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In His Long-Shot Bid To Unseat Sen. Markey, Kevin O'Connor Wants To Channel Scott Brown05:19
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Kevin O'Connor who's running for U.S. Senate as the Republican with his family, Matt, 13, Kyle, 9, and his wife, Janet, at the Dover Town Hall after casting his vote on Aug. 26, 2020. (Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via GettyImages)
Kevin O'Connor who's running for U.S. Senate as the Republican with his family, Matt, 13, Kyle, 9, and his wife, Janet, at the Dover Town Hall after casting his vote on Aug. 26, 2020. (Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via GettyImages)

Kevin O'Connor is picking up where Rep. Joe Kennedy III left off: hoping to convince Massachusetts voters that Sen. Ed Markey has been in Washington too long and spends too little time in Massachusetts.

"He's been there for 44 years," O'Connor told WBUR. "Congressman Kennedy presented to the Massachusetts voters — and I will present to the Massachusetts voters — that relative to the amount of time he's lived in the Washington bubble, he's accomplished very little."

Markey managed to fend off a challenge from Kennedy in the much-followed Democratic primary race. But in his bid for another term in the U.S. Senate, he still has to get by O'Connor, who won the Republican primary.

O'Connor, of Dover, is a political newcomer who said he represents "a common sense" approach to government. The 58-year-old attorney, business owner and father of four said he's running for Senate to bring change to Washington.

Dysfunction in Congress, he said, is fueled by entitled politicians who have been there too long. O'Connor supports term limits, and if elected to the Senate, he promises to serve no more than two terms.

"... I believe [Markey] has a record of underachievement, to put it mildly. And I felt that I was prepared at this stage of my life to make a contribution."

Kevin O'Connor

"I am tired of the career politicians who engage in the politics of polarization," he said. "I believe [Markey] has a record of underachievement, to put it mildly. And I felt that I was prepared at this stage of my life to make a contribution."

As he did against Kennedy, Markey will likely push back and cite his decades-long record of fighting for progressive causes — from the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s, to telecom reform and stricter fuel efficiency standards, to co-sponsoring the Green New Deal.

At a recent Democratic unity event, Markey pointed out that O'Connor is running in a state that voted 2-1 against Donald Trump in 2016, and said the president remains deeply unpopular.

"[O'Connor] says he's a big Donald Trump supporter, and I don't think the voters of Massachusetts are going to be either supporting Donald Trump or his efforts to have another Senate seat be Republican, especially one coming from Massachusetts," Markey said.

Although O'Connor supports President Trump, he said he's not in lock-step with him.

"I think the president has done some things well; he's done some things in a manner that I would do differently," he said.

Kevin O'Connor casts his vote at the Dover Town Hall on Aug. 26. (Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via GettyImages)
Kevin O'Connor casts his vote at the Dover Town Hall on Aug. 26. (Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via GettyImages)

For example, unlike Trump, O'Connor acknowledges that climate change is real. But he said the Green New Deal would wreck the American economy.

"It would be a massive tax increase, a massive financial imposition upon the American economy, and I don't think would serve our environment well," he said.

O'Connor gave Trump credit for a strong economy before the pandemic, and applauded Operation Warp Speed — Trump's push to develop a vaccine quickly. While Markey has focused on racial justice, O'Connor, like Trump, said the current moment should be about law and order.

"[Markey] wants to defund the police," he said. "I want to defend the police."

During the primary campaign, Markey called for "reimagining" local police forces rather than defunding them. If returned to the Senate, he said he would fight for overhauling the criminal justice system. His plans include providing more money for education, health care and prevention, as well as ending qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that can prevent lawsuits against police facing allegations of abuse.

For his part, O'Connor said he supports qualified immunity for police.

"... [O'Connor] says he's a big Donald Trump supporter, and I don't think the voters of Massachusetts are going to be either supporting Donald Trump or his efforts to have another Senate seat be Republican, especially one coming from Massachusetts."

Sen. Ed Markey

O'Connor faces a huge challenge in deep-blue Massachusetts, but he pointed out that the state's voters have elected a series of Republican governors, including the current one, Charlie Baker. And of course, in a stunning political upset back in 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a special Senate election against former Attorney General Martha Coakley to succeed the late Ted Kennedy.

Beth Lindstrom, who ran Brown's 2010 campaign, said O'Connor shares some of Brown's down-to-earth qualities.

"[O'Connor] is a relatable candidate, someone who [will] do what's best for Massachusetts, which is kind of how we positioned Scott," Lindstrom said. "[Brown said], 'I'm a Massachusetts Republican.' And he was — and same with Kevin — he's that same person."

But George Bachrach, former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and a longtime Markey supporter, called the parallel to Scott Brown "too easy." "But it doesn't work," he added.

Bachrach argued that Brown rode a wave of anti-Washington Tea Party energy — and that it's a different political world today. Furthermore, Bachrach said Markey's primary victory over Kennedy demonstrated deep support for the veteran lawmaker.

"There's a depth of commitment there that's hard to shake," Bachrach said. "And before you get to any other issue of substance, Massachusetts is just not going to support the Trump-McConnell regime."

When asked if he's a Trump Republican, O'Connor responded, "I'm a Kevin O'Connor Republican" — someone who is willing, he said, to work across party lines. He pointed to his successful effort to challenge Massachusetts ballot access rules during the pandemic. He waged the case with two Democrats, and took it to the state's Supreme Judicial Court and won.

"So you have someone with a proven record of bipartisan collaboration," he said. "The big difference between Ed Markey and Kevin O'Connor, is that I can work with a President [Joe] Biden. He can't work with a Republican administration, and he can't work with his Republican colleagues in the United States Senate."

As he did in the primary race, Markey likely would push back and point out that Republican who hold a majority in the Senate are often unwilling to collaborate with Democrats.

Markey and O'Connor meet on Oct. 5 for their only scheduled debate before Election Day. O'Connor pushed for seven debates — the same number Markey had with Kennedy. But so far, Markey agreed to just one.

"At a time when the American people, more than ever, need discourse and communication, Sen. Markey is going in exactly the wrong direction," said O'Connor.

The Markey campaign pointed out that it agreed to seven debates with Kennedy over the course of an 11-month primary race. With the general election less than two months away, Markey's campaign manager, John Walsh, said one debate is sufficient.

"Markey always debates his opponents, and looks he forward to debating Kevin O'Connor on Oct. 5," Walsh said.

This segment aired on September 18, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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