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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 4: The Kennedy Dynasty Didn’t Fall in One Night

Given the reaction — and arguably over-reaction — to Joseph Kennedy’s III primary loss to Ed Markey in a Massachusetts primary, I offered some ruminations about earlier setbacks to the famous political dynasty at New York:

Coverage of Joseph Kennedy III’s failed primary challenge to Senator Ed Markey has been described as signaling the end of the family dynasty he young Joe often seemed uncomfortable representing. That feels unfair, since the Kennedy clan’s reputation for political invincibility began to slowly unravel many years ago.

It’s true that Joe III’s campaign broke a long Kennedy winning streak in Massachusetts, as the Boston Globe noted:

It was also the first Kennedy loss in 13 U.S. Senate races (two by JFK, one by RFK, and nine by Ted Kennedy). But it was hardly the first big family disappointment.

Joe’s grandfather Bobby suffered the first Kennedy loss in any electoral contest over a half-century ago in 1968, when he lost an Oregon presidential primary to Eugene McCarthy a week before posting a comeback win in California — but was then assassinated after his victory speech.

Four years later, former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by marriage, agreed to become the replacement for vice-presidential nominee Tom Eagleton (who was pushed off the ticket after the media discovered his history of drunk-driving arrests and shock treatments) on the horrifically unsuccessful presidential slate of George McGovern, which lost 49 states. McGovern had actually been the stand-in for RFK at the 1968 convention.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s presidential challenge to Jimmy Carter got off to a disastrous start, as he lost 12 of the first 13 primaries and caucuses, winning only Massachusetts. Though he later rallied with some big wins, it was all too little, too late, and Ted never ran for president again.

The next generation of Kennedy pols had a lot of problems. Joseph Kennedy II, the most recent candidate’s dad, chose to retire from the U.S. House in 1998 after an embarrassing scandal over his efforts to secure an annulment and marry his secretary. His sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served two terms as lieutenant governor of Maryland but then lost the governorship to a Republican in a huge 2002 upset. Cousin Mark Kennedy Shriver served two terms in the Maryland legislature before losing a congressional primary to (now-senator) Chris Van Hollen.

Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick won a congressional seat in Rhode Island in 1994 and made it into the House Democratic leadership, but in 2010 he gave up his seat and his electoral career after struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Until Joe III won a Massachusetts congressional seat in 2012, there was a brief moment when no Kennedy was serving in elected office. JFK’s famous daughter, Caroline Kennedy, briefly considered a Senate bid in New York when Hillary Clinton became secretary of State, but she withdrew from consideration. Yet another RFK child, Chris Kennedy, ran for governor of Illinois in 2018 but finished third in the Democratic primary.

That’s a lot of family trial and error that should not be laid at the doorstep of Joe Kennedy III. As the Globe notes, it’s entirely possible the dynasty could make a comeback:

“There are other, younger Kennedys who could enter the political arena — Jack Schlossberg, JFK’s grandson, appeared in a video with his mother, Caroline, at the Democratic National Convention, quickly sparking memes about his resemblance to his handsome uncle, the late John Kennedy Jr. And Ted Kennedy’s grandson, Edward Kennedy III, has expressed an interest in politics. Amy Kennedy, who married Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick, recently won a Democratic House primary in New Jersey.”

And the latest Kennedy candidate is himself awfully young to retire from politics. Perhaps next time around, he can run as just “Joe.”

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