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Massachusetts' contentious Senate primary is upon us. Here's what you should know

Tuesday is Massachusetts is primary day for voters of the Bay State. It's an election like no other: Nearly all voters will cast ballots by mail, amid a global pandemic, during a national uprising against racial injustice and police killings of Black people. But in particular, the Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary is an election like no other given the odd choice of candidates they're faced with: white men with generally similar platforms. As NPR put it concisely, "Voters in Massachusetts are facing a decision that many wish they didn't have to make."

On one side is Sen. Ed Markey, a 74-year-old who's held public office since 1976 — four years before his opponent, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, was even born. Kennedy's primary challenge comes on the heels of other Democratic primary upsets that pitted a young upstart against an older incumbent, namely Cori Bush vs. Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman vs. Rep. Eliot Engel in New York. But while those races also typically pitted the younger candidate as the more progressive choice, it's not that simple in the Massachusetts race.

That's because both Markey and Kennedy identify as progressive. As the incumbent, Markey actually has quite a progressive record, especially when it comes to advancing climate issues. He is backed by the Sunrise Movement and introduced the Senate version of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal. (Kennedy co-sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives.) Both support Medicare-for-All, legalizing marijuana, and a number of other progressive goals this cycle, on everything from reproductive justice to amending the criminal-legal system.

So instead of a race that revolves around policy, the two have crafted their political messaging mostly about what each of them are not. Kennedy, on the one hand didn't vote for the 1994 crime bill (he was a teenager when it was being debated) or vote to go to war with Iraq, as did his opponent. Markey, on the other hand, doesn't belong to a political dynasty, and on the campaign trail he's touted his working-class roots and connection to the issues everyday people face.

Kennedy's candidacy (which, in the case that it fails, would be a Kennedy first in the state) has revolved around the assertion that it's time to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders. Because of their similarity on policy, Kennedy seems to hope that his youth (he's just 39) will communicate something ineffable to voters, and that his long-standing political commitment to racial justice can meet the needs of the moment.

Markey's pursuit of re-election, meanwhile, is a statement that good politics isn't about age, it's about record. After Ocasio-Cortez publicly backed Markey, he took the opportunity to address his age head-on: "When she said, 'It’s not your age but the age of your ideas,' when she said that Ed Markey was the generational change that we have been waiting for, it helped to make clear that in this race I am the youngest guy because it’s about ideas."

That messaging has worked, pulling some of the youth vote away from Kennedy and robbing the representative of what was assumed to be a cornerstone of his campaign. As Politico noted, young voters are flocking to Markey, attracted by his no-frills persona, robust online presence (he has 10,000 followers on TikTok), and rock-and-roll ad campaign that went viral.

The narrow divide between the candidates has predictably cleaved Democrats on Capitol Hill, too. And particularly as the Democratic Party tries to prove it can reconcile its two wings — moderate and ultra-progressive — the endorsements in the race have been telling. Progressive champions like Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with the more moderate but powerful Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have backed Markey, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House Democratic caucus chairman, have thrown their weight behind Kennedy.

In the end, Kennedy is hoping that some sour moments in Markey's long political tenure will be enough to overcome the long record of legislative accomplishment that goes along with it. For instance, in 2010, a Black student named D.J. Henry was shot and killed by a white police officer in Massachusetts. Henry's parents appealed to Markey for support, but have said they were rebuffed. "A mom and dad came to a United States senator to ask for his help in providing justice for a murdered son, and they got nothing in response," Kennedy said at a debate with Markey earlier this month, according to WBUR. Henry's father also said that Markey used the word "colored" in their conversation.

Whoever wins Tuesday's contest is likely to ascend to the Senate this fall, given Massachusetts is a deeply Democratic state. So far, Markey is leading Kennedy in most polls, though with a race like this — all mail-in, highly contentious — it's possible that we'll be surprised by the results or end up waiting a few days to get them.

In the meantime, as one political science professor told Vox: "It’s been a weird campaign, and I think it’s surprised not just the candidates themselves, but everyone in the state."