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After Mike Capuano’s defeat, is Ed Markey a primary target for 2020?

Senator Ed Markey.
Senator Ed Markey. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

Senator Edward J. Markey has a potentially damaging problem hanging over his 2020 reelection bid. It’s not a long-buried scandal, or a legislative track record out of step with voters back home. Only five senators have opposed President Trump more frequently in votes.

Markey’s biggest liability: He is a white male incumbent who’s been in Congress since 1976.

The 2018 midterm results showed that many Democratic voters are hungry for fresher faces, itching to topple longtime incumbents for upstart outsiders more in tune with their rock-the-boat mood. Look no further than Ayanna Pressley’s primary upset over Michael Capuano, a 10-term incumbent with a well-established liberal record and backed by the party establishment.

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Those same currents could threaten Markey, 72, who confirmed last month that he plans to run for reelection in 2020, say Massachusetts party insiders. Their circles have been buzzing with rumors and speculation about a race that’s still two years away.

“Anybody who watched what happened in 2018 around the country — but even here, with Mike Capuano and Ayanna Pressley — has to feel that there is an opportunity there for new . . . candidates who haven’t run before to run in races like this and win,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who served as chief of staff for then-Governor Deval Patrick.

“Any incumbent would have to be leery,” given the restive political climate heading into 2020, said Democratic consultant Dan Cence, a senior vice president at the public relations firm Solomon McCown & Co.

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Markey, outwardly, remains unruffled by the parlor game focused on his future.

“Senator Markey is fighting the hateful and destructive Trump agenda every day in the Senate and is as committed as ever to standing up for the values that define Massachusetts — universal health care, equal rights, access to opportunity for everyone. He looks forward to running for another term,” a spokeswoman said.

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Prognostication about Markey’s future inevitably leads directly to talk about the future ambitions of another Massachusetts pol, Representative Seth Moulton. Many Democrats see him as the most likely candidate to break the rules of respect that generally prevent primary challenges among Massachusetts Democrats (indeed, that’s how Moulton won his current seat in 2014).

Moulton said, in an October interview with McClatchy, that he has “no plans to challenge Markey.” Plus, the Salem Democrat has focused most if not all of his energy in the midterm campaign on national efforts, fund-raising, and campaigning for veterans running for office — not the sort of home-state stumping that could help lay the groundwork for a statewide campaign. Now he’s waging a high-profile crusade to depose Nancy Pelosi as the Democrats’ leader in the House.

But several Democrats interviewed by the Globe mentioned this theory: Moulton would jump in to challenge Markey, which would in turn open the door for other Democrats to run in the primary, too — lest they miss the very rare opportunity to possibly grab a Senate seat.

One possibility that has politicos salivating: Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. “It’s a very un-Kennedy thing to do,” mused one Democratic insider who raised the scenario. “But he came out for pot” last week, the Democrat continued, pointing to Kennedy’s call to legalize marijuana at the federal level

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which marked a stark reversal from his previous opposition to even mild decriminalization measures — as evidence the 38-year-old Kennedy scion is capable of surprises. Over the weekend, Kennedy said in a television interview that he has no plans to run against Markey.

Others see a stronger case for a woman or a person of color — or a candidate who is both

— trying to take the seat, given the current political atmosphere. The list of interesting possibilities includes Attorney General Maura Healey, though she’s seen as far more likely to seek an executive position,

; Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a protege of Senator Elizabeth Warren; or outgoing state Representative Juana Matias, who ran a strong (albeit unsuccessful) campaign for the Democratic nomination in the Third District primary to replace Representative Niki Tsongas.

Markey supporters point to what they say are strengths that make a strong case for his reelection. The Malden Democrat —

who is just about three years older than Warren —

has proven his chops as a progressive legislator, they said, and he’s taken the lead on issues that are dear to local liberal voters, including younger ones. He’s been at the forefront of congressional efforts to ensure robust Net neutrality rules, which require Internet service providers to give everyone equal access to online content. He’s a hero in the environmental community for his advocacy, which included being a lead author of expansive legislation to create a cap-and-trade system for Earth-warming greenhouse gases. The bill passed the House in 2009 but never made it into law.

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More recently, Markey has been at the forefront of the congressional delegation’s efforts to hold Columbia Gas and its parent company responsible for the devastating gas fires and explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley in September. On Monday, he led a special hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in Lawrence reviewing the deadly blasts and called on Columbia Gas executives to resign.

Markey “is a terrific senator — underrated because he’s a grinder,” tweeted Blue Mass. Group, the state’s top progressive blog, in response to commentary about Healey possibly running against Markey. The tweet’s author, blog cofounder Charley Blandy, said he supports Markey because of the senator’s long leadership on climate issues, among other issues. Democratic strategist Jim Manley said he’s skeptical Markey will face a primary challenge, though the former aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy acknowledged that “everyone has to run scared in this day and age.”

Markey “represents the state well and he’s well-regarded by his Senate colleagues, and he’s also demonstrated an ability to raise a lot of money,” he said. Markey raised more than $18 million in the 2013 special election for the Senate seat after former senator John F. Kerry vacated it to become secretary of state. Markey’s running for his second full Senate term after serving in the House for nearly four decades.

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And Markey certainly is in step with Massachusetts when it comes to resisting the Trump administration. Only five of his Senate colleagues have compiled a voting record more oppositional to the president than Markey, who has voted with Trump a mere 12.8 percent of the time, according to a tally compiled by FiveThirtyEight. (At 10.1 percent, Warren ties Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley for second place on the list of most anti-Trump voting records.)

But at a moment when so many Democratic voters seem to be looking for politicians who match the fire burning in their own bellies, quite a few operatives believe the mild-mannered Markey could find himself out of step with the political moment, and not really through any fault of his own.

In the case of the Seventh District, Capuano and Pressley shared many of the same policy positions, the 66-year-old incumbent was seen as effective and well-liked, and he significantly outspent Pressley in the primary fight. But Pressley, who will be the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in Congress, promised “activist leadership” and greater emphasis on certain issues — such as violence against women as well as the economic and racial inequality in the district.

“Ed Markey has done almost everything right so far. He’s been a leader on a number of really important issues nationally. He’s done the work at home,” Rubin, the Democratic strategist, said.

“I think it would be more of a real opportunity for new people with new perspectives who haven’t maybe participated as much to get involved. That’s just the political environment we’re in right now.”


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