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Opinion: Joe Kennedy fights for his family’s legacy in a 'nasty' campaign

As Democrats rally against Trump, the race for Massachusetts’ Senate seat is also worth watching, Larry Donnelly writes.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“I DID HOPE, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously… But he never did.

“For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”

These lines from an address at this week’s virtual Democratic National Convention are reproduced here not because they were delivered by an ambitious member of Congress or mayor trying to make an impression and to curry favour with the party’s ascendant leftist wing.

Instead, they were uttered by Donald Trump’s predecessor as President of the United States, Barack Obama.

An unusual convention

It is exceedingly rare for a former president to launch this sort of unrestrained attack on an incumbent. That Obama did and that he did so with manifest conviction is indicative of the one thing that unifies the Democratic Party above all in 2020: the need to deny President Trump four more years.

Term-limited, freed from electoral pressure and broadly indifferent to the consequences of his actions for the future prospects of fellow Republicans, there is widespread fear about what the New York billionaire might be capable of.

Anti-Trump sentiment featured in a big way at the convention. At the same time, the portrayal of Joe Biden as a “regular guy” who is in touch and at ease with ordinary working American men and women was a central component.

The party’s younger, more liberal and more diverse figures were also allocated prominent speaking slots. Their doubts about the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket are well-known.

Accordingly, they have a crucial role to play in rallying their dedicated followers around these more moderate, establishment-oriented nominees.

This apparent lack of enthusiasm, along with concerns about Joe Biden’s stamina and an emerging gulf between progressives and the party’s old guard are themes that will be amplified at the Republican National Convention in the days to come.

Already, tweets from President Trump and his top surrogates, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have sent strong signals in this regard. The battle for the White House has commenced in earnest.

Meanwhile, the undercurrents of intra-party Democratic division are being felt, to varying extents, in a primary race to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate that has garnered national and global attention because of the challenger’s surname: Kennedy.

The Kennedy legacy

Here in Ireland, I am asked nearly as often about Joe Kennedy’s chances of triumphing as I am about Trump’s.

Joe Kennedy, who is 39 and has served in the US House of Representatives since 2013, is endeavouring to vanquish the 74-year-old sitting US Senator, Ed Markey.

Markey has been on Capitol Hill and has held a seat – first in the lower and then in the upper chamber – for more than four decades.

election-2020-massachusetts-senate Incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey and challenger Representative Joseph Kennedy III in the final debate leading up to the 1 September primary. Source: Barry Chin/Globe Staff

When this column first visited the Kennedy vs Markey match-up five months ago, I ventured that an initially civil affair would get somewhat more heated as Election Day, 1 September, approached.

My assumption was that Kennedy, then well ahead in most polling, would see little to gain in going after a much older man who was a steadfast ally of his storied family.

On the flip side, I expected Markey to stress his solidly liberal credentials and invoke his working-class upbringing to draw a subtle contrast with the closest thing America has to a royal family.

I certainly did not foresee just how robust a line each man would take against the other.

The battle of Massachusetts

To quote several of the local opinion and colour piece writers covering the campaign, the only word that suffices to describe it is “nasty”.

Recent polls show that the contest is something of a dead heat with a lot of variables as we enter the final stretch.

The changed mechanics of voting in the midst of the pandemic is likely the most important of these. Whichever candidate has the best, and most appropriately updated, get-out-the-vote operation may have the advantage.

Kennedy has chastised Markey for touting his ownership of and frequent presence at the modest home north of Boston he grew up in, yet in fact spending most of his time in a mansion on the outskirts of Washington, DC; for overegging his record as a legislator; for being out of touch with his constituents, particularly people of colour who haven’t received the assistance they required from Markey’s office; and, in a more implicit fashion, for being of a generation whose time has past.

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Markey has repeatedly cited his early, forward-thinking advocacy on environmental issues and for the Green New Deal and consequent endorsements from many activists and groups on the left, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and MoveOn.

And maybe owing to their perceived decline in popularity, even in Massachusetts, Markey has been quite unabashed about the Kennedys and their wealth.

When a Boston journalist arrived at his small house for an interview, he bellowed out “Welcome to the compound!” in a not so thinly veiled reference to the vast and luxurious Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod.

Additionally, when it was rumoured that Joe Kennedy’s father (with whom Markey previously served in the US House) was to lend millions to a Super PAC which would run negative ads, Markey released a video on social media with the chorus – “You can rely on the old man’s money” – from a classic Hall & Oates’ hit playing in the background.

Endorsements of Markey by the Boston Globe and influential local papers like the Dorchester Reporter, which would always have been very sympathetic toward and supportive of Kennedys seeking elected positions, are actually historic in a sense.

An uncertain forecast

With nine days to go, it is very hard to know who will prevail, but it is definitely one to watch for two overarching reasons.

First, for Kennedy fans, perhaps especially those in Wexford where their journey to fame and power in the US began, it will mark either the first step on a road to another quest for the presidency or the end of an extraordinary political dynasty, at least for now.

Second, ahead of the presidential election on 3 November, it could offer a better idea as to how the federal postal service and individual state governments will deal with processing and counting votes.

And no, I am not making any prediction other than to say my home state will continue to be represented well no matter who wins.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.           

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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