Until Senator Edward J. Markey’s decisive victory Tuesday night, the ascendant Democratic left was better known for fielding young, upstart candidates against entrenched incumbents who were standing in the way of their urgent demands for action on climate, single-payer health care, and social justice.
But, for the rising generation of progressive activists who helped return him to the Senate, Markey’s win sent a message: The restive left-wing is looking for champions, not just blood — and its passionate army of engaged young voters will rally to the defense of incumbents who partner with them and who embrace their causes.
Markey did just that, championing the Green New Deal, capturing attention with a cheeky social media campaign, and winning the early backing of a newly emboldened advocacy group, the Sunrise Movement, that champions climate change solutions.
“It’s important, in a bigger sense, for movements like ours, who are working to really push the Democratic Party in a different direction, to actually have the back of people who go out on a limb and stand with us,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group, which was the first national organization to endorse Markey in his primary battle again Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.
In doing so, Weber said, Sunrise sent a clear signal to other Democrats who might be hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace progressive policy priorities because for years the party was urged to back moderate positions in order to win over centrist voters.
“If they do stick their neck out for us,” Weber said, “our movement will have their back.”
The 74-year-old Malden native’s successful campaign shows how much substance matters to the young left, said Representative Ro Khanna of California, a progressive Democrat who was the first House member to endorse Markey.
“For the new generation of Democrats, they aren’t driven by personality. They aren’t driven by what the establishment thinks. They really go deep into a person’s policy positions and their record,” Khanna said.
Markey “really captured the imagination of the left in a way that I haven’t seen since Bernie Sanders. And he doesn’t have a perfect voting record, but he managed to do it by embracing a bold new vision.”
Khanna said some of his colleagues thought he was crazy when he backed Markey, predicting Markey might even drop out of the race. But with the visible and eager support of the progressive left, “he was able to overcome enormous odds.”
It’s not just progressives who see the power of Sunrise and climate change in Democratic politics. Dan Pfeiffer, who served as senior adviser to former president Barack Obama, penned a piece Wednesday arguing that Markey’s win should lead more Democrats to “embrace bold climate action.”
The Sunrise Movement “didn’t just defend their champ,” he said on Twitter. “By beating a Kennedy in Mass, they sent a message to the whole party about the political power of the Green New Deal.”
In the fall of 2019, Sunrise worked directly with the Markey campaign on a strategy for how to frame the race, boost Markey’s profile online, and rally other national progressive groups to the Markey cause. The group said its volunteers made more than 250,000 calls to primary voters on Markey’s behalf.
Perhaps most significantly, Sunrise created the race’s most memorable ad, a nearly three-minute-long digital spot narrated by Markey that cast him as a cool iconoclast. It went viral and helped solidify Markey’s momentum in the final stretch.
The gold standard for the energized left winning, of course, is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 unseated one of Nancy Pelosi’s top lieutenants, Joe Crowley of New York, becoming at 29 the youngest woman to serve in Congress.
Massachusetts’ own Representative Ayanna Pressley is another example.
With Markey, progressive activists found an entrenched incumbent who wanted to work with them. While other Democrats were wary of Ocasio-Cortez when she arrived in Washington, especially after she joined a giant Sunrise Movement sit-in in Pelosi’s office in November 2018, Markey partnered with her to write the Green New Deal.
To Sunrise Movement members and other progressive activists, Markey didn’t just support their manifesto to combat climate change and remake the economy, he helped bring it into existence. He lent credibility to the plan, given his long record on environmental issues — and his long record in Washington, period.
Kennedy, by contrast, may have been a cosponsor of the House legislation, but when he had the opportunity to deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s first State of the Union, he never even uttered the words “climate change,” they note.
Markey “got the kind of support that really mattered for the Green New Deal at that moment and catapulted it into the national conversation,” said Weber.
After introducing the legislation in the winter of 2019, Markey also hit the road with Sunrise activists to build grass-roots support for the plan, headlining several events in that spring.
Ocasio-Cortez nodded to Markey’s outreach, and the love it earned him among young progressives, in a congratulatory tweet Tuesday night.
“[W]hen I first got to Congress the reception I got in many spaces was v chilly. Ed Markey wasn’t afraid. He offered his expertise & partnership. He wasn’t scared of big policy & didn’t use kid gloves. It’s great to watch him overcome the odds and win tonight.”
Markey, too, who led 55 percent to Kennedy’s 45 percent with almost all precincts reporting, sees a broader lesson for Democrats in his own success in a campaign that centered on bold progressive policy positions, first and foremost his work on the Green New Deal.
“Voters want big changes in our country,” Markey told reporters on Wednesday. “What the voters of Massachusetts are saying in a clear and compelling way is that they want change in our country, they want that agenda on the floor of the United States Senate next year. And I think that message should be heard loud and clear across our country.”
Not everyone sees the lesson of Markey’s victory as broadly applicable. Look no further than the decisive primary victory of Representative Richard Neal, a 16-term moderate and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He handily deflected a high-profile insurgent challenge from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who ran on a promise to push progressive priorities such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which Neal does not support.
In fact, tilt your head a bit, and the total sweep by incumbents facing challengers in Tuesday’s primary results looks more like a tutorial on the power of incumbency than a broad-based message about progressive power.
In the Eighth Congressional District, the progressive challenger, Dr. Robbie Goldstein, failed to topple 10-term Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, who was among the last Democrats to back impeaching President Trump and voted against the Affordable Care Act.
“Even if you just look at the results from Massachusetts last night, you get two radically different lessons for people in the party,” said Matt Bennett, the senior vice president of public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank based in Washington. He pointed specifically at Neal’s nearly 20-point victory.
“It is dangerous to make presumptions about the direction of the party based on fairly small samples of voters voting in fairly idiosyncratic races.”
Regardless, Markey isn’t done yet, as he must still get through the Nov. 3 general election. He will face Dover attorney Kevin O’Connor, who has the backing of the state’s ever-popular GOP governor, Charlie Baker.
On Wednesday, Markey didn’t sound too worried.
“I really don’t know a lot about my Republican opponent right now, other than the fact that he says that he is an ardent Donald Trump supporter,” Markey said. “And I don’t think the state of Massachusetts this year has any intention of giving Donald Trump another vote on the Senate floor to stop a progressive agenda being implemented next year.”