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Ed Markey defines himself with digital strategy aimed at young voters

Senator Ed Markey greeted voters on Thursday as he arrived at a Worcester campaign event.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

MALDEN — On Aug. 2, just a few weeks until the Sept. 1 primary, the sole of Ed Markey’s left 1989 Nike Air Revolution started to crumble on the campaign trail. Sure, he could have opted for a dress shoe, but Markey is banking his Senate reelection campaign on those red-and-white high tops. Well, at least partially.

You see, Ed Markey has held elected office in Massachusetts for nearly five decades. And now, as he vies for his second full term as the state’s junior senator, he’s in a close race with his opponent, 39-year-old Joe Kennedy III. Those Air Revolutions — conspicuously weathered, but perennially hip — are a focal point of the 74-year-old’s campaign.

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Some might call them a gimmick, a way to pander to a younger generation, but Markey credits them with maintaining his 90 percent accuracy from the free-throw line. Whatever the reason, the kicks made their public debut in an April 2 tweet just as the pandemic forced almost all aspects of life online, and Markey and Kennedy to reimagine their dueling campaigns.

Senator Ed Markey wore his Nike high tops on the campaign trail during a stop in Worcester on Aug. 20. Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

While April polls showed Markey just a few points behind Kennedy, who once held a double-digit lead, the senator of six-and-a-half years remained alarmingly undefined in the minds of many voters. Nearly 28 percent of likely voters were unsure if Markey deserved to be reelected, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll. The uncertainty left a void the campaign needed to fill if the incumbent stood a chance against a Kennedy viewed as a rising star in a Democratic Party torn between its leftist and centrist camps.

Five months later, with the primary just nine days away, many argue Markey has risen to the challenge and used a digital strategy to portray himself as a perennial rabble-rouser rather than a sleepy politico content with the status quo. Markey’s calling card of late is the Green New Deal, but in the past, he’s led on less flashy issues such as net neutrality and Wall Street reform.

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Detractors point to Markey’s past votes in support of the Iraq War and the 1994 crime bill, which most elected Democrats now denounce for increasing mass incarceration, to poke holes in his progressive image.

“Markey went from tired old incumbent to progressive, insurgent firebrand in about three months, in part due to Twitter. He stole Kennedy’s change message,” said Mark Horan, a political consultant who worked with Markey on previous campaigns. “He should have done it earlier but it worked.”

Recent polls now show the race to be neck and neck with tensions between Kennedy and Markey mounting by the day, even while their stances on issues remain in lockstep. ProgressivePunch, a nonpartisan group that rates members of Congress, gives Markey a progressive voting score of 99 percent and Kennedy 97 percent.

The so-called Markeyverse online is anchored by a constellation of fan accounts, so dogged that they influenced a group of Broadway stars to back out of a virtual Kennedy fund-raiser in July, forcing its cancellation. In April, Markey became one of few politicians to embrace TikTok, the controversial video-sharing platform that’s bewitched teenagers worldwide. One post finds him shooting baskets in baggy khakis. A mellow beat paired with Markey talking about climate change plays in the background.

“Our use of this platform is part of our strategy to organize everywhere and to tap into online grass-roots enthusiasm to engage with and turn out young voters during this election,” said Paul Bologna, the campaign’s digital director.

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With the worst of the pandemic tamed in Massachusetts, Markey, who at 74 qualifies as high risk, is back on the trail. Always masked, Markey relies exclusively on outdoor gatherings and elbow bumps. He disinfects the podium microphone with religious fervor, often using the time to take digs at the president, who has publicly downplayed the severity of the virus since its start. At least a foot of space lingers between him and his supporters, many of them twentysomethings, when posing for photos.

“Let me see those shoes!” yelled a young man in Lowell. Markey shimmied his sneakers into the frame for a selfie.

The politician’s popularity with younger voters stems largely from his partnership with firebrand Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who unseated a 10-term incumbent to become the youngest woman to serve in Congress. In February 2019, the duo introduced the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to lower CO2 emissions and expand green jobs, but the resolution was swiftly defeated in the Senate after Republicans rushed it to the floor. The alliance between Markey and Ocasio-Cortez granted Markey admission into the emergent progressive wing of the party, although his campaign argues that he’s always served outside the mainstream, touting his past work to curb carbon emissions and enact a single-payer health care program.

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Minutes before Markey’s first event Thursday, news broke that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had endorsed Kennedy, despite previously stating she opposed all Democratic primary challengers. She told The Washington Post that she felt it “imperative” after Markey’s jabs at the Kennedys. When Globe columnist Joan Vennochi found Markey in the driveway of his modest Malden home in June, he declared, “Welcome to my compound,” a dig at the sprawling Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port. In a new ad, Markey lands a zinger, a twist on the famous JFK line: “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

Across Twitter, progressives — from congressional candidates to “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness — largely welcomed the snub by Pelosi, labeling her support for Kennedy another example of stubborn allegiance to the establishment.

Markey himself has been more muted.

“Pelosi is a tremendously effective leader who has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career. I am privileged to work alongside the speaker and any candidate would be proud to have her endorsement,” he said repeatedly.

His tone livened when discussing the support of Cori Bush, who recently ousted a longtime congressman in the Democratic primary to end a St. Louis political dynasty. Bush, once homeless and thrust into politics after leading protests in Ferguson, endorsed Markey hours after Pelosi’s announcement, joining Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“I’m running a campaign that is focusing on justice, and I am partnering with a new generation of activists who are entering the political process in order to change the country for the better. It can be intergenerational,” Markey told the Globe. “And I am the only candidate in this race that is calling for a new generation of leaders to make the real change that our country needs.”

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It’s unclear to what extent Markey’s progressive appeal is a result of his legislative record or because, to young progressives, the Kennedy name evokes suspicions of entitlement more than the lore of Camelot. After a Worcester campaign event last week calling for Postal Service protections, some young activists approached the senator for a photo. Eliana Stanislawski, 24, asked if their “Defund the Police” sign could be in the shot. He declined. The cardboard sign fell to the ground. Markey’s thumbs went up. The cameras clicked.

“He often says ‘reimagine’ rather than ‘defund’ the police. That’s pretty typical for Senator Markey. He supports the ideas but it’s hard for him to be explicit,” said Stanislawski. “Still he blows Joe Kennedy out the water.”

But a Kennedy is rarely denied a bid for elected office in Massachusetts. And Markey has never lost in his 47 years in politics, nor has an incumbent US senator from the Bay State lost a primary since the 1910s. History will be made regardless of how the ballots, many of which will be cast early or by mail, fall in this unconventional race.

Ed Markey, whose high tops are back from the cobbler, will be hoping they’re enough to maintain that sterling shooting percentage.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Robert F. Kennedy lost the 1968 Democratic Party presidential primary in Massachusetts to Eugene McCarthy.


Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.