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What's Joe Kennedy Up To?

Former Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA)
Last year, (now former) Rep. Joe Kennedy III tried and failed to win a Senate seat.  This was not a quixotic endeavor.  Kennedy led in numerous polls heading into the primary, but it was clear at the time that incumbent-Sen. Ed Markey was closing well, and it would be close.  Kennedy's loss was fairly large if you assume that he at some point was going to win the race (he lost by just over ten points), slimmer if you remember it's difficult to beat an incumbent senator.  At only 39, he'd become the first Kennedy in American history to lose an election in Massachusetts, and had therefore the first loss in an otherwise impressive young congressional career.

Kennedy's decision was looked at as impetuous and foolhardy by many, including me.  It was a calculated gambit, one that assumed that Kennedy (who has obvious presidential aspirations) wasn't willing to stand-in-line waiting for one of his state's Democratic senators to resign, but instead was going to force himself into the Senate, and therefore position himself in a perch that has been the home of many prominent Oval Office occupants, including Joe Biden & Kamala Harris.  This didn't work, and in some states that wouldn't matter.  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, & Barack Obama all lost early races for Congress in their states and not only became presidential nominees, but actual presidents.  But the calculus for Kennedy is different.  He lost in a big way, with the grassroots of his party essentially rising up to stop him, and unlike those men, he lost in the age of the internet, where it's easier to brand someone a "loser" than it would've been in previous generations.  He also flailed and proved infallible (in a race he was once the favorite in) in a state with a robust blue bench, many of whom might have stood aside for Kennedy (assuming he was inevitable) before, but now not only know he can be beat, but know how to beat him.  He can still win, but it's the equivalent to playing poker when everyone else can see your hand.

Kennedy, though, is ambitious & I knew we weren't done with him in the political spotlight last year.  I assumed he might follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and get a high-profile ambassadorship within the Biden administration, perhaps taking a few years off but gaining the gleam of international experience.  However, so far Kennedy has not even had a whisper of a rumor regarding a spot in Biden's administration, and this week he announced an initiative called the "Groundwork Project."

Essentially, according to Kennedy "we're going to look far beyond traditional 'battlegrounds' or political hotbeds, to places that political power circles tend to write off as unwinnable, or unworthy of our time and attention."  It seems there will be a focus on Massachusetts, but that he will also help in other states, and he name-checked Georgia, which makes sense since he's clearly trying to emulate the work of Stacey Abrams, and get the kind of praise she won when she helped deliver the Peach State not only for Joe Biden, but also for Raphael Warnock & Jon Ossoff.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-GA)
I spent a lot of last year second-guessing Stacey Abrams' decision, and I've said since that I was wrong (for the most part).  Abrams choice was surely magnanimous-she put in an extraordinary amount of groundwork & discipline to ensure that voters in her state turned out twice for someone other than herself, and it worked.  Those wins are huge, and helped win the White House and truly helped win the Senate majority.  Abrams now has free reign to not only get President Biden's and the DNC's ear on pretty much any campaign issue she wants, she also has clear access to a big prize in Georgia: next year's gubernatorial nomination.  Abrams might have had a challenge from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms next year if Georgia hadn't gone so blue-people who criticized Abrams for not running herself would have pointed out that we've lost more than one seat due to Stacey Abrams' decisions.  But that's not the case-Abrams proved she can win Georgia, and she'll get her opportunity next year.  It remains to be seen if Abrams (who also clearly has presidential aspirations) long plan is correct here (if she had won one of those Senate seats, she might not have her dream job but she'd be sitting on a perch she could use to run for national office), but so far her strategy has been solid success if her goal is to ultimately be viable for president; any memory of her 2018 loss has disappeared (for now).

So you may think I'd give Kennedy the benefit-of-the-doubt here since I was wrong on Abrams, and to some degree I am.  Abrams proved that grassroots investment can pay off dividends, and it needs to be the wave of the future for the Democratic Party.  She also proved that you can get the political equivalent of a "W" even if you're not on the ballot if you're good at your job & make sure everyone knows you deserve credit.  But Kennedy is not Stacey Abrams, and more importantly, Massachusetts is not Georgia.  It was clear that Abrams' time out from politics was just that-she was rejoining after she showed the national party that she was not just a "respectable race" candidate, she was an actual candidate who could flip a red state.  And she had her sights on a governor's race that wasn't going anywhere.  

Joe Kennedy doesn't have this.  For starters, there's nothing he can do in Massachusetts to make himself be unbeatable again other than run for office.  Massachusetts is not a red/purple state that he can impress by electing candidates in unwinnable races (if he was from, say, Texas or Florida and had Abrams' success in getting 2022 victories, he could follow this game plan with success by then running statewide there in 2024 with everyone's blessing).  Massachusetts has purple state legislative districts, but they aren't super consequential, and he's not going to get the kind of national recognition that Abrams did...and even if he is able to transform this effort into success in a state like Texas or Florida, that still doesn't solve the argument that Kennedy is beatable in Massachusetts.  His strategy doesn't have the "high reward" that Abrams' strategy did, and so it's never going to work in the same way; no one is going to be impressed you beat a Republican in Massachusetts in the same way they are impressed when you do it somewhere like Georgia.

So if Joe Kennedy actually wants to be viable for national office someday (rather than just be a fundraiser/organizer, which is a noble profession & god bless those who do it, but that's clearly not what he's wanted in his career to this point), he can grassroots all he wants, but eventually he needs to run for office, and I think he's making a mistake by not taking on 2022.  In Massachusetts, short of running for his old seat against an incumbent (which tends to end badly for most), he needs to go for one of the two Senate seats or the governor's mansion.  The first two come with a problem for Kennedy, specifically Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who is an obvious contender for the next Senate opening & I would argue after 2020 the frontrunner for the next open seat (and waiting around for both Warren & Markey to retire AND assuming there won't be another young star that arises between then-and-now is a risky bet for Kennedy...six years is an eternity in politics).  So Kennedy's best bet to rebound from a high-profile win is to run next year for governor.

Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA)
Kennedy, arguably, would be in a better position than you'd think to run.  While there are other Democrats who have long-coveted that position (particularly Attorney General Maura Healey), there is some reticence to run knowing that popular Gov. Charlie Baker (R) might seek a third term.  Kennedy getting into the race right away could scare off challengers, who won't want to go up against both him and Baker, and he could build a big enough lead that if Baker dropped out, he'd have a head start.  Kennedy's risk here is if Baker (who has mile-high approval ratings) runs for a third term, but even that is eyebrow-raising from my vantage.  Baker is not a "Trump Republican" but he's also not a Biden supporter...it's easy to see someone with Kennedy's money & name recognition running a scorched earth campaign, focusing exclusively on Biden voters (which is a winning strategy in the Bay State) & attacking Baker for not supporting the president enough.  It worked in 2018 for Republicans against people like Claire McCaskill & Joe Donnelly...it's plausible to assume that Kennedy could do it in 2022 against Baker.

But Kennedy isn't running, and as a result I wonder if he's unknowingly shutting the door to a future presidential bid.  Stars in politics only stay bright for a short while-the public moves on to newer, bolder flavors & it's harder to sustain if you don't have an office where the press pays attention to your races.  Kennedy's decision last year fell flat, and I get why he doesn't want to risk another "L" that would basically make him Martha Coakley.  But Jon Ossoff proved earlier this year you can go from loser to national star with one big bet on yourself, and if Kennedy is ever going to get himself back into the same conversation as the likes of Stacey Abrams & Jon Ossoff (i.e. potential future presidents) he's going to have to take that plunge...the longer he waits, the less people who will care when he actually announces.

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