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What do Mass. voters want from the senator they elect in 2020? Here’s an early look

Massachusetts voters cast ballots in 2018. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP/Getty Images

It’s the economy, stupid. And it’s health care, and climate change. And (surprise!) it’s pushing out President Trump.

Massachusetts Democratic primary voters have no shortage of issues they hold dear, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, providing a road map of what residents believe should be the top focus of the senator elected in 2020.

But as Representative Joe Kennedy III weighs challenging Senator Ed Markey, the electorate for the September 2020 primary may be best defined by its lack of consensus, and the attenuated link between what some want from the seat — and the reasons behind who they pick for it.


That scattershot nature of voters’ priorities suggests that personality and the political moment, as much as policy, is likely to play heavily into a might-be choice between Markey and Kennedy — who share similar liberal stances — and lesser-known challengers Shannon Liss-Riordan, Steve Pemberton, and Allen R. Waters.

“To me, a senator has to look at what’s best for the United States, not what’s just best for Massachusetts,” said Joseph Gold, a Swampscott small business owner and unenrolled voter who said he would vote for Markey but is also “open to change.” He pointed to the growth in the national debt as a primary worry.

“It’s not, ‘What’s in it for me, or what’s in it for my constituents,’ ” he said of a senator’s mindset. “What’s in it for the American people?”

The priorities the 500 likely voters identified for the senator elected in 2020 is not just lengthy — they cited more than two dozen categories — but it’s also fractured. About 14 percent say the economy or jobs should be front and center, while 13 percent say it’s the environment or climate change. Ten percent say education should top the list, and still another 10 percent say it’s health care.


In some cases, Trump is identified specifically; about 5 percent said “getting rid” of him is most important to them. In many others, the Republican is an undercurrent.

“Every day it’s drama, drama, drama,” said John McCarthy, a 61-year-old Braintree Democrat whose overriding concern is the economy but also “undoing the damage” of Trump’s policies. “My wife yells at the television, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ ”

The varied focus of today’s voters is a far cry from less than a decade ago, when the state of the nation’s economy was front and center as Americans dug out from the recession.

In voting President Obama to a second term in 2012, 60 percent of voters said in exit polls that it was their most pressing concern. Two years earlier, when Massachusetts voters were deciding between then-Governor Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker for the corner office, nearly the same amount cited jobs and the economy as the most important problem facing the state.

The country, of course, is now amid a record-long stretch of economic growth, giving other issues room to rise in prominence.

“It was really hard to pick just one,” said Margaret Farmer, an East Boston Democrat. That’s why the 40-year-old said “equality” is her main concern — a concept, she said, that touches everything from transportation to tax policy to housing. She’s also undecided in the race.

Further complicating the picture: Many poll respondents who spoke to the Globe said their support of a candidate isn’t necessarily tied to their headlining issue.


For one, McCarthy, the Braintree Democrat, said he’s concerned with the president’s trade war with China and how it’s affecting the economy. He said he would vote for Markey, but it’s not necessarily because of what he’s heard from the 73-year-old Malden Democrat on specific economic policies.

“I know he has spoken out against Trump. And that’s good enough for me at this point,” he said.

Michele Corbett, a 68-year-old Marshfield resident, cited the growing cost of health care as her primary concern for the senator elected in 2020.

“The price of prescriptions has gone through the roof,” she said, pointing specifically to the cost of insulin. “It leaves people in a precarious situation.”

She said she would vote Kennedy, but she rooted her decision more in a desire for generational change, not in the 38-year-old Newton Democrat’s stance on health care cost control. “I just think it’s time for Mr. Markey to retire and go out on a high note,” she said.

Health care stood out in other ways among those polled. Asked in a separate question which priority of Democratic leaders is most important to them, 20 percent pointed to Medicare for all, the concept of replacing private health insurers with a government-run system.

Taryn VanEsselstyn, 29, of Brighton, pointed to something else altogether: gun control. Amid a steady drumbeat of mass shootings, she said it’s becoming an “epidemic” that the senator elected in 2020 should take a leading role on.


“People are afraid to go to public places,” she said. “We need people to really make it an issue, not just locally.”

VanEsselstyn said she would back Kennedy, but it’s not because of gun control alone. She said she also aligns with his stances on climate change.

The environment, too, has emerged as a priority for voters. Brian Poole, 32, of Acton, said while other issues are important, they’re “not nearly as real as” the effects of climate change.

Markey, for one, has made environmental issues a hallmark of his record, including in cosponsoring the Green New Deal resolution. But Poole said he was undecided on whether to back Markey, Kennedy, or someone else in a hypothetical Senate matchup.

“I haven’t researched them enough,” he said.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.