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OPINION

In two Mass. races, it’s Pelosi vs. Ocasio-Cortez

Tensions between the two dueling Democratic stars are growing, with the Bay State as the battleground.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photos

It’s a battle of Democratic superstars: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, prodigiously powerful pillar of the party establishment, versus Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the pied piper of pugilistic progressivism.

And with the Bay State as the battleground.

The pair, who eye each other warily, find themselves on opposite sides in two high-profile primary races here. AOC is backing incumbent Ed Markey for the Senate and challenger Alex Morse for the First District House seat. Pelosi has endorsed challenger Joseph P. Kennedy III for the Senate and incumbent Richard Neal for reelection in the Western Massachusetts district.

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How those two races play out will have consequences both in Massachusetts and in the larger tug-of-war within the national Democratic Party.

Our story starts last September, when Ocasio-Cortez endorsed her Green New Deal partner Ed Markey for reelection to the Senate, way back when Kennedy was still mulling mounting a primary challenge — and leading Markey by double digits in the polls.

AOC’s support has been a vitally important part of Markey’s campaign; this summer, her powerful pro-Markey ad helped certify the 74-year-old senator as the champion of climate-concerned younger voters. Age-wise, those voters would have seemed a more natural constituency for the 39-year-old Kennedy, who had hoped to benefit from a generational divide. However, AOC’s endorsement of Markey essentially blocked Kennedy’s path to the sea.

But though AOC has many fans, Pelosi doesn’t number among them. Fiercely protective of House Democrats, the speaker doesn’t appreciate intraparty challenges to incumbents — and AOC and the lefty Justice Democrats she’s allied with have used primary challenges in their quest to push the Democratic Party to port.

Here, Pelosi understands something young progressives too often miss: Ideologically pure coalitions are not broad, while broad coalitions can’t be pure. Further, it was moderate candidates, not the lefties, who took the House for the Democrats in 2018.

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The speaker clearly appreciates the fund-raising efforts that Kennedy did to boost the Pelosi-led efforts to retake the House in 2018. But word is that Pelosi is also exasperated by the prominence that the Markey-AOC alliance has lent the maverick congresswoman, and that that annoyance played a significant role in her decision to jump in on Kennedy’s behalf.

The speaker’s endorsement was a headline-garnering get for Kennedy. That said, the Markey campaign claims that some $500,000 flowed in from 15,000 people in the few days after Pelosi’s announcement.

It also drew a sharp reaction from AOC. Pelosi, after all, has not only discouraged primary challenges to Democratic incumbents, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also blacklisted consultants who work for those challengers. Yet in endorsing Kennedy, Pelosi is backing someone who is challenging a Senate incumbent.

“No one gets to complain about primary challenges again,” AOC tweeted. Just a few days later, she endorsed Alex Morse, who is challenging key Pelosi ally Richard Neal, the central-to-everything chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

From a pragmatic, influence-enhancing perspective, that endorsement seems odd. It would be strange indeed for Massachusetts to trade a congressional powerhouse such as Neal for a political newcomer like Morse. Neal, after all, is a man who delivers for Massachusetts on a regular basis. Indeed, Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who enjoys off-the-charts popularity with Democrats, gave him a boost on Thursday, pointedly underscoring how important Neal is to the state.

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Further, Morse’s campaign had seemed to be fading. So, why did AOC get involved? Given the close relationship between Pelosi and Neal, it’s hard not to see her action as a direct response to Pelosi’s endorsement of Kennedy.

If Markey prevails — and he appears to be on a winning trajectory — AOC will be a vital part of that comeback story, her endorsement viewed as more important for Markey than Pelosi’s was for Kennedy.

But it won’t be a complete victory for AOC if voters in the First District stick with Neal. Then Pelosi will be able to argue she was on the winning side in the race most important to her.

Either way, the tensions between the two dueling Democratic stars are obviously growing. That’s fine — as long as intraparty conflicts don’t distract either side from an all-out effort to defeat Donald Trump and win complete control of Congress in November.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.