The Trailer: Markey got the memes. Will he get the win?

“My interest in high-quality basketball shoes goes way back,” Markey said on a recent Saturday here, as he turned the corner toward his home. “We couldn’t afford Chucks, which were made by Converse. But they had a second store, where they’d sell anything that had a slight defect. So we could go over there when we were 10, with a buck, and go buy a pair.”

Markey, 74, began this Senate primary as a slight underdog, a journeyman liberal Democrat who never sought the national spotlight. Rep. Joe Kennedy, 39, had been talked up as a future leader for the party for much of his adult life, and in September 2019, he announced a challenge to Markey by saying it was “not the time for waiting” or for “playing by rules that don’t work anymore.” Voters had no problem with Markey, according to the polls; they just didn’t think much about him.

In the year since then, Markey’s image has been transformed — from the senator from Massachusetts who isn’t Elizabeth Warren into a working-class pugilist in basketball shoes. He headed into Tuesday’s primary as a slight favorite, boosted by the young voters and college-educated liberals that the Kennedy family had never struggled to win. 

There are Markey clubs at every major college, Markey memes splattered across social media and phone banks around the country organized by the Sunrise Movement, the youth climate-change activists who coined the Green New Deal shortly before Markey endorsed it.

“As soon as we realized there might be a credible threat to Markey’s reelection we wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement. “We didn’t want to wake up to a bunch of headlines saying Edward J. Markey lost, and voters rejected the Green New Deal.”

There’s no confusion about which candidate is younger. Kennedy, who won his House seat at age 31, worked early on to brand Markey as a Washington insider who was not immediately responsive to his state. That theme had been devastatingly effective for other challengers this state, and few candidates pushed it like Kennedy, racing between meetings and campaign rallies and, initially, locking up key local labor support.

Kennedy and Markey met in seven debates, and in the campaign’s final stretch, Kennedy made a 27-hour nonstop campaign swing — talking to voters at diners, greeting workers as they finished their shifts, grabbing bullhorns and jumping on soap boxes. At a stop in Gloucester, he talked to struggling fishermen as the sun came up, asking what sort of regulatory reforms they needed to cut costs and boost their industry. The hard-to-miss message: He was there, and Markey wasn’t.

“When they say, Joe, we need you to be our champion, it’s heartfelt,” said state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who had accompanied Kennedy there, as he paused for a picture with fishermen. “If you’re not meeting with these guys, and you’re just saying, oh, I’ll get you money, you’re missing the essence of what their issues are.” By design, Kennedy never focused on a single, defining campaign issue, arguing instead that he’d be a hyper-responsive and visible senator.

“That’s why I got into this race,” Kennedy said in an interview. “Not for generational change, per se. Not as a primary from the left, per se. It’s straight up that you can’t tell me that the planet is on fire, that this is the most urgent moment of our lifetime, and then not be here in Massachusetts.”

Kennedy’s case against Markey, like the case for his own candidacy, was also broad. He focused less on a single issue than on the votes he’d never been challenged on from the left: support for the Iraq War, a vote for the Patriot Act, and his initial opposition to forced busing as a way of integrating schools. But any fight about records ended up as a draw, as Kennedy, too, had moved left since joining Congress, and during that period he’d never been more liberal than Markey, leading to some awkward debate moments when the younger candidate regretted votes he’d taken just a few years ago.

The race did not become a referendum on the Kennedy family. One of Markey’s few arguable blunders came when he seemed to make fun of the Kennedy family’s clout and wealth; the congressman pounced, saying he knew that a “legacy is earned.” And there’s evidence that the Kennedy family’s powerful appeal to Black voters has helped the challenger, whose closing ads emphasized civil rights.

But among the white liberals who have swung the polling in this race, Markey built a lead and never looked back. Endorsing the Green New Deal may have been crucial. Markey had come within a few of votes of passing landmark cap-and-trade climate legislation in 2010. It passed in the House, where he was still serving, but was killed by a Senate Republican filibuster.

That was exactly the strategy modern environmental activists had ditched, arguing that an inspiring catchall framework — a Green New Deal to rebuild the economy and save the climate — could shift the public debate. Markey reached out to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after her 2018 election, a decision that would eventually reinvent his image. And although Kennedy’s traditional style of grass-roots campaigning was hampered by the pandemic, Markey’s alliance with the new left gave him armies of digital organizers.

“Not one single reporter asked Hillary or Trump a question about the in climate 2016,” Markey recalled. “My goal was to change that dynamic. And we see the results in the politics of 2020. And Massachusetts is an epicenter for science, and of the desire to see something big happen, to deal with the climate crisis. So, it’s injected itself in a very significant way into this primary. The Green New Deal is on the ballot.”

A victory by either Democrat today won’t affect the party’s power in the Senate. The winner of the GOP primary will be either Kevin O’Connor, a largely unknown attorney running as a bipartisan problem-solver, or Shiva Ayyadurai, a gadfly scientist who won 4 percent of the vote in 2018 as an independent Senate candidate. Both Democrats spent more than $10 million on the race, giving Republicans a little hope for an opening, once they know the nominee.

