No challenger has ever upset an incumbent in a Bay State primary for the office

The head-to-head primary challenge of Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Senator Ed Markey by U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy III has at times seemed curious to political observers.

Markey, a reliable liberal vote in the chamber, has seemingly done little to disqualify himself from the support he has come to expect from his constituents, other than being 35 years older than his would-be political vanquisher.

And yet, polling conducted over most of the last 10 months since Kennedy launched his campaign indicated he was in a strong position to knock an incumbent with more than 43 years of experience in congress out of office.

Recent surveys suggest Markey has found his footing as the campaigns head into the last few weeks before Primary Day on September 1st.

Even with his legendary surname and political lineage, a Kennedy victory in two weeks would be a monumental take-down in Massachusetts electoral history.

To date, no Massachusetts U.S. Senator has lost a primary in each of the 32 previous renomination campaigns launched since the first primary for the office in the state in 1916. And all but one was a blow-out.

In the direct election era, U.S. Senators from the state have stepped aside and not sought renomination just eight times out of 41 special and general elections:

  • Republican Frederick Gillett (1930): Retired from political office
  • Democrat Marcus Coolidge (1936): Retired from political office after Governor James Curley entered the race
  • Appointed Republican Sinclair Weeks (1944 special): Weeks stated he would not seek the nomination if Governor Leverett Saltonstall, who appointed Weeks to the seat, was a candidate
  • Appointed Democrat Benjamin Smith (1962 special): Retired from political office prior to Ted Kennedy and state Attorney General Edward McCormack (nephew of the U.S. House Speaker) declaring their candidacies
  • Republican Leverett Saltonstall (1966): Retired from political office after 22 years in office
  • Democrat Paul Tsongas (1984): Resumed his law practice
  • Appointed Democrat Paul Kirk (2009 special): Announced he would not be a candidate in the special election on the day he was appointed to office in September 2009
  • Appointed Democrat Mo Cowan (2013 special): Announced he would not be a candidate in the special election upon his appointment in February 2013

Out of the remaining 33 primary contests with incumbents on the ballot there have been a total of 10 challengers.

In 26 of these 33 cycles with a U.S. Senator seeking his or her party’s nomination, the incumbent ran unopposed:

  • Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in 1916
  • Republican John Weeks in 1918
  • Democrat David Walsh in 1924, 1928, 1940, and 1946
  • Republican William Butler in 1926 (special)
  • Republican Leverett Saltonstall in 1948, 1954, and 1960
  • Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. in 1952
  • Democrat John Kennedy in 1958
  • Democrat Ted Kennedy in 1964, 1970, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000, and 2006
  • Republican Edward Brooke in 1972
  • Democrat John Kerry in 1990, 1996, and 2002
  • Republican Scott Brown in 2012
  • Democrat Ed Markey in 2014
  • Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2018

The only instances in which an incumbent faced a primary challenger prior to 2020 were in the following six cycles:

  • 1922: Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge defeated former Massachusetts House Speaker Joseph Walker of Brookline by 50.6 points
  • 1934: Democratic Senator David Walsh beat former Lieutenant Governor Edward Barry by 41.4 points. [Former state Representative William Donahue of Boston placed a distant third].
  • 1942: Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. trounced Boston attorney Courtenay Crocker by 76.2 points
  • 1976: Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy defeated Boston attorney Robert Dinsmore by 57.7 points. [Boston City Councilman Fred Langone and Stoughton contractor Bernard Shannon were also on the primary ballot, although Shannon withdrew and endorsed Dinsmore].
  • 1978: Republican Senator Edward Brooke escaped with a 6.6-point victory against former radio personality and 1972 4th CD congressional candidate Avi Nelson
  • 2008: Democratic Senator John Kerry defeated attorney and Gloucester city councilor Ed O’Reilly by 37.9 points

In short, only one primary challenger to a sitting Massachusetts U.S. Senator has been defeated by less than 37 points in state history.

Kennedy, of course, expects to do much better than that.

Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.


  1. Nikoli Orr on August 18, 2020 at 12:13 am

    1. 1984: More specifically, Paul Efthemios Tsongas retired from the senate after a single term following his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis the preceding year. After receiving a ‘clean bill of health’ following the “resumption of his law practice” Tsongas returned to electoral politics, namely the D presidential nomination of 1991-92, finishing third overall, though placing first in 9 contests, which was three more than “Jerry” Brown, who was making his presumed final bid for federal office (he would make a triumphant return to CA state politics, easily winning three statewide elections, albeit much later, as in 14 years on).

