A few days after Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III invited Senator Edward J. Markey to a Capitol Hill restaurant and broke the news that he intended to mount a primary challenge for his Senate seat, Markey visited his parents’ graves at Holy Cross Cemetery, not far from where he grew up in Malden.
It was a pensive moment. He thought about his father, who cared for his mother through her Alzheimer’s disease for more than a decade. He thought about their hopes for him. Those expectations are the reason Markey says he never once thought about retiring — “not for a nanosecond” — though polls showed Kennedy, with his youth and glamour and famous last name, ahead of him by double digits, even before he formally entered the race.
“I knew what they would have wanted me to do,” Markey recalled in an interview Thursday with the Globe.
A year later, after beating the odds and overcoming the Kennedy mystique, Markey said that he felt “jet-lagged” but “energized” to win the general election in November and vowed to spend the next six years advancing an agenda that included curbing carbon emissions and promoting racial justice, greater access to health care, and a fairer criminal justice system.
“As I said on Tuesday, the age of incrementalism is over. We need to think big and act big to solve the climate crisis, and all the other interrelated issues that are included in the Green New Deal,” Markey said, referring to the aspirational manifesto he helped author, which promises a massive overhaul of the US economy to reduce planet-warming emissions.
The story of how a 74-year-old incumbent, with nearly 50 years in public office, staged a remarkable political comeback to beat his younger rival by more than 10 points centers on the substantial environmental record Markey built up over the course of his career.
But nothing would prove more consequential to his successful campaign than the decision he made long before Kennedy’s interest in the Senate floated into the news. It was his outreach to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman and darling of the ascendant left, and his partnership with her to write the Green New Deal last year that changed the trajectory not only of his soon-to-come reelection fight but quite possibly the rest of his career.
That brought not only Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, it helped rally young progressive activists around the country to Markey’s defense. Markey got a big boost as well from the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group of passionate climate activists, who coined the concept of the Green New Deal and see Markey’s support for it as instrumental in helping it gain credibility and attention.
Their efforts helped elevate Markey into a nationally recognized climate champion with a cult following among young progressives.
“He needed a purpose around which to define his candidacy, and environmentalism turned out to be a very effective cause for him,” said David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College.
Hopkins and others said Markey won young and highly educated voters by decisive margins because he was able to reinvent himself after decades of being a leading policy wonk in Congress.
“Markey’s always been a fairly typical liberal Democrat, but not a progressive crusader in the style of his colleague Elizabeth Warren,” he said. “His reinvention in this campaign isn’t about him changing his positions on issues, so much as the way he presents himself to the electorate.”
Helping voters make that connection were two super PACs that came to Markey’s aid, United for Massachusetts and the Environment America Action Fund, which spent nearly $4 million in support of Markey, more than a quarter of all the money raised to back the senator.
Leading United for Massachusetts was George Bachrach, who ran a campaign for Markey in the 1970s and spent years as president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Environmental activists, young and old, saw the stakes as higher than just the outcome of a single primary.
“If you care about climate, it would send a bad message if the author of the Green New Deal went down,” Bachrach said. “Who else would say, ’This is an important message to run on’?”
Doug Phelps, chairman of Environment America, said the national advocacy group decided to support Markey “the minute rumors began circulating” that Kennedy would challenge him, even though the group had previously supported Kennedy.
The group devoted about $3 million from its campaign fund to help Markey and, working with Bachrach, raised another $1 million.
“The last thing we wanted to do was spend time and money on a race between two great public servants in deep-blue Massachusetts, but if you don’t defend your champions, who will be your champion?” Phelps said.
Another key to Markey’s success was an aggressive and skillful digital operation led by Paul Bologna, who previously ran digital media for Attorney General Maura Healey.
At the start of the campaign last fall, Markey’s political Twitter account had fewer than 20,000 followers, one of several data points showing Markey’s team that voters didn’t really know their candidate’s story, his record, or his plans.
In November, at a climate-focused debate that Kennedy declined to participate in, Bologna recorded key moments of Markey talking about the Green New Deal and climate change. The digital team matched those clips with a mellow beat, splicing them with footage from climate activists around the country.
“The Green New Deal is more than a resolution; it’s a revolution,” Markey wrote while sharing the video on Twitter. It quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views, marking the campaign’s first real digital success and proving that there was a hunger for Markey’s environmental message.
Markey’s campaign attracted a legion of young admirers, and the digital team helped transform Markey’s often cerebral wonkishness into a kind of ironic cool, often showing Markey wearing his weathered Nike Air Revolution sneakers while campaigning.
