Markey Victory Shows Appetite for Progressivism, Decreasing Power of Kennedys
On Sept. 1, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey defeated his challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, in the 2020 Democratic senate primary. Markey won over progressive voters by convincing them he was more “one of them” than Kennedy was. Markey pulled this off despite having similar views to Kennedy on many issues. Given his voting record, Markey's victory demonstrates a willingness to forgive within the Democratic Party's progressive wing. Furthermore, Kennedy's loss was the first suffered by a Kennedy in a Massachusetts election, signaling a possible end to the Kennedy reign in Massachusetts.
In his campaign, Markey embraced a progressive agenda. For example, Markey co-sponsored Senator Bernie Sanders's Medicare for All Act of 2017. Markey's support for a single-payer healthcare system is one of the many reasons he won such strong support from younger voters. An AP-NORC/MTV poll from 2018 showed that 69% of Americans between the ages of 15-34 supported a single-payer healthcare system. The same survey showed that 93% of young liberal Democrats support a single-payer healthcare system. Another aspect of Markey’s agenda that earned him support from young voters was his progressive approach to environmental legislation. In 2019, Markey co-authored the Green New Deal, the environmental resolution that has become a rallying point for the Democratic Party’s left wing. The Green New Deal includes ambitious climate initiative includes government investments in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure. According to Data for Progress, over 50% of millennials support the Green New Deal.
Kennedy and Markey largely agreed on healthcare and environmental issues. Kennedy also co-sponsored Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Markey voted for the Iraq War and the 1994 Crime Bill as a member of the House of Representatives. Therefore, running on record and positions alone would not be enough for Markey to secure the nomination. Markey had to prove to progressives that he had changed since the votes he took 20 or more years ago, and progressives had to be willing to trust a candidate changing over time.
To do this, Markey marketed his campaign towards young progressives through social media, specifically TikTok. On Markey’s TikTok account, you can find videos of him shooting hoops while promoting a Green New Deal. One of the senator’s TikTok’s went after Kennedy directly with the song “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates, with the lyrics “you’re a rich girl, and you’ve gone too far” and “you can rely on the old man’s money” playing while pictures of Kennedy showed on the screen. Part of Markey’s success in the election came with attacking Kennedy for his well-born status, something most Massachusetts politicians would have feared when the Kennedys had more clout in Massachusetts politics. Now, it appears that the era of Kennedy dominance in Massachusetts is waning.
Regarding demographics, Markey fared well against Kennedy in areas that preferred Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren in the primary, especially places in Western Massachusetts like Northampton, where Markey won over 78% of the vote. For comparison, in Northampton, Sanders and Warren combined to collect over 70% of the Democratic presidential primary vote in 2020.
Not only did Markey’s victory underscore the Democratic Party’s shift to the left, but it also indicated that the Kennedy dynasty lacked the power it once had over the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Although Markey gained several high-profile endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren and the Mayor of Boston, it was not enough to secure the win.
Despite Kennedy’s name and powerful endorsements, Markey’s incumbency advantage may very well have been the most crucial factor in his victory. According to Morning Consult, Markey has a 50% approval rating compared to a 25% disapproval rating. Having a net positive 25% approval rating adds to the already favorable odds of incumbents. Incumbents tend to fear primary challenges from opponents on the extremes of their ideological wing. Kennedy was hard-pressed to outflank Markey on the left. No scandal threw Markey into great disrepute or provoked any general ill will against the sitting senator.
Markey’s victory showed the popularity of outspoken progressivism and a willingness on
the left to forgive previous votes, so long as people fall in line eventually. This result
also illustrates the weakness of the once-mighty Kennedy clan in Massachusetts.
However, Markey’s deft use of social media, embrace of progressivism, endorsements
from prominent Massachusetts politicians, and Kennedy’s struggle to break free from
his name might have been dwarfed by the biggest advantage in American politics:
Markey will square off against Republican challenger Kevin O'Connor on November 3.