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Massachusetts is experiencing an unprecedented moment in its more recent electoral history, as 74-year-old Senator Ed Markey won the Democratic Senate primary election on September 1 to cement what may be the possible end of the Kennedy political dynasty.
Markey, who’s long served under the media radar, thanked young voters for his primary win over Democratic Representative Joe Kennedy III. Kennedy is the first member of his family to lose a Massachusetts election.
Kennedy, whose family name is on par with political royalty, is part of the family’s fourth generation to carry the political torch. His United States Senate campaign was backed by an array of powerful political figures, including US House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The race between the incumbent 74-year-old and his 39-year-old challenger drew significant national attention.
Over 900,000 ballots were cast ahead of time and, once all votes have been tallied, the election could prove to have seen the biggest Massachusetts primary turnout in over 20 years.
Markey, who was first elected to the House in 1972, was written off early on as something of a dull incumbent who would likely be easy to beat.
However, the 74-year-old quickly gained the support of progressive Democrats, including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez worked alongside Markey to co-author the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and combat climate change.
While the two candidates for Senate did not differ drastically in their political views, Markey campaigned as the more progressive candidate of the two, pointing to his long record of fighting for environmental protections and his support of Medicare for All.
He established himself early on as the preliminary adopter of liberal causes, claiming that he had personally written hundreds of laws offering affordable internet to schools and libraries, raising fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and fundraising billions of dollars for Alzheimer’s research.
Markey also called attention to political revolutions he took part in beginning in the 1980s, when he introduced the Nuclear Freeze Resolution, which called for a freeze on superpowers’ nuclear arsenals at their then current levels.
It came as no surprise, however, that climate was the major focus of his campaign. Markey’s name can also be found on the Waxman-Markey climate bill of 2009, which is the closest Congress has ever come to taking significant action on climate change.
For years, polls have shown that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, with many ranking it among their top issues.
Markey’s win “sent a resounding message: the politics of climate have changed and embracing bold climate action is a winning message in tough races,” according to John Podesta, who served as former President Barack Obama’s climate adviser.
Ocasio-Cortez’s backing helped garner the support of younger voters, who weren’t initially familiar with Markey. His campaign also shifted its focus to strengthen the Senator’s presence online, where Markey was initially at a disadvantage to the 39-year-old Kennedy.
It is Markey’s young voters to whom he is giving the credit for his victory.
“This campaign has always been about the young people of this country,” Markey told his supporters after the primary results came in. “You are our future. And thank you for believing in me, because I believe in you.”
Kennedy, who was counting on the support of these young voters, believed that many voters did not hold Markey accountable for some of his previous stances, including his opposition to the integration of Boston’s public schools.
Early on during the race, it appeared as though Kennedy was attempting to distance himself from his roots, as he rarely invoked his family’s name. Yet, the Kennedy name still carries significant weight among older Democrats.
In one campaign ad, Markey offered a spin on the famous John F. Kennedy quote, saying, “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
It was not until Markey released the ad repurposing the famous line that his younger rival began invoking his family’s name.
“My uncle Teddy was right here, literally right here where we stand getting garbage thrown at his face by an angry mob for daring to defend desegregation,” Kennedy said. “Meanwhile, Ed Markey was voting to keep Black kids from white classrooms.”
Kennedy’s bigger underlying problem, however, may have been that he simply never gave voters a reason for why he was running against Markey, who was generally well-liked by many Massachusetts Democrats.
Like his predecessors, Kennedy ran simply on the promise of a new generation.
The 74-year-old incumbent’s win proved that the political tune is changing and that the Kennedy legacy is no longer enough to win over today’s younger voters. It also signified that younger, progressive voters are not content with simply removing long-serving politicians in favor of younger rivals.
“When it comes to progressive leadership, it’s not your age that counts, it’s the age of your ideas," Ocasio-Cortez said in an ad. “And Ed Markey is the leader that we need.”
Just a year ago, Markey was facing two challengers and was down by double digits in the polls to Congressman Kennedy, who had yet to formally enter the race. Last September, Kennedy was estimated to have as much as a five-to-one advantage among voters aged 18 to 35.
But Kennedy, his advisers and many other people underestimated Markey’s determination.
By the last month of the campaign, as mail-in voting began, polls showed Markey had taken the lead, forging a coalition of younger and more liberal Democrats – the sort of voters who once formed the core of the Kennedy base.
Markey won by staggering margins in the state’s progressive centers, including by nearly 30 percentage points in Kennedy’s hometown of Newton.
While it’s too early to say whether or not Markey’s victory has put a nail in the coffin of the Kennedy dynasty, as the 39-year-old Kennedy still has a potentially long political future ahead of him, it perhaps signifies an end to the stronghold many other dynastic families – like the Clintons and the Bushes – have had on US politics in recent decades.
While President Donald Trump believes his daughter, Ivanka Trump, is fit to be the first female president, Markey’s win may draw a line in the sand, showing that the majority of voters are no longer interested in legacy politics.
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