There is no question that when Republicans focus on common sense and Democrats move too far to the left — and that’s exactly the case this year — that Republicans can win,” O’Connor told the Boston Herald last week.

But President Trump’s overwhelming unpopularity in Massachusetts has allowed Democrats to move more confidently to the left, with popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s takes on national politics usually pitting him against Trump. In interviews last week, voters had little to say about where they disagreed with Kennedy or Markey. Kennedy’s supporters praised his family, and his constant presence; Markey’s supporters said that the candidates seemed to agree on most issues but that the senator had earned his job and done nothing to deserve forced retirement.

“I just think it’s unnecessary,” said Sean Dacey, a 44-year-old chef whose restaurant job was eliminated by the pandemic, after seeing Markey speak about the threats to the U.S. Postal Service at a rally last week. “I think it might have a bit to do with ambition and looking and seeing an opportunity than with a chance to distinguish himself on the issues. They’re pretty close on the issues. So, why bother?” 

Reading list

The stakes in Massachusetts’s 1st District.

A look at whether members of the military are having second thoughts about the president.

The meaning of the Democrat’s Pittsburgh speech.

Can the president stick to the image crafted by the Republic National Convention?

Hundreds of thousands of could-be voters are stuck in naturalization limbo.

In the states

The Kennedy-Markey primary is the highest-profile race in Massachusetts today, but it may not be the most important. In the 1st District, Rep. Richard E. Neal is trying to fend off Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, and defeat would create a scramble for the most powerful committee chairmanship in the House. In the 4th District, which Kennedy vacated to run for Senate, seven Democrats are in a tight race where the winner may get less than one-third of the vote. And in the 8th District, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch is facing the latest and best-organized left-wing challenge of his 19-year career in the House.

The Neal-Morse race was rocked last month by a scandal that fell apart, as members of the state’s College Democrats made vague accusations of misbehavior by Morse that were later retracted. (The 31-year-old mayor has taught some classes in the district’s branch of the state university system.) Although some of Morse’s endorsers initially recoiled at the accusation, they returned to help him, his fundraising surged and he brought the campaign’s focus back to his original message: Replace a Washington insider with a liberal mayor who supported Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.

“These last two weeks have been the best two weeks of fundraising in this entire campaign,” Morse told volunteers in northwestern Massachusetts last week, during a campaign swing to promote early voting. “I have trusted the people of this district to come to their own conclusions: That there was no coincidence that this happened three weeks before the most competitive primary in Congressman Neal’s entire life.”

Neal faced a primary challenge in 2018, too, and won it handily, but those results offer some insight into how a close race would go. Around 70,000 votes were cast overall, and Neal won by around 29,000. Much of that came from the district’s three biggest towns: Springfield, Pittsfield and Chicopee, which he won by nearly 13,000 votes. He did worse in the district’s college towns, but he carried many of them, such as Holyoke.

The race for the 4th won’t be so simple. Polling has found the highest support for three very different candidates: Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss, nonprofit organization leader and former gubernatorial aide Jesse Mermell, and Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman. Auchincloss quickly established himself as a favorite, emphasizing his service as a Marine, touting endorsements from the sometimes-ignored coastal part of the district, and leaning into his work with Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who is popular with Democrats.

“People here want somebody who has the ability to build coalitions for the day after Donald Trump leaves office,” Auchincloss said in an interview last week. “I’ve led Americans from all walks of life as a Marine officer. I have built coalitions as a city councilor.”

Auchincloss’s opponents were running, to varying degrees, to his left, on everything from Medicare-for-all (which he doesn’t support as is) to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (he is a steadfast supporter of Israel). The Boston Globe’s support for Auchincloss helped him, while giving opponents openings to attack his record. Mermell, who is backed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, won the biggest range of liberal endorsements but did not clear the field ― though she benefited when an eighth candidate quit the race last week and endorsed her.

Grossman, who’s also a corporate attorney, is the most moderate non-Auchincloss candidate in the field, emphasizing her support for gun safety laws over other ideological priorities.  But other Democrats may split the liberal vote. Former regulator Ihssane Leckey, an immigrant from Morocco, said in an interview she was inspired to run by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and her focus on taking corporate influence out of politics was unmatched by any other candidates.

“You have so many people talking about these amazing progressive policies and have absolutely no clue about the corporations that we’re up against,” she said in an interview. Three other candidates have pitched themselves as insurgents, too: attorney Ben Sigel, physician Natalia Linos and City Year founder Alan Khazei, who is making his third run for office.

The commonwealth’s Democratic-friendly gerrymander put four big liberal suburbs of Boston in the district: Newton, Brookline, Needham and Wellesley. Half the vote may come from there, with the rest coming from towns no candidate has competed in before this race, such as Attleboro, Taunton and Fall River.

