After the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy famously compared his 1,000-day presidency to “Camelot,” a popular Broadway musical about the legend of King Arthur — crafting a wistful shorthand for the Kennedy tenure, and by extension the entire Kennedy dynasty.
Now, 60 years after JFK’s election as president, some are wondering if the days of “Camelot” are over after U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy lll’s failed attempt to oust incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey in Tuesday’s state Democratic primary.
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The loss marks the first time a member of the political dynasty has come up short in a race for Congress in Massachusetts.
The 39-year-old Kennedy, even as he conceded the election, seemed to leave open the possibility of a future chapter in his family’s long political saga.
“No matter the results tonight, I would do this again with all of you again in a heartbeat,” Kennedy told supporters. “We may have lost the final vote count tonight, but we built a coalition that will endure because this coalition, our coalition, is the future of a Democratic Party.”
In reality, a successful revival for Kennedy is going to be tough given the state’s changing political landscape, said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of American politics and political behavior at Tufts University.
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“It’s going to be difficult for him to come back and do elected politics here in Massachusetts because the Democratic side is very crowded with a lot of very capable people,” Berry said, pointing to potential rivals including U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
Berry said Kennedy was in a difficult position because it was hard for him to run to the left of Markey, given New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Markey.
Kennedy instead won the endorsement of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“That left him as the establishment candidate, which was not a good position to be in,” Berry said.
The Kennedy legacy hung over the race, especially in the closing weeks, when Kennedy more explicitly invoked his pedigree including JFK; former U.S. Senator and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, his grandfather; and former U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who held a Senate seat in Massachusetts for nearly half a century until his death in 2009.
Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy ll, also held a Massachusetts seat in Congress from 1987 to 1999.
For his part, the 74-year-old Markey was able to flip the Kennedy script, highlighting his blue-collar roots growing up as the son of a driver for the Hood Milk Co. in working-class Malden, a Boston suburb.
In one campaign ad, Markey also offered an updated take on a famous JFK quote, saying: “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
One loss doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the Kennedy mystique, said Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
“Is ‘Camelot’ over? No,” she said.
O’Brien pointed out that early on, polls were giving Kennedy the edge, in large part because of the political cachet of his last name.
But as the race wore on, Kennedy struggled to answer the fundamental question of why he was running — a question that helped trip up Edward Kennedy’s 1980 campaign for president, which was also against an incumbent, Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
“He was trying to make a change argument, but became a corporate moderate, and Ed Markey became the second coming of Bernie Sanders,” O’Brien said. “He became the embodiment of privilege or inherited wealth, and those are two things that Democrats are not looking for in elected officials.”
In the end, she said, Kennedy couldn’t reveal his real reason for challenging Markey — to avoid a crowded Democratic field in a future race for an open Senate seat that could include popular Democrats like Pressley, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton and Attorney General Maura Healey.
“Joe Kennedy gambled and he lost,” she said.
Kennedy’s defeat is also a loss for the national Democratic Party’s bank account.
The scion of one of the country’s most famous political dynasties was popular among high-dollar donors well beyond Massachusetts. Kennedy helped raise millions of dollars for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, during the 2018 midterm elections. He also stumped for more than a dozen other candidates.
Massachusetts voters may have rejected him, but few remaining House Democrats carry the same national fundraising appeal as Kennedy.
Lost in the talk of the Kennedy legacy is Markey’s own long history of winning elections. First elected to the House in a special election in 1976, Markey has never lost a subsequent race in the House or Senate.
Other members of the extended Kennedy clan have lost congressional contests outside Massachusetts. In 1986, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost a U.S. House race in Maryland, and in 2002, Mark Kennedy Shriver also lost a congressional primary in Maryland.
In his concession speech, Kennedy gave a nod to the extended Kennedy clan.
“To my mom, my dad, my twin brother and the rest of a rowdy bunch of crazy cousins, you all are my heroes,” he said. “You are my example of what public service should be and can be when it is done with courage and grit.”
And while there may be no other members of the family waiting in the political wings, you can’t count the family out completely, Berry said.
“He has two adorable children, and maybe 40 years from now, they’ll run,” he said.