Yesterday, September 1, 2020, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, the 39 year old, four term Congressman who is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, was defeated in the Massachusetts Democratic Primary for his party’s nomination to the United States Senate. He lost by a margin of 56% to 44% (with 79% of precincts reporting) to the incumbent U. S. Senator, 74 year old Edward J. Markey.
Kennedy, who is married to former NARAL Pro-Choice America staffer, has been a liberal Democrat in his eight years in Congress. He enjoyed a 100% rating from both the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL.
His opponent, Ed Markey, a classic chameleon and professional panderer—he began his political career as a pro-life state representative in 1973—proved more dexterous in adjusting to the new realities in the Democratic Party. Markey, considered the underdog in the campaign, sought the support of the ascendant socialist left, embracing the Green New Deal and receiving the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Kennedy, who was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was seen, somewhat improbably, by the party’s radical activist base as the candidate of the declining Democratic establishment.
With his defeat, he becomes the first Kennedy in five generations ever to lose an election in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The family entered elective politics in the state in 1884, 136 years ago, with the election of Patrick Joseph Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s great-great grandfather, to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
For 72 years, from 1946 to 2018, the Kennedy family was victorious in 51 primary and general elections in the Bay State.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the victor in six primary and six general elections in Massachusetts. He won races for his House seat in the 11th Congressional District in 1946, 1948 and 1950. He won Senate elections in 1952 and 1958. He won the Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary in 1960, and carried the state in the November, 1960 election.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy prevailed in ten primary and nine general elections. In a legendary fight, he defeated Democratic Attorney General Edward McCormack in the primary of a special election in 1962 to complete the six year Senate term of his brother, the President, and then defeated a Republican opponent to win the office.
He went on to win eight full terms of his own in the Senate, beginning in 1964, and continuing in 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000, and 2006. He died in office in 2009. He also won the March, 1980 Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat President Jimmy Carter.
In the 1986 election, his nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy II, succeeded to the historic Congressional seat held by the Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who had succeeded John F. Kennedy in 1952, who, in turn, had succeeded former Mayor and Governor James Michael Curley in 1946.
Joe Kennedy II won re-election in 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996. After twelve years in Congress, he decided not to seek a seventh term in 1998.
His son, Joseph P. Kennedy III, won primary and general elections for the Fourth Congressional District in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018. He will now leave elected office in January of 2021.
Joe Kennedy’s unprecedented defeat was more than a matter of strategy and ideology, but had to do with chronology and demography. The historic political base of the Kennedy family, has, it seems, an expiration date.
The old saying that politics is generational may apply here. That base, in Massachusetts, at least, was the so-called “greatest generation” which fought in World War II and came back from the war only to abandon the old political icons such as James Michael Curley and John W. McCormack.
They were drawn to the style, the affluence, the upward social mobility, the assimilationist ambitions, and the Americanizing instincts of the Kennedy family. For the rising, post war Catholic middle class of Massachusetts, working their way out of urban ethnic neighborhoods into bourgeois suburban life, and sending their sons to Boston College and Holy Cross, the Kennedys were the politicians of their dreams. Like the Kennedys, they believed that your religion should not get in the way of getting ahead in America.
That generation has now reached its century mark, and its attachments and sentiments have not been passed on. Moreover, the demography of Massachusetts has changed. Much of the population of the Commonwealth now comes from other states and from other countries, where the Kennedy mystique attracts no emotional investment.
It is an irony to ponder, but the decline of the Catholic population and the collapse of the Catholic vote in Massachusetts, may well prove mortal to the political survival of a dynasty which has fought against Catholic values for sixty years.