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Ed Markey, new progressive icon, wins another Senate term

Senator Ed Markey stood with supporters outside the polling location at the Lower Mills Branch of the Boston Public Library.
Senator Ed Markey stood with supporters outside the polling location at the Lower Mills Branch of the Boston Public Library.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Senator Edward J. Markey cruised to reelection Tuesday in an anticlimactic victory over his Republican challenger, attorney Kevin O’Connor, whose long-shot bid never generated the energy or voter attention that the contest’s Democratic primary drew.

The Associated Press called the race at 8 p.m. for Markey, who earlier this year clawed his way back from underdog status to vanquish a member of the state’s most famous political dynasty, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.

The quick call underscores how much trouble O’Connor, a successful lawyer from Dover who had never run for office before winning the Republican primary in September, had gaining traction as a Trump supporter in a state that broadly loathes the president.

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Markey will enter his second full Senate term imbued with a new celebrity status, thanks to the army of young progressive activists who helped him achieve what no other Democrat had accomplished before: beating a Kennedy in Massachusetts.

Markey spent his first seven years in the Senate in the shadow of his more famous colleague, Elizabeth Warren. Now, Markey has the opportunity to build on his partnership with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York with whom he wrote the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate group that rallied to his defense in the primary, and carve out his own unique national profile.

“I feel an obligation, especially to young people who had my back in this race, that I fight passionately for the agenda which they care about,” Markey said in an interview with the Globe. “Young people care about the Green New Deal. They care about fighting racial injustice. They care about ensuring that everyone has access to health care in our country.”

Warren herself sees a more empowered Markey coming out of the campaign.

“Ed will be even louder on environmental issues. This is what he has worked on. Ed Markey was in the climate battle before most people even knew there was a battle to be fought,” Warren told the Globe. “What we’ll see from Ed is more and more and more, and I love it.”

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Both Markey and Warren downplayed any potential conflict over Markey’s signature issue — climate change — with a potential Biden administration, should the former vice president win the White House. Biden has said he does not support the Green New Deal, the climate change manifesto which helped power Markey’s victory over Kennedy earlier this year.

Markey pointed out that Biden tapped Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement to help craft his latest climate plant, and has since proposed a $2 trillion program.

"I’m looking forward to working with Joe Biden to continue to strengthen the programs necessary to have a robust program that matches the magnitude of the problem,” Markey said.

In a state where Democratic primary races are often the most hard fought obstacle to elected office, Markey’s confidence was evident in how his campaign navigated the two short months of the general election. Markey didn’t air a single television ad after the Sept. 1 primary, despite having the financial resources to do so.

He agreed to debate his Republican opponent just once, despite O’Connor pushing for seven meetings.

Of course, Markey had reason to feel confident. O’Connor embraced Trump, immediately putting him at a disadvantage even though O’Connor attempted to carefully distinguish himself from Trump in certain areas.

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“He’s a bull in a china shop, often,” O’Connor said of Trump, in an interview with the Globe in late October. “His approach is not without its downsides.”

On the trail, O’Connor pitched himself as a “common sense” candidate while seeking to paint Markey as a far-left radical who is out of touch with Massachusetts.

But he never managed to gain traction.

Markey’s victory over O’Connor — 67 percent to 33 percent with two thirds of precincts reporting, the AP said — was the capstone to a truly wild campaign season.

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

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.

Then came the pandemic, which upended traditional campaigning. Markey’s throngs of young online fans, who come to call themselves the Markeyverse, started flocking to his cause around the same time.

In concert with the Markey campaign’s digitally savvy staff, the Markeyverse helped make over Markey’s image from a sometimes awkward, always dutiful career politician into a “strangely cool” progressive champion, in the words of Sunrise Movement political director Evan Weber.

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That carried Markey to a decisive victory over Kennedy on Sept. 1.

“It’s a mandate to work on a progressive agenda that will begin to make the fundamental changes in our country that the voters of Massachusetts want to see implemented,” Markey said.

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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