The revitalization that would save Sen. Ed Markey’s reelection bid began in May 2019, three months before Rep. Joe Kennedy III entered the race and 450 miles south of Markey’s hometown of Malden, Massachusetts.
In a packed auditorium at Howard University, Markey addressed a crowd of young people who had come, if everyone involved was honest about it, to see a leading progressive presidential candidate and the most powerful millennial in American politics.
“Ed Markey was supposedly the opening act of [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Bernie Sanders, and Markey gave hands down the hottest speech of the night,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, which had organized a multi-city tour to promote the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan co-authored by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey to spend trillions of dollars to address income inequality and battle climate change. “He just brought the house down.”
Speaking to a crowd of Howard students, Sunrise Movement activists and Democratic Socialist of America members, Markey criticized Republicans who called the Green New Deal “socialism.” The crowd cheered at the mention of the word, and Markey looked surprised.
“I saw something click in his eyes,” Weber said. That moment cemented a bond between Markey and the young climate activists who would power his campaign, encourage him to rediscover his insurgent roots, serve as the proof point for progressive power and, in Tuesday night’s primary election, ultimately deliver a seemingly impossible victory over one of the most powerful dynasties in Democratic politics.
“We are showing that there’s a reward. If you move in the direction that young people are demanding, we are going to show up for you,” Weber said. “He’s going to go back to the Senate and be an even better senator than he was before. He’s going to have a strong mandate from the progressive movement.”
The support of the Sunrise Movement, and later the larger “Markeyverse” ― a collection of young activists who used social media to recruit volunteers and raise money for Markey’s campaign ― would not have been enough to fend off Kennedy’s star power on their own. But they were critical to helping Markey build a media narrative and a platform to reach out to the older suburban voters who put him over the top.
At the start of the 2020 election cycle, the then-72-year-old Markey was considered a prime target for a primary challenge. A white man who had spent much of his life in Washington, he resembled incumbents like New York Rep. Joe Crowley more than successful progressive insurgents like Ocasio-Cortez. A solid liberal with a low profile, he won a little-watched 2013 special election to make the leap to the Senate after 20 terms in the House of Representatives.
Polling indicated that Markey had little statewide profile, and much of the Massachusetts political class believed he was vulnerable to a primary challenge. In a sign of Markey’s stance in the political pecking order, it was Kennedy who was given the honor of introducing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at her presidential campaign launch in February 2019, while Markey introduced Kennedy.
Even before Kennedy entered the race, corporate executive Steve Pemberton and labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan were challenging Markey. (Both would drop out not long after Kennedy entered the contest.)
“When you look at what’s going on around the country ― the AOC race, the Bowman race ― the factors that led to those incumbents losing, I thought those were present here in Massachusetts,” said Doug Rubin, a veteran Massachusetts political consultant who advised Pemberton before he dropped out of the race. “An outsider with a compelling story would’ve been the kind of candidate who had a chance against an incumbent like Markey.”
Meanwhile, Kennedy was slowly building a national political brand. The grandson of an attorney general and the son of a congressman, he had spent much of the 2018 cycle as a sought-after campaign surrogate, able to raise money and appeal to older Catholic voters on behalf of Democratic candidates around the country. But he also had a reputation as a cautious politician. In an interview before his loss on Tuesday, Kennedy said he originally turned down entreaties to run against Markey.
“It was the last thing on my mind. Some folks approached me in the early summer and said ‘Hey, you should think about this race,’ and I said ‘No, why would I do that? I’m not interested,’” he said. “Then some folks came back and said I should really take a look at this, and they came back to me and pointed to some issues with his records, and I thought about what this moment required and his lack of engagement.”
Kennedy entered the race in September 2019, promising to upend “outdated structures and old rules.” Polling indicated he was a heavy favorite to defeat Markey. His advantages were marked: name identification, a national fundraising network and even a more robust online presence ― several of Kennedy’s speeches from the floor of the House had gone viral over the years.
Markey retained the support of much of the Massachusetts political establishment, including an endorsement from Warren. He had the backing of the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which would spend the legal limit of $580,000 in coordinated funds backing him. And he had the support of the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez, which would enable him to quickly counter Kennedy’s narrative that he had the support of younger generations.
By taking away Kennedy’s claim to youthful enthusiasm, Sunrise deprived him of a reason to run and made it difficult for him to explain to Democratic primary voters why they should fire an incumbent. Throughout the race, journalists dogged him for a satisfactory answer. In the waning weeks of the race, Kennedy eventually settled on a pitch focused on racial justice, but momentum was firmly in Markey’s corner by then.
In the eyes of Rubin, the Kennedy campaign failed to draw their most effective contrast: the idea that Kennedy would show up and connect to people who were hurting in a way that Markey, a veteran legislator, would not. A late July story in the Boston Globe found Markey spent far less time in Massachusetts than the other members of the congressional delegation ― in 2017, for instance, Markey spent just 77 nights in Massachusetts.
