Mass. Senate primary and the future of the Democratic Party

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey fended off a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III in a tightly watched race Tuesday seen by many as a referendum on the state of the Democratic Party.

Markey, who has served in Congress for more than 40 years, bucked a trend that has seen older, established Democrats lose primary races to younger challengers. He won by aligning himself with the left wing of the party and earning the endorsement of progressive stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who herself had unseated a long-serving Democratic representative in 2018.

Kennedy, the 39-year-old grandson of former Sen. and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, led by a significant margin in polls when he entered the race just over a year ago. But that lead gradually evaporated during the course of a heated campaign in which Markey, 74, built a devoted online following among younger progressives who bolstered his candidacy through memes while leveling harsh criticism at Kennedy. In the end, Markey won the race by more than 10 points.

By running for the Senate, Kennedy forfeited his chance to hold on to his seat in the House. His loss is the first time a member of the Kennedy political dynasty has lost a statewide race in Massachusetts.

Why there’s debate

The Massachusetts Senate primary has been considered by many political observers to be a strong indicator of the balance of power within the Democratic Party in 2020 and beyond. Though their relative ages may suggest otherwise and their policy platforms were quite similar, Markey successfully managed to sell himself as the insurgent face of systemic change by emphasizing his progressive credentials — especially his early support of the Green New Deal. Kennedy, on the other hand, was seen as the establishment choice because of his family legacy and endorsement from mainstream figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

To some observers, the main takeaway from the race is the extraordinary power that Ocasio-Cortez and other young progressives have developed to influence Democratic voters. On paper, the contest fit the profile of an up-and-coming contender looking to unseat an older establishment Democrat, but Markey’s support from progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement flipped that narrative on its head.

The result may guide the decision making of other incumbent Democrats in 2022 or 2024. They may see a shift to the left as the best way to survive a primary challenge, or choose not to run for reelection at all if they worry they can’t successfully make that pivot.

The primary is also notable for being the end of the Kennedy dynasty as it’s been known in the U.S. for the past half-century, some argue. Though members of the family — including Joe — will likely have a role in politics going forward, the power to court voters by the name alone seems to have evaporated, some say.

What’s next

Markey is expected to comfortably defeat Republican primary winner Kevin O’Connor in November and return to the Senate for a term ending in 2026. Kennedy likely won’t hold public office next year, but his name is already being floated for possible future vacancies in Massachusetts or perhaps another Senate run if Elizabeth Warren’s seat becomes available.


Markey showed that older, established lawmakers have a place in the future of the party

“Choosing Markey, though, sent a message to Democratic incumbents that the new generation of activists does not consider age or length of service disqualifying credentials. This ought to have been clear given the youth support for the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, yet it still seemed to mystify pundits covering the race, who marveled that young people were somehow not supporting the young person.” — Rachel M. Cohen, Intercept

The race showed how influential the left wing of the party can be when it’s unified

“What led to Kennedy’s loss was not Markey’s army of memers, many of whom are too young to vote or don’t live in Massachusetts. It was the coalition of affluent, white, liberal Sanders and Warren sympathizers who joined them, achieving a unity that evaded that group during the presidential primary.” — Kara Voght, Mother Jones

The primary highlighted the importance of climate policy to young voters

“Because most politicians are in safe seats, big primaries often have a bigger impact on the party agenda. Ed Markey’s win last night will likely send a strong message to Democrats about the moral and political imperative to support bold climate action.” — Former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer

Pivoting to the left won’t work for every Democratic incumbent

“While it is true that Markey took full advantage of these endorsements to seal the deal with younger voters, it is a capital mistake to say that Markey in any way ‘rebranded’ himself by attaching himself to things like the Green New Deal. For most of his career in Congress, Markey has been ahead of most politicians on issues concerning the environment and emerging technologies.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

Markey’s win will influence the decisions of incumbent Democrats in future elections

“A number of House lawmakers are bracing for demands that they push through an ambitious agenda in a Democratic-controlled Washington or face another wave of primaries. Some of them may retire or, should Joseph R. Biden Jr. win the presidency, accept administration posts rather than seek re-election.” — Jonathan Martin, New York Times

Despite Markey’s win, incumbents are still losing at a higher rate than normal

“Tuesday notwithstanding, 2020 has still seen an unusual amount of anti-incumbent sentiment. The more-or-less final tally: Eight members of the House of Representatives (and no U.S. senators) lost renomination in 2020. It is an unusually high number by historical standards — it’s twice as many as in 2018 or in the tea party cycle of 2010.” — Nathaniel Rakich, FiveThirtyEight

The Kennedy name isn’t the political force it used to be

“Only voters old enough for retirement have real-time memories of the Kennedy administration. ... And much of what remains in photos and video clips of the once-famous Kennedy style is obnoxious to the public mood: Sleekly dressed men with sometimes leering eyes, captive spouses, cocktails and cigarettes.” — Peter Canellos, Politico

Progressive Democrats aren’t mobilizing working-class voters as much as they’d hoped

“A noteworthy consistent pattern you saw across the three different primaries in Massachusetts is that the ‘progressive’ candidates do better in more upscale, highly educated towns and the moderates in more working class ones. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing or a good one, but it’s in important ways at odds with what progressives think they’re doing — or at least what they say they think they’re doing.” — Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images