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  • Emanne Khan

2020 MA Senate Race: Buoyed by Young Voters, Longtime Climate Defender Ed Markey Wins Another Term

On November 3, Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts was reelected to the U.S. Senate in a resounding victory over Republican challenger Kevin O’Connor. Markey has been a familiar face in Massachusetts politics since the 1970s, becoming considerably more popular in recent years. In 2019, he co-sponsored the ambitious Green New Deal alongside Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and in September 2020 he became the first politician to defeat a member of the Kennedy clan in a Massachusetts election. Throughout his lengthy career, Markey has established himself as a visible advocate for climate action and other progressive policies, a reputation that he is sure to uphold during his second full term in the Senate.

Champion for the Environment

Markey, a native of Malden, MA and two-time alumnus of Boston College, entered the political realm in 1973 at the age of 26. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives until 1976, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During a 37 year tenure in the House, Markey developed an extensive track record as a proponent of renewable energy. He sponsored the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987 which set energy consumption standards for household appliances. He also contributed to the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act which regulates automobile fuel efficiency. In 2009, he co-authored the American Clean Energy and Security Act alongside Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) which aimed to limit annual greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Although it never passed, the bill gave activists hope that the American government might be willing to address climate change.

After John Kerry vacated his position as Massachusetts Senator in 2013 to serve in the Obama administration, Markey won a special election to replace him and was reelected to a full six-year term in 2014. As a Senator, Markey has continued to push for federal action to combat climate change. “Scientists have warned us about the danger of climate change for years,” Markey told reporters at the 2014 launch of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, which he now chairs. “We have an economic imperative to act on climate. We have a security imperative to act on climate. We have a moral imperative to act on climate change.”

Path to Reelection

The 2020 campaign season presented a daunting challenge for Markey. He had faced no opponents in the Democratic primary during his 2014 bid to retain his Senate seat. This changed on September 21, 2019, when four-term Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) of the fourth congressional district announced his intention to run against Markey in the 2020 Senate race. Kennedy initially seemed to be a formidable opponent. He is the grandson of former Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY) and appeared poised to uphold the Kennedy family’s decades-long winning streak in Massachusetts politics.

Kennedy, who is nearly 40 years Markey’s junior, positioned himself as the fresh-faced antidote to a broken political establishment. “I got in this race because we have major challenges we have to confront, and the current occupant of this seat is not doing all that he can to actually address it,” Kennedy told The Atlantic in August 2020. Early polls showed Kennedy ahead of Markey by double digits, although many voters remained undecided.

The Markey campaign rose to the challenge by emphasizing the incumbent Senator’s ties to the progressive movement and mobilizing supporters on social media. In a savvy move that proved key to his eventual victory, Markey targeted voters ages 18 to 35, who made up a large portion of the undecided electorate. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who has a loyal following amongst young progressives, endorsed Markey and was soon joined by groups like the Sunrise Movement, a climate activism organization. While the COVID-19 pandemic restricted opportunities for the candidates to host traditional campaign events, Markey made use of social media platforms to win over youth. Throughout the summer, he posted TikTok videos and tweeted pictures of himself sporting basketball sneakers with quippy captions such as “If you have to go outside, wear a mask.” He soon attracted a legion of Twitter fans dubbed “the Markeyverse,” which included accounts such as @edsreplyguys and @students4markey who frequently expressed their support in his replies.

In the face of the Kennedy family’s historical dominance in Massachusetts, Markey’s innovative tactics proved stronger than simple name-recognition. By late August, Markey had overtaken Kennedy in the polls as the younger congressman struggled to define his political identity. The September 1st primary saw Markey win 55% of the vote to Kennedy’s 45%, thanks in part to the support of voters who backed Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary. Of the 78 Massachusetts towns won by either Sanders or Warren in the primary, Markey picked up 51.

Massachusetts has elected only one Republican Senator since 1979, but attorney Kevin O’Connor of Dover had plans to change that in 2020. O’Connor’s promises to fight tax increases and protect qualified immunity for police officers carried him to the Republican nomination, but he proved to be no match for Markey. The two met in a single virtual debate on October 6, in which Markey called attention to O’Connor’s support of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“The last thing we need in Massachusetts is to send another Republican down to help Mitch McConnell stop a green energy revolution, to stop the expansion of health care benefits in our country, to stop ensuring that we have real criminal justice reform,” Markey said. In a state that voted 2-1 against Trump in 2016, it’s no surprise that this strategy worked as Markey surged to victory over O’Connor in the November 3 general election by a margin of 33 points.

What’s Next?

Heading into his second full term in the Senate, Markey plans to continue advocating for the progressive agenda he campaigned on. “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,” he told the Boston Globe. “Young people care about the Green New Deal. They care about fighting racial injustice. They care about ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare in our country.”

The Green New Deal is a resolution Markey introduced alongside Representative Ocasio-Cortez in early 2019 and is his most recent effort to address climate change. The sweeping policy package lists five goals, including transitioning the country away from greenhouse gases and investing in renewable energy over the next ten years. Since its introduction, the Green New Deal has provoked strong reactions from supporters and critics alike, with some politicians lauding its ambition while others are dismissing it as wishful thinking. With COVID-19 dominating all aspects of public life, it is unlikely that Congress will move on such forward-looking climate legislation anytime soon. However, following Markey’s successful reelection bid, it is equally as unlikely that he will give up on the bill’s tenets.

Markey’s other policy priorities include cutting defense spending, expanding Medicare, creating jobs in Massachusetts in industries such as education, tech, and medicine, and protecting the state’s immigrant and refugee populations. Markey also aims to preserve competition in the telecommunications sector, uphold net neutrality, and impose strict gun control regulations.

Depending on the outcome of the impending Georgia Senate runoffs, the country might very well be facing another four years of legislative gridlock. But if Markey’s years of experience tell us anything, it’s that he won’t stop fighting for the issues he believes in. With more people watching the high-top wearing Senator than ever before, his path to reelection in 2020 illustrates that politicians can expand their reach and energize new supporters even decades into their careers.


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