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Ed Markey beats Joe Kennedy in Senate primary

Ed Markey claims victory over Joe Kennedy
Edward J. Markey fended off a challenge from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. Kennedy called Markey to concede the race around 10 p.m.

Senator Edward J. Markey, who rebranded himself from dutiful career politician to fierce progressive warrior over the course of a volatile 11-month campaign, won the Democratic primary for Senate on Tuesday, fending off a challenge from a much younger Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, whose increasingly bare-knuckled offensive failed to capture the imagination of Massachusetts voters.

Kennedy called Markey to concede around 10 p.m. and the Associated Press called the race soon thereafter.

The Malden native had achieved a singular feat: He beat a Kennedy in Massachusetts.

Markey, who led Kennedy 56 percent to 44 percent with 79 percent of precincts reporting, rode to victory on a wave of enthusiasm from young progressive activists inspired by his environmental work, excitement that rippled through the electorate, solidifying Markey’s base among the white liberal set in Boston’s wealthy suburbs.

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The 74-year-old Markey did so in the most unusual primary in recent memory: nearly 1 million ballots were cast prior to Election Day, owing to the virtual shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic also had another dramatic effect: limiting face to face campaigning, which many had seen as Kennedy’s strong suit, and allowing Markey to capture attention via an aggressive and creative social media and ad campaign.

A triumphant Markey walked onstage just after 11 p.m., his wife, Susan Blumenthal, beside him as “I’m Walking on Sunshine” played.

“The time to be timid is past, the age of incrementalism is over,” Markey declared in a spirited victory speech that embraced the youth-powered progressive movement that helped him win.

Ticking through the issues he ran on, from climate change to civil rights, Markey said, “We took unapologetically progressive stances on all of them. We never blinked. . . . We made it clear that we’d rather lose fighting as hard as we could, for what we believe in than in finding the middle ground.”

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A short while earlier, Kennedy delivered more somber remarks. Speaking on a stage set up in the parking lot of his campaign headquarters in Watertown, Kennedy thanked Markey for the “energy and enthusiasm that he brought to the race.”

”No matter the results tonight, I would do this again with all of you in a heartbeat,” Kennedy told his supporters, their faces sullen even while masked. “We built a campaign for the people that our politics often locks out and leaves behind.”

Some Kennedy supporters feared his loss means the end of the storied Massachusetts political dynasty. The great-grandson of a US ambassador, grandson of a US senator, great-nephew of a president, and son of a congressman, Kennedy is the only member of the famous political clan currently serving in Washington.

When Kennedy launched his challenge in September 2019, Democratic insiders speculated Markey, who had faced little competition since winning his first congressional primary race in 1976 with just over 21 percent of the vote, might simply retire rather than face an ignominious drubbing by a rising young Democratic star with a legendary last name.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll conducted a few weeks before Kennedy officially announced his candidacy found Markey trailing the younger man by double digits, an embarrassing deficit for an incumbent whose policy positions aligned with the Democratic electorate.

Markey’s four decades in Washington were seen as a potential liability, as was his apparent lack of rapport with Massachusetts voters, who polls indicated knew very little about the man who’d represented them the last six years in the Senate.

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Sensing opportunity, two other challengers — Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney, and Steve Pemberton, a former foster child who became an executive and author — jumped into the primary race before Kennedy. Pemberton dropped out of the race last October and Liss-Riordan in January.

But Markey’s campaign took the incumbent senator’s biggest weakness — voters’ relative ignorance of his record and back story — and turned it into an opportunity. Boosted by an endorsement from progressive powerhouse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Markey’s campaign successfully cast him as an indispensable and even iconic leader in the progressive movement.

Kennedy concedes to Markey in Democratic primary for Senate
Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III was beat by Edward J. Markey in the Democratic primary for Senate.

And they did so in the midst of a devastating pandemic that scrambled both candidates’ original playbooks, shut down traditional campaign activity for months, and overwhelmed voters’ attention until just recently.

“It’s all Markey. He got up off the mat after the first punch and fought like hell. It was his energy, his vision, his canniness,” said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Markey on past campaigns.

While he’d made a name for himself as a leader on environmental issues, other elements of his record were less progressive. He voted for the 1994 crime bill, the Iraq war, and the Patriot Act, and opposed busing to desegregate Boston schools early in his congressional career.

As Kennedy pointed out, those positions align more with that of former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee condemned as too moderate by progressives during the presidential primary, than that most revered insurgent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. (Sanders declined to endorse Markey in the primary, despite pleas from his followers to do so.)

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Before the 2020 campaign, Markey had earned a reputation for being cautious to a fault. In his first consequential vote as a senator, he voted “present” in committee on giving the Obama administration the authority to use military force in Syria (he was the only member of the committee to cast a noncommittal vote). Markey was also dogged by accusations that he really lived in Chevy Chase, Md., not his native Malden.