By primary day, Markey’s Twitter account had nearly 170,000 followers.
The campaign, and its most active online supporters, turned those digital gains into real-world organizing, dropping links for phone-bank shifts and small-dollar fund-raising requests.
The online enthusiasm translated to real-life enthusiasm because Markey was running on issues important to younger voters, said John Walsh, the senator’s campaign manager.
“It doesn’t work if you’re not Ed Markey,” he said.
Still, for all the moves Markey’s campaign and its supporters made right, the incumbent also benefited from the struggles of the Kennedy campaign, analysts say.
Kennedy allies believe the coronavirus pandemic played a major role in hobbling the 39-year-old challenger’s ability to win over voters.
The central thesis of Kennedy’s campaign was that Markey didn’t pay attention to the everyday struggles of many of his constituents, particularly working-class residents and communities of color. Kennedy argued that he would do more for Massachusetts in the Senate, including being present in places Markey had not bothered to show up in, and listening to what voters need.
“The whole idea was Joe shows up, and it’s hard to show up when everyone is in lockdown,” said one Democratic strategist with strong Massachusetts ties.
The Kennedy campaign plan had been to litigate Markey’s record both in the press and with the public through an aggressive in-person travel schedule around the state, a senior Kennedy campaign aide said, none of which was possible during the crisis.
As the race moved online, the Kennedy campaign had a hard time changing an emerging narrative that the congressman was a centrist motivated more by electoral ambition and a sense of entitlement than a clear agenda.
The lockdown was also when Markey’s image as an oddly hip progressive warrior started to solidify, with little outside scrutiny from the press or public, Kennedy allies argue.
By the time some semblance of normal campaigning returned, the frame was set, the Kennedy aide said. Stories about Markey spending less time in the state than Senator Elizabeth Warren when she ran for president, and more time at his home in Maryland, or complaints from two different constituents who went public with criticisms that Markey treated them poorly when they sought his help on serious matters involving their children did not break through.
The lack of press coverage or real campaign events also led the Kennedy campaign to go up on TV early, ultimately spending $2.4 million running two different ads in the spring. Analysts say the ads did little to help the congressman, and the spending cost Kennedy the cash advantage he had enjoyed.
Kennedy and his campaign also failed to articulate a rationale for running that resonated with voters.
“There was a real rationale for Joe,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who supported Kennedy. “The best campaigns are when the right candidate meets the right moment, and I think Joe was the right candidate for this moment, but for whatever reason they were not able to articulate that during the campaign.”
A pro-Kennedy super PAC, which had fund-raising help from members of the Kennedy family, rode to Kennedy’s aid in early August, ultimately spending more than $4 million on his behalf, according to federal filings. But it was not enough. Nor was Kennedy’s vigorous campaigning across the state — including one 27-hour tour — once the coronavirus had ebbed enough in Massachusetts to allow small in-person events.
To Mark Horan, a veteran Markey aide, the campaign demonstrated how the political class underestimated the senator. “Ed Markey is the best at seeing the big picture and stitching together disparate issues into a whole,” said Horan, who did not work on Markey’s 2020 campaign. “That’s why he won.”
Markey was aware that he was vulnerable to a challenge before Kennedy made his interest known, said Horan. After all, speculating who might mount a primary against the Malden native had become something of a favorite parlor game in Massachusetts in recent years.
Markey had already decided that he needed to do a better job communicating with Massachusetts voters and start reaching out to the new crop of young progressives who had helped put Ayanna Pressley in office.
“He stiffened his spine pretty quickly,” Horan said.
Looking at daunting polls from last summer that suggested Kennedy was leading Markey by 14 points, Bachrach of United for Massachusetts said he and other early supporters saw the campaign as a “David vs. Goliath.”
“We knew this was an uphill fight,” he said.
But early internal polls showed some promise: Voters said they put a premium on experience. “This was counterintuitive,” Bachrach said. “We thought we were in an anti-incumbent age.”
His super PAC began advertising in newspapers to reach “opinion leaders” to “set the narrative of the race,” Bachrach said.
Next came the digital and television ads, which touted Markey’s long-standing environmental record and his endorsement by The Boston Globe, which some analysts said helped move older liberal voters in Boston’s wealthy suburbs to fully embrace Markey.
For Markey, the next task is defeating the winner of the Republican primary, Kevin J. O’Connor, an attorney from Dover, in November.
If both he and Joe Biden win, Markey said, he would press the new administration to charge ahead with a progressive agenda.
“These issues have massive constituencies that never got the recognition of the existing political class,” he said. “It’s almost like a sleeping giant got awakened this year.”