Just as the Democratic Party is seeking to solidify its diverse base around the candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden this week at an all-virtual Democratic convention, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III in Massachusetts’ Senate Democratic primary race is reopening old wounds.
After Pelosi announced Thursday that she would endorse Kennedy over incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey, a number of progressives took to Twitter to denounce the move on the grounds that the Democratic Party establishment has effectively blacklisted other candidates and organizations for doing the very thing Kennedy is doing: Mounting a primary challenge against an incumbent Democrat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee implemented a policy last year meant to protect House incumbents by cutting ties with polling organizations and consultants that work with candidates who mount primary challenges against sitting Democrats, even in districts considered “safe.”
The move sparked fierce pushback from young progressives at the time, who said it would throw up barriers to women and people of color to entering politics.
So Pelosi’s move on Thursday to back a primary challenger to Markey, who has won support from progressive Democrats and organizations, reignited that dispute. Though Pelosi’s endorsement doesn’t explicitly run afoul of the policy, which affects only challengers to House incumbents, many accused her of hypocrisy and favoritism.
New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to suggest Pelosi’s endorsement should render the DCCC policy irrelevant.
No one gets to complain about primary challenges again. 🤗— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) August 20, 2020
So @dccc, when can we expect you to reverse your blacklist policy against primary orgs?
Because between this & lack of care around @IlhanMN’s challenger, it seems like less a policy and more a cherry-picking activity. https://t.co/xSneSK8H2q
Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who is also considered a rising star in the party, said the endorsement hearkened back to an era when party insiders anointed candidates in “smoke filled rooms.”
Cynthia Nixon, an activist and actress who challenged incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 New York Democratic gubernatorial primary, said “the hypocrisy is blinding.”
Our Revolution, a Bernie Sanders-aligned group that looks to elect progressive Democrats, also accused Pelosi of hypocrisy in her endorsement.
Locally, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins called Kennedy a “privileged, legacy candidate,” and chided Democrats for elevating Kennedy while at the same time denying a convention speaking slot to Representative Ayanna Pressley. Rollins also jabbed Kennedy for his appearance during his 2018 State of the Union rebuttal, in which he applied too much ChapStick before he appeared on camera.
So @SpeakerPelosi can insert herself in our US Senate race, but @AyannaPressley was not a speaker at the convention? Nancy, the future of the Democratic Party is NOT a privileged, legacy candidate. It is @RepPressley @RepAOC @Ilhan and @RepRashida. I’m chapSTICKIN’ WITH ED. 👏🏼— DA Rachael Rollins (@DARollins) August 20, 2020
“The Speaker has been consistent in her support for House Democrats — for their re-election efforts and for their bids for higher office, including Congressman Joe Kennedy for Senate,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement to the Globe Thursday.
Pelosi also endorsed Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, in their respective primary fights this election cycle. Pressley is running for the Democratic nomination unopposed.
A spokeswoman for Kennedy also defended the House speaker’s endorsement Thursday.
“Joe is incredibly proud to stand with Speaker Pelosi, who has undoubtedly earned the right to support whatever candidates she wants,” said Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman.
In an endorsement video on Thursday, Pelosi praised Kennedy as “courageous” and credited him with helping to flip the House to Democratic control during the 2018 midterms.
“Never before have the times demanded we elect courageous leaders as today, and that is why I am proud to endorse Joe Kennedy for Senate,” Pelosi said.
In a news release from the Kennedy campaign, Pelosi said, “Joe Kennedy represents this Party’s future. He will help lead Democrats forward on the defining battles of our time.”
Kennedy didn’t ask Pelosi for an endorsement, according to a Pelosi aide. Rather, the Speaker felt compelled to make it given Kennedy’s work on behalf of House Democrats during the 2018 election cycle, which she saw as essential to winning back the majority.
The aide said Pelosi also was concerned by attacks Markey’s campaign had leveled at Kennedy and the campaign’s references to his family. The aide pointed specifically to the recent digital ad Markey’s campaign released in which the senator riffs on a famous line by John F. Kennedy to say, “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
Still, her endorsement comes at a precarious time for Democratic leadership, which is seeking to both broaden the party’s appeal and rally its base ahead of a tough fight with President Trump in November. The tension has been visible in the speaking lineup of this week’s convention. The prime-time programming has featured a number of Republican speakers, including former Ohio governor John Kasich and former secretary of state Colin Powell, even as rising stars like Pressley and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro have been left out.
Progressives were not universally opposed to Pelosi’s support of Kennedy. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who co-chairs the House progressive caucus, of which Kennedy is a member, tweeted his support of Kennedy Thursday evening.
Massachusetts is lucky to have 2 progressive candidates for Senate on the ballot.— Mark Pocan (@MarkPocan) August 21, 2020
I'm supporting @joekennedy because he takes our fight on the big issues far outside the halls of the US Capitol - and that's what the future of this movement needs. Next gen leadership for the win!
Despite the anger from Markey’s progressive supporters, the 74-year-old senator, who served with Pelosi in the House for decades, reacted graciously to the news.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a tremendous, effective leader who has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career. I had the privilege to work alongside Nancy in the House of Representatives for decades. Any candidate would be proud to have her endorsement, and I congratulate Congressman Kennedy on securing her support,” Markey said in a statement released by his campaign.