A Globe review this year found that Markey spends less time in his home state than any other member of the state’s congressional delegation, spending less time in the state last year than even Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was running for president at the time.

And yet none of that stuck, even as Kennedy raised those and other criticisms of Markey’s record.

Instead, Markey’s campaign focused early on telling the story they wanted to about the candidate: Son of a milkman, hardscrabble achiever who drove an ice cream truck to pay his way through college, a lifelong progressive champion who has been in the middle of all the most important fights, particularly on the environment.

Markey’s work on the Green New Deal, a manifesto to combat climate change and overhaul the economy, took particular prominence in the campaign’s ultimately successful argument that it was the 74-year-old incumbent, not his 39-year-old challenger, whose vision best aligned with millennials and Zoomers.

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It’s ironic, said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, but “most voters got to know him through the course of this campaign, and that was really helpful to him,” because Markey rose to the occasion.

Stalwart Markey supporters say the campaign image is who Markey has always been, on the leading edge of key policy debates on the environment, nuclear proliferation, and technology. Their guy just needed a proper introduction to voters.

“He speaks in my language as a 49-year-old. He speaks in AOC’s language as a barely 30-year-old. And he speaks in my daughter’s language as a 16-year-old. That’s his gift,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins told reporters.

Either way, Markey was helped mightily by early alliances with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group of climate activists, and Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York with whom Markey partnered to write the Green New Deal. Both endorsed Markey early, rallying the rest of the far left wing of the Democratic party to his defense.

It was the Sunrise Movement that created the race’s most memorable ad, a nearly three-minute long digital spot narrated by Markey that cast him as a cool iconoclast. The spot went viral, racking up 4 million views across social media platforms, according to Sunrise, helping accelerate Markey’s building momentum in the final weeks of the race.

Markey also benefited from the frustrated energy of young progressives who watched their chosen candidates, Sanders and Warren, lose the presidential primary this spring. The Markeyverse, as his young online backers call themselves, started taking off in early March, as the primaries ended and the pandemic shutdown began.

“Ed Markey became their cause,” said Jonathan Cohn, chairman of Progressive Massachusetts’ issues committee.

Along the way, Markey’s campaign and his social-media-savvy supporters managed to make the sometimes awkward septuagenarian “strangely cool,” as Sunrise Movement political director Evan Weber put it.

An April 2 staffer’s cellphone photo of Markey, dressed in a mask, windbreaker, and 1989 Nike Air Revolutions in front of his Malden house (snapped while Markey was out to move his car to make room for a TV interview in the driveway later) became a pivotal digital moment. The weathered kicks became a campaign mainstay.

The vote Tuesday ended what appears to be one of the most expensive primary races in state history, with the campaigns collectively spending more than $22 million as of Aug. 12, when both campaigns were required to file reports with the Federal Election Commission. In addition, super PACs supporting both candidates poured roughly $7.9 million into the race.

The race turned increasingly bitter in its final weeks. Markey jabbed harder at Kennedy’s family, including a memorable moment in one of the later debates in which the senator demanded that Kennedy “tell ya father” to stop funding negative ads being run by a pro-Kennedy super PAC, referring to speculation that former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, had transferred money from his old campaign account to the PAC.

Kennedy, meanwhile, sharpened his efforts to define Markey as out-of-touch with the struggles of many of his constituents, particularly those in communities of color, and intensified attacks on the incumbent’s record on issues of racial justice.

Markey “has served in times of tremendous consequence. And he’s gotten it wrong. Over and over,” Kennedy said of his opponent’s record on issues of race and social justice during an Aug. 17 speech hitting back at Markey’s knocks at the Kennedy family. “So he attacks my family.”

But even some supporters of the challenger said Kennedy waited far too long to try to define Markey; by the time he started painting this unflattering portrait in earnest, the senator and his fans had already cemented the narrative that Markey is Ocasio-Cortez’s avuncular, but unexpectedly hip, sidekick.

Kennedy, meanwhile, found himself characterized, however unfairly, by the opposition as a lackluster moderate, despite having few policy differences with his opponent. Markey’s admirers also attacked Kennedy’s challenge as a vanity project fueled by dynastic entitlement.

Some analysts say the Newton Democrat made a strategic mistake by failing early on to articulate a compelling rationale for why he was trying to unseat Markey. Moreover, the pandemic may have disrupted Kennedy’s game plan more than it hurt Markey, since Kennedy intended to run a retail-heavy campaign, crisscrossing the state to demonstrate how he planned to show up for Massachusetts voters, an implicit critique of Markey.

The lockdown made it exceedingly difficult for Kennedy to provide that visual contrast.

In the November general election, Markey will go up against the winner of the GOP primary, Kevin J. O’Connor, an attorney from Dover.

Dasia Moore, Laura Krantz, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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