The race in the 8th more closely resembles the Morse-Neal contest, though it has attracted a fraction of the spending. It starts in Boston and cuts through traditionally working-class towns down the highway, such as Quincy. Lynch faced two challengers in 2018, and they won a third of the Boston vote, but he dominated elsewhere. Challenger Robbie Goldstein has outspent Lynch on the air and has bet that informing reliable Democratic voters that their congressman opposed the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of marijuana can change the dynamics.

“He doesn’t have friends in Washington,” Goldstein said of Lynch. “So they’re not coming in on their horses to save him in the last days of this election.”

None of these races are expected to be competitive in November, and Republicans are not even contesting the races in the 1st and 8th districts.

Ad watch

Jake Auchincloss, “Lead in Crisis.” The Democratic congressional candidate’s campaign has heavily emphasized his military service, branding him as the candidate who can work best with anybody — a strategic choice in a Democratic primary that independents get to vote in. “The Marines train you to lead in crisis,” he says here. “I’m running for Congress because we’re in a crisis of Donald Trump’s making.”

Justice Democrats, “Morse.” The final ad that the left-leaning group may run this year, this casts the primary between Rep. Richard E. Neal and Alex Morse as a chance to remove an outsider and make “health care a human right.” The ad’s language shows just how much the left’s political tactics have evolved across two years of primary challenges: always focused on the working class, but with messaging that translates the rhetoric of street organizing (“a better world is possible”) without buzzwords.

Tom Cotton, “Liberal mob grows more violent.” For the third time, the senator from Arkansas has used his reelection fund to buy ads attacking Joe Biden in a swing state, this time in Minnesota and Wisconsin. (His lone Democratic challenger pulled out of the race because of a late-breaking scandal, giving Cotton no challenger this year.) This follows the themes of recent Trump campaign messaging but goes even further, warning that “the liberal mob” is “coming for your homes” and insisting that Democrats would unleash violent protesters if the president isn’t reelected.

Poll watch

It’s the question more and more people are asking: Where are the polling updates in this newsletter? The true and unexciting answer is that no polls have been released since the Republican National Convention that meet the standards of The Washington Post. That leaves out some national tracking polls that get a lot of coverage elsewhere, such as the rolling Morning Consult poll or the USC Dornsife-Los Angeles Times poll.

When will we know the effects of the conventions, and the rest of this unsettling news cycle? Sometime this week. Averages of national polls found the president trailing Joe Biden by seven to nine points ahead of the conventions, and no president has been reelected who did not lead in the polls in the week after his acceptance speech. Past isn’t prologue, and Democrats will freely, nervously admit that the president could win 270 electoral votes again even if he loses the popular vote decisively. Any lead for Trump would be the first since Biden became the nominee.

So we’ll soon be looking closer at movement in state polls. The first reactions to the unrest in Kenosha were colored not by any new data, but by an Aug. 11 poll from Marquette Law School that showed public support for the Black Lives Matter movement falling from a clear majority to 50-50, as Republicans soured again on BLM activism. Private data has found Republicans generally doing better at the end of August than they did one month earlier. But it’s not clear yet what happened because of the usual convention bounce, and what trends from earlier in the year may be reversed.

Candidate tracker

The first half of this week was dominated by the events in Kenosha, Wis., with President Trump visiting the city to survey damage and talk to law enforcement and Joe Biden delivering a speech in Pittsburgh to link the president to rising crime and unrest.

“I want to be clear about this: Rioting is not protesting,” Biden said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, only destruction. It’s wrong in every way.”

It was the second set of public remarks Biden had made that condemned violence while defending the right to protest, and it ended a somewhat surreal news cycle for the campaign, where Biden’s decision not to mention violence at the Democratic convention was touted, by Republicans, as evidence that was not condemning radicals on the left. Biden is approaching the issue differently from how he did in the 1990s but similarly to how he did in the Obama administration: arguing that racial reconciliation and criminal justice restructuring would lead to healing.

Trump derided the speech and went to Kenosha on Tuesday, briefly surveying damage from the looting and getting a report on the safety situation. (Protests in the city since Wednesday have been peaceful.) Before that, he gave an interview to Fox News host Laura Ingraham where his law-and-order focus sometimes careened into conspiracy theory, as when he suggested that antifa rioters had been seen arriving in airports.

“We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms,” Trump said.

Biden’s Pittsburgh trip, which included a stop to deliver pizzas to firefighters and a local news interview, was planned in a hurry ahead of a more intentional campaign strategy: to get him out into swing states next week. Trump would return to Pennsylvania on Thursday, with a stop in Latrobe, while Vice President Pence is in the Scranton area today. Kamala D. Harris called into an online voting telethon on Monday and is also expected to head back onto the trail.


… three days until North Carolina begins sending out absentee ballots
… seven days until primaries in New Hampshire and Rhode Island
… 14 days until the Delaware primary
… 19 days until early voting begins (in Minnesota)
… 28 days until the first presidential debate
… 63 days until the general election

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