Ed Markey's winning deal with the left

Ed Markey.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) capped off a remarkable underdog campaign to retain his seat by resoundingly defeating Rep. Joe Kennedy III in Tuesday's Democratic Party primary — the first time in Massachusetts history that a Kennedy has lost a statewide race.

Markey did have the advantage of incumbency, but early polling showed him trailing the challenger by a considerable margin. The only thing that changed over the last several months was how Markey turned squarely to the left. As Paul Blest writes at Discourse Blog, in some ways this was an odd development. Markey's record is that of a domestic liberal who has been a loyal team player, and he therefore has taken a lot of awful votes, like in favor of the Iraq War.

However, there is one big exception. Markey was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, by far the most ambitious climate policy proposal ever introduced in Congress. As Rachel Cohen writes at The Intercept, this gave him real credibility on the left. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and the Sunrise Movement endorsed him early, and Markey leaned heavily into lefty messaging, especially on climate. He shot a slick video talking up his earlier record of quite ambitious progressivism, which needled Kennedy about his family's most famous line: "It's time to start asking what your country can do for you."

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Kennedy, meanwhile, could not articulate a clear reason why he was running. The true answer was obvious — he is ambitious and wants more power — but even political royalty needs a plausibly selfless rationale in a democracy. Given that he and Markey were so similar, why didn't he, say, run for governor to beat the actual Republican incumbent?

With this victory, Markey's whole political tone has changed. As Blest writes, he now sounds much more like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders than he did before. He has the record and air of someone with progressive instincts who took some distasteful votes because he thought it couldn't be avoided. Perhaps that was wrong at the time, but now that the left has saved his bacon, he has the freedom — and the obligation — to pay back their support.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.