Beating a Kennedy in Massachusetts was always going to take Ed Markey running the best campaign of his life and Joe Kennedy running a spectacularly miserable race. Luckily for Markey, both things happened. Though Markey started the race as a huge underdog to get re-elected to his own Senate seat, the result was clear before the East Coast went to bed on Tuesday night.
As I wrote last week, Markey, who has always been a progressive but reliable team player for Democratic liberals, won the support of the left by reminding people he was a progressive at the right time—including by allying himself with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal. Doing so endeared him to a new generation of young activists, including those affiliated with the Sunrise Movement. It was an added bonus that his opponent was Joe Kennedy, a nepotism case with a conservative streak who was physically unable to present a positive case for why he was running
And so even if Markey himself wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool socialist or anything closely resembling as such, it became imperative for the left to make a statement in the race—that if you stick with us, we’ll have your back. And Markey winning, combined with a remarkable string of successful and nearly successful primary challenges this year, plants a flag for Democrats who might be vulnerable in 2022: Shit or get off the pot.
That’s not to say Markey’s coalition was limited to the left. He had the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, plenty of his fellow U.S. Senators including Chuck Schumer (and not including, weirdly, Bernie Sanders), and two powerful House committee chairs from New York who just got done beating back their own primary challenges from the left.
But Markey’s message was explicitly tailored to the young left, emphasizing radical action on climate change and the need for a stronger safety net, and it paid off. “The time to be timid is past,” Markey said during his victory speech. “The age of incrementalism is over.” To a generation that went for Bernie Sanders by 20 points or more in pretty much every contested Democratic primary in 2016 and 2020, this kind of shit is music to our ears.
Markey’s win marks an important milestone, aside from finally handing a Kennedy kid his ass in Massachusetts: it’s the first big Senate primary win for the left during its resurgence over the past five years. Markey’s an incumbent, sure, but the Senate has always been a giant obstacle to progressive change and so the gravity of having even a few allies there can’t be overstated—especially because in two weeks, there’s a chance to add another one.
It obviously did not go as well for the left elsewhere in Massachusetts. The race to replace Kennedy in his House seat will come down to Jesse Mermell, who falls somewhere between Kennedy and Rep. Ayanna Pressley on the ideological spectrum, and former Republican Jake Auchincloss, a Newton City Councilor. Ihssane Leckey, the left candidate in an extremely crowded race, is polling in a distant fifth, in a dynamic that’s remarkably similar to one that played out in the South Bronx earlier this summer.
Furthermore, Reps. Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch, both old conservative Catholic Democrats—some of the last of the Kennedy Democrats—hung on in their primary challenges against two young gay progressives, with Neal’s backers helping him by running a homophobic smear campaign against Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Neal’s win especially stings considering he controls the House’s purse strings, and the man who presumably would have been next in line was Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who is one of the House’s best Democrats on healthcare issues.
But Markey’s win puts Democrats like Lynch and Neal on notice, as he rode a wave that they’re trying desperately to stop. Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, and it’s still very much their party, at least for the time being—but for the first time in decades, they all have a real reason to fear the left.