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In surprise endorsement that roils party’s left wing, Pelosi throws support behind Kennedy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III Thursday in his primary challenge to incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey, a surprising move that immediately roiled the party’s left wing while providing the challenger with a boost in what polls suggest is a neck-and-neck race.

In her endorsement, Pelosi emphasized the campaigning Kennedy did during the 2018 midterm elections, which she credited with helping Democrats secure control of the House.

“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, who served more than a quarter century with Markey in the House, said in a video announcing her support for the 39-year-old challenger.

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Pelosi noted in a Kennedy news release that she joined numerous House Democrats in backing Kennedy, including a number of freshman members he campaigned for in 2018. More than 60 House Democrats have endorsed Kennedy, according to his campaign.

“Joe Kennedy represents this party’s future. He will help lead Democrats forward on the defining battles of our time,” Pelosi said.

While Pelosi’s move angered some of Markey’s progressive supporters, the 74-year-old senator 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.

“Nancy Pelosi is a force. No one has done more to take on Donald Trump and build our Party’s future. Proud and humbled to have her with me in this fight,” Kennedy tweeted after Pelosi’s endorsement went public.

Kennedy didn’t ask Pelosi for an endorsement, according to a Pelosi aide. In addition to being moved to give it by Kennedy’s work in 2018, Pelosi also was concerned by attacks Markey’s campaign had leveled at Kennedy and its references to his family, the aide said.

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The aide pointed specifically to a recent digital ad in which the senator riffs on a famous line by President John F. Kennedy, saying, “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

Pelosi’s endorsement is also a snub of Markey, who was an ally of the California Democrat during his long tenure in the House. In 2007, during her first turn as speaker, Pelosi chose Markey to head a select committee dedicated to energy and global warming issues, and then supported the climate legislation he co-wrote, bringing it to a vote on the House floor in 2009.

The bill passed the House, and is among the achievements Markey’s base of environmental activists celebrate. But it was a tough vote at the time for many centrist Democrats. The bill died in the Senate. Democrats lost the House in the 2010 midterms.

Pelosi’s decision to wade into a contested Senate Democratic primary, especially on the side of the challenger, is unusual. Political insiders reacted with astonishment — and some, with dismay. The move also puts Pelosi at odds with her counterpart and close ally in the Senate, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who has endorsed Markey and raised money for his campaign.

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Pelosi’s political action committee, PAC to the Future, last week gave $5,000 to Kennedy’s campaign, according to federal filings. The PAC had previously given the same amount to Markey’s campaign back in June 2019, months before Kennedy entered the race.

Elected officials and activists on the left slammed her endorsement as further evidence Pelosi and the Democratic establishment don’t respect the progressive wing of the party and are even actively trying to block their policy priorities.

Although the race doesn’t involve a House seat, many accused her of hypocrisy: The campaign arm for House Democrats instituted a policy barring consultants from working for primary challengers to House incumbents if they want to do business with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“This endorsement is embarrassing because it plainly reveals a ridiculous double standard,” Varshini Prakash, cofounder of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which is backing Markey, said in a statement.

“Nobody gets to complain about primary challenges again,” tweeted Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who toppled Joe Crowley, a longtime incumbent and member of Pelosi’s leadership team, in a 2018 primary. She has endorsed Markey, with whom she coauthored the Green New Deal climate change plan, and has enthusiastically backed numerous progressive primary challengers since winning her own seat.

She said Pelosi’s endorsement suggests party leadership’s stance on challengers is “less a policy and more a cherry-picking activity.”

Of course, the Kennedy-Markey race is a Senate, not a House, primary.

Frustration with Pelosi’s action dovetailed with anger over the party’s decision to give progressive stars such as Ocasio-Cortez little to no airtime during the Democratic National Convention this week, while Republicans such as former Ohio governor John Kasich got prime speaking slots.

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“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,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said on Twitter, referring to the Boston congresswoman who defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent in the 2018 primary

The statement by Rollins, who has endorsed Markey, reflected the broader framing the Markey campaign and his supporters have crafted.

National progressive groups and left-wing activists have solidified behind Markey, declaring him as their true champion while painting Kennedy as a lackluster moderate who feels entitled to a Senate seat — a characterization Kennedy and his supporters vehemently dispute.

Pelosi is typically a fierce defender of House Democratic incumbents, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. This year, for instance, she campaigned for Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, who opposes abortion and narrowly bested a serious challenger from the left backed by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Pelosi also endorsed and helped two progressive members of the so-called Squad, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, over primary challengers.

Though she sounded cool to Kennedy’s decision to challenge Markey when he first jumped in the race last year, Pelosi has clearly seen Kennedy as a rising star in the Democratic Party for some time, tapping him to deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s first State of the Union address in 2018.

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