually, credible allegations of sexual misconduct by Moore against minors enabled Democrat Doug Jones to narrowly defeat Moore in the general election.

All told, none of these nine Senate incumbents look remotely like Markey. Each had at least one, if not more than one, significant weakness coming into the race.

Frahm and Strange were appointed senators running for the first time since their appointment. Lieberman, Bennett, Murkowski, and Lugar all faced strong ideological challenges. Smith and Specter grappled with primary voters’ concerns about how loyal they were to their party. And Dixon, among others, faced questions about his advanced age.

Now let’s look at notable primary challenges in which the incumbent still managed to win.

We found 27 of them, and none seems to mirror the Markey-Kennedy contest. Here’s the list of incumbent senators who faced primaries and won, but where their challenger secured at least 30% of the vote. (We’ve also included Dianne Feinstein, whose 2018 Democratic challenger won an impressive 46% in what became a Democrat vs. Democrat top-two general election.)

Table 2: Notable unsuccessful Senate primary challenges since 1992

This list includes three appointed senators facing voters for a Senate seat for the first time: Murkowski, Bennet, and Schatz. It includes five elected incumbents facing significant age-related questions: John Chafee, Thurmond, Akaka, Lautenberg, and Roberts. It includes two — Robb and Menendez — who were grappling with scandals or legal issues. It includes two others — Reid and Kerry — who faced challenges from seeming gadflies who managed to overperform our 30% threshold. And many on this list faced strong ideological challenges from either their right or their left: Specter (twice), McCain (twice), Warner, Lincoln Chafee, Graham, Lincoln, Hatch, McConnell, Cochran, Alexander, Feinstein, and Carper.

The closest analogue, perhaps, is Bumpers’ 1992 race. But even if we count that contest as similar, it was almost three decades ago — and Bumpers’ unsuccessful challenger was hardly blessed with the national reputation of a Kennedy.

We should note that there could be other incumbents credibly challenged in primaries in 2020. Two are appointed senators running for the seat for the first time — Sens. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), which is one of the traditional reasons that incumbents have historically gotten a primary challenge. For a time, it appeared that Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) could face a strong primary challenge, but businessman Garland Tucker (R) left the race and no one credible filed against him. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) also have ideological challengers.

What’s the outlook for the Markey-Kennedy race?

Despite the long historical odds, Kennedy — if anything — appears to be a modest favorite in the race, and Markey appears to have the most difficult primary path of any incumbent senator running for renomination this year and among the most difficult of any of the embattled incumbents mentioned above.

In a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters released in September, Kennedy led Markey in a head-to-head race, 42%-28%. When additional Democratic names were added to the primary field, Kennedy led Markey 35%-26%, with a 36% undecided. (Democrat Shannon Liss-Riordan had generated some grassroots support on the left before Kennedy’s entry into the race, and she has continued her candidacy.)

Markey seems to understand the peril he’s in. In December, he shook up his staff in preparation for the tough primary.

Boatright, who’s based at Clark University in Massachusetts, noted that a number of U.S. House members from Massachusetts — a state with an all-Democratic delegation — also face primary challenges for 2020. He said this reality may stem from the success of now-Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who defeated a senior Democratic House member in the 2018 primary. “Plenty of older, white, not-all-that charismatic Democrats in safe Democratic places have opponents,” he said. “So Kennedy is sort of riding on that to a degree.”

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, Massachusetts is such a strongly blue state that Sabato’s Crystal Ball and other handicappers rate the contest Safe Democratic for the general election.

Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and was senior author of the 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions of the Almanac of American Politics and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.