“The whole idea of Kennedy showing up when there are no cameras and really connecting with people versus. the idea of Markey as a legislator who spent all of his time in D.C. was effective,” Rubin said. “But the Kennedy people never really played that angle.”
The Kennedy campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the subject.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Sunrise Movement met with Markey campaign manager John Walsh in early November to plot strategy. A key element was rediscovering the earliest days of Markey’s career, when he was more of a progressive insurgent, and melding that with the stories of his effectiveness as a legislator and his working-class background.
“There was a treasure trove here of Ed Markey stories,” said Paul Bologna, the Markey campaign’s digital communications director and creative director. “I’m an incredibly attuned political person, but I had no idea about it. I did not know that he was the son of a milkman. I did not know he was an ice cream truck salesman. And it resonated with me. And I thought it would resonate with other people.”
Markey told his campaign staffers a story from the 1980 Democratic National Convention, when activists threatened to disrupt the proceedings unless the then-35-year-old congressman was given time to speak. But finding footage of the 40-year-old address, which featured a call for solar energy investment and an end to foreign oil dependence, was easier said than done. Staffers scoured everywhere, even calling Jimmy Carter’s presidential library in Georgia. They eventually found it and used it to highlight Markey’s credentials as one of the earliest clean energy advocates in Congress.
Other moments were serendipitous. Markey was standing outside his home in Malden, wearing an old pair of sneakers, a green bomber jacket and a face mask when a campaign staffer snapped a candid picture that went viral. The sneakers ― a 30-year-old pair of red and white Nike Air Revolutions ― became a symbol of Markey’s transformation into a Gen Z icon.
Markey began wearing them everywhere, and needed to take them to what he dubbed an “Air Revolution hospital” shortly before the primary. “They started to flap on me,” Markey said in a phone interview before the primary, noting he had to try several different cobblers before finding one willing to fix the sneakers. “After 30 years for the same pair of sneakers, they do tend to get a little worn down, but they’re back in shape and I’m still getting like five miles every day.”
This transformation generated some eye rolls among Kennedy supporters, who scoffed at the idea that Markey should be considered a progressive icon. Some pointed to the similarities between the record of Markey and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and noted many of the same activists who defended Markey at all costs were relentlessly attacking Biden only months earlier. Both men voted for the Iraq War and for the 1990s crime law now blamed for supercharging mass incarceration.
Some Kennedy allies have suggested Markey essentially duped the left. “This goes to show you that the left doesn’t do their homework and they’re easily won over by bright shiny objects,” one anonymous figure told Politico on Wednesday. But Weber, from the Sunrise Movement, said that many activists were aware of the black marks on the incumbent’s record, and ultimately decided his leadership on climate change was more important. (Even before the Green New Deal, Markey had been a lead author of the only major climate change bill to ever pass a chamber of Congress.)
“Has he voted perfectly on everything? No,” Weber said. “But he’s often led and stood aside important social movements.”
Of course, winning over the votes of climate activists wouldn’t be enough for Markey to beat Kennedy. Many of the suburban towns where Markey racked up huge margins ― places like Lexington, Waltham and Acton ― are not exactly filled with college-age voters.
Bologna noted that many of the campaign’s videos, especially on Facebook, were aimed at an older demographic. Videos of baby boomer celebrities Carole King and Harry Belafonte delivering endorsements of Markey, for instance, were viewed thousands of times.
By the metric of Markey’s television ads, however, the most crucial endorsement came from the editorial board of the Boston Globe, the state’s largest newspaper. One of the campaign’s 30-second spots, entitled “Think Bigger,” spent almost the entirety of its runtime directly quoting the paper’s endorsements. It aired nearly 1,900 times on broadcast television in the state, according to a Democrat tracking media buys ― the most of any Markey campaign spot.
Another ad, featuring Ocasio-Cortez, emphasized Markey’s progressive credentials and aired 1,300 times. A third, which included the endorsement of Warren mixed in with testimonials from regular people about Markey’s veteran leadership, aired nearly 900 times.
In the end, the race was not especially close. While Kennedy was able to win large chunks of his old congressional district, along with some rural areas in central Massachusetts and smaller working-class cities, Markey won Boston and dominated in most of its suburbs, even triumphing in Kennedy’s hometown of Newton. He earned 56% of the vote to Kennedy’s 44%.
On election night, Markey left no doubt as to whom he owed his victory.
“Our movement is fueled by young people who are not afraid to raise their voices or make enemies,” he said. “Tonight’s victory is a tribute to those young people and to their vision. They will save us if we trust them.”
It certainly worked out for Markey.
Tara Golshan contributed reporting.