    2. 1978: The narrow escape of “Ed” Brooke in his party primary election foreshadowed his later defeat, and indeed mirrored the stunning upset loss of first-term Governor Michael Stanley Dukakis on the same day.

    3. 2020: If the scion were not bidding for office in MA and with the bloodline of a (“Camelot”) Kennedy, his candidacy would likely be taken about as seriously as that of the presidential bid of noted record producer and rap artist Kanye Omari West.

  2. Nikoli Orr on September 3, 2020 at 12:35 am

    4. 2020-b: History WAS made in the presumably determinative D US senate primary election – just not in the way that Joseph Patrick Kennedy III had hoped; prior to this, every member of the storied clan had won EVERY SINGLE ELECTION within the Bay State, including the presidential primary election of 1980 (Senator Edward Mooore “Teddy” Kennedy v President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter) and even the 1972 presidential election, which included Robert Sargent Shriver, a member thereof by marriage. Having started with an early lead, though, “Joe” III never managed to persuade a sufficient number of primary voters that Edward John Markey was not deserving of an additional 6 years, whether on the basis of constituent service or ideological compatibility. Not only did he fail to oust the junior senator (though his overall Congressional tenure is much longer than his in-state colleague) Kennedy did not even attain the best showing by a challenger to an (elected) incumbent us senator (-10.8%, in double-digit territory).

    • John Chessant on September 9, 2020 at 12:05 am

      If we’re counting presidential elections, then Joe Kennedy III may not have been the first Kennedy to lose an election in Massachusetts. In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) was the sole ballot-listed candidate in the Massachusetts presidential primary, and he won with 50.8% of the vote. Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey ran as write-in candidates, receiving 28.1% and 18.2% of the vote, respectively. So technically Kennedy lost this primary election to McCarthy, but we can easily amend our statement to exclude this case.

      Also worth a mention is Joseph P. Kennedy II, who ran for governor in 1998. He was initially the front-runner, but withdrew after revelations about his personal life, and he retired from his U.S. House seat in 1999.

      We’re assuming, of course, that this “storied clan” started with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald, and not the generation before them. Rose Fitzgerald’s father John Fitzgerald lost many elections. He narrowly lost re-election as mayor in 1907. After re-gaining the office in 1910, he withdrew his bid for re-election in 1913 under pressure from James M. Curley. [Curley was allegedly pressured out of his U.S. House seat in 1946 by J. P. Kennedy Sr. to make way for his son John F. Kennedy.] Fitzgerald then lost the 1916 U.S. Senate election to Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., a loss avenged when grandson defeated grandson in the 1952 U.S. Senate election, with the Kennedys winning family rematches in 1960 and 1962 for good measure. Fitzgerald also lost the 1922 general election for governor and the 1942 primary election for U.S. Senate.

      [J. P. Kennedy, who was famously the chair of the securities and exchange commission, and U.S. ambassador to the U.K., and his father P. J. Kennedy, who served an uneventful decade in the state legislature before becoming a party boss, preferred to play behind-the-scenes roles in city, state, and (eventually) federal politics. They did not lose any elections, though P. J. Kennedy unsuccessfully worked against Fitzgerald’s first mayoral campaign before becoming his ally.]

      With Joe Kennedy III relinquishing his seat in the U.S. House to run against Markey, the 117th United States Congress may be the second since 1947 not to see a member of the Kennedy family, [after the 112th Congress, which met between the retirement of Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) and the first election of Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.); the only other gap occurred between Sen. John F. Kennedy’s resignation in 1960 (near the end of the 86th Congress) and Ted Kennedy’s special election victory in 1962 (near the end of the 87th Congress)]. However, Amy Kennedy (D-N.J.), wife of the aforementioned Patrick J. Kennedy, is the 2020 Democratic nominee in New Jersey’s 2nd district against Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.); the race is considered a toss-up.

      • Nikoli Orr on September 9, 2020 at 9:07 pm

        MSNBC, for one, apparently began the count with the 1946 US House race – the very first election won by JFK.

        Since neither RFK in 1968 nor Joseph Patrick Kennedy II in 1998 appeared on the state ballot by name, those instances may easily be excluded indeed (write-in bids and withdrawals).

        Some prognosticators do have the NJ-02 contest as “tossup” while others rate it “leans R”. Generally, members of the Kennedy clan (bloodline and marriage included) have fared quite well in MA, RI, and NY. Beyond that enclave, it has been iffier for them (e.g. Kathleen K Townsend, who lost a federal election in 1986 and a state-level one in 2002).

Leave a Comment