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Elizabeth Warren tiptoes into Markey-Kennedy primary fight

Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Edward Markey in 2017.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Edward Markey in 2017.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/The Boston Globe

She’s the biggest name in Massachusetts politics, and one of the luminaries of the left, but so far Senator Elizabeth Warren hasn’t spent much of her considerable star power on her home state’s highest-profile 2020 contest — even though she has technically picked sides.

Warren endorsed incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey over challenger Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III more than a year ago. And that was about it, until last week, when Warren authored a fund-raising e-mail for Markey.

“We need Ed Markey in the Senate now more than ever. He’s a leader, he’s a fighter, and he is a true progressive,” Warren wrote in the e-mail, which went out shortly before the quarterly fund-raising deadline.

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Markey’s campaign credits it, along with a similar message from another high-profile backer, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, for helping Markey raise $300,000 in June’s final few days and deliver his biggest quarterly haul of the campaign.

In a sign that Warren’s involvement may increase as the Sept. 1 primary draws closer, she has committed to doing a live Zoom event with Markey soon, the final details of which are still being worked out, according to a person familiar with her schedule.

This new activity stands in contrast to much of the past year. The moment Kennedy’s Senate ambitions went public, Warren has appeared careful to compliment both men when asked about the race. When other Senate Democrats knocked Kennedy for taking on a well-respected incumbent and wasting resources needed to win seats from Republicans, Warren said she had “nothing but the highest respect for [Kennedy]. And I have no criticism.”

At times, she has sounded downright neutral.

When Warren praised both Markey and Kennedy in late May during an interview with WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller, he asked her which candidate she planned to vote for.

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Warren laughed and held up her hand in the universal sign for STOP. “Don’t do this to me,” she pleaded.

Pressed further, Warren clarified without actually answering the question: “I have endorsed Ed Markey. I did this long before Joe got into the race.”

Warren’s June 29 fund-raising e-mail didn’t mention Kennedy, her former law student at Harvard, by name — or even generically acknowledge the existence of a Markey opponent. Nonetheless, it was the most visibly involved in the race she’s been since she endorsed Markey in February 2019, months before Kennedy’s plan to challenge Markey went public.

(When Kennedy officially announced his candidacy last September, Markey released an endorsement video from Warren that appeared to have been shot earlier, and bought digital ads trumpeting her support.)

Warren’s relative absence from Markey’s side has been noted by Democrats and others watching the race closely. Some Democrats speculate privately that Warren would have stayed neutral in the contest if she had any inkling Kennedy would run, too. Warren did, after all, pick Kennedy to introduce her at her presidential announcement rally in February 2018.

Senator Elizabeth Warren waved next to Representative Joseph Kennedy III after he introduced her during an event to formally launch her presidential campaign on Feb. 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Mass.
Senator Elizabeth Warren waved next to Representative Joseph Kennedy III after he introduced her during an event to formally launch her presidential campaign on Feb. 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Mass. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Markey, who also endorsed her at that event, had a less prominent speaking slot.

“It’s a rock and a hard place for her,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. Warren likes both Markey and Kennedy, has to work with both, she noted, so keeping a distance may be smart politically.

Warren’s approach, so far at least, “suggests she doesn’t really have a strong preference. ... She’s not willing to use her political capital for this.

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To be sure, the Senate primary hasn’t turned out to be the barnburner many expected when Kennedy first jumped in the race. The coronavirus pandemic pushed the contest far from the minds of voters, and Markey’s strategists may be waiting to unleash Warren closer to primary day, when voters are more tuned in to the race.

“Senator Warren has done everything that the Markey campaign has asked her to do,” campaign manager John Walsh said in a statement to the Globe.

And Warren has been busy. She ran for president; now she’s being vetted for vice president, and is considered a serious contender for the running-mate job. She’s been active in other congressional races around the country, endorsing dozens of Democratic candidates and helping raise money for them through an activist group she formed called “Warren Democrats.”

She’s done very little in person for other candidates, though. Last month, she co-hosted a virtual fund-raiser with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that netted $6 million. She is also slated to do a virtual fund-raiser with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm, later this month.

Warren also remains an incredibly prolific policy maker, churning out legislation, oversight letters, and reports. And on many of those, she partners with her junior colleague, Markey, boosting his chances of making headlines and linking him to her in supporters’ minds.

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But Warren’s relationship with both men, and their clear ideological similarities, has analysts predicting Warren will remain mostly aloof through the Sept. 1 primary.

“It’s clearly an awkward situation for her,” said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.