The results of the Massachusetts primary will tell us a lot about how these fights will unfold, but regardless of the outcome, it is a dynamic almost certain to intensify.
When it comes to big Massachusetts elections in 2020, Sept 1 might as well be Nov 3.
With the possible exception of a GOP challenge in the Cape-based 9th Congressional District, no US House or Senate seat is expected to feature a competitive general election.
With a slew of progressive challenges for House incumbents, a handful of state legislative contests, a major matchup in the Senate, and a wide-open race in the Boston suburbs, the Mass primary will determine a lot about the makeup of the Commonwealth’s congressional delegation and will say more about the direction of the Democratic Party in the state.
Joe Kennedy’s challenge to Ed Markey for the Bay State’s junior seat in the US Senate was supposed to be big news in 2020. But as the Democratic presidential primary wound down and an international pandemic ramped up, intra-party politics took a back seat in the news cycle.
But as the world shuttered in place, campaigns rolled on. Done were the days of town halls, dinner parties, and rambunctious rallies. The new frontier—the most feasible frontier—is online.
Rep. Kennedy jumped into the race for the Dem nomination last September, after a Change Research poll showed him up double digits over the incumbent. After another eye-opening survey showed Kennedy with an 18-point advantage, polling narrowed, with both candidates within the margin of error.
The apparent heir to one of the nation’s most vaunted political dynasties, Kennedy launched his candidacy on the idea that a senator from Massachusetts needed to be more visible: on the front lines of the key issues facing a nation in tumult, being a more vocal proponent of change. He highlighted his work campaigning with candidates around the country for the 2018 elections, and knocked Markey for spending too much time in Washington.
“When Republicans had the House, and the Senate, and presidency, I traveled dozens of districts to win the House and hold this administration accountable and pass progressive change,” Kennedy said in an August debate. “And you, senator, went nowhere.”
While Kennedy was labeled an “insurgent” early on in the race, Markey worked to rally progressive allies and tie himself to the “politics of the future.” The 74-year-old junior senator from Mass has touted endorsements from the progressive likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and promoted his involvement in ambitious policies, like his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal, a proposal to simultaneously tackle the climate crisis and income inequality. Sen. Bernie Sanders declined to endorse in the race, but his left-wing political organization Our Revolution has backed Markey, along with Democracy for America and the Sunrise Movement.
“When I first got to Congress and we started to discuss big, bold plans … a lot of people said, We can’t do too much, we can’t go too fast,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her endorsement of Markey. “Ed Markey was one of the few people that had the courage to stand up and take a chance on a freshman congresswoman and on this plan.”
The Markey campaign initially sought to flex its muscle through the delegate-nominating caucuses in March, and to subsequently use a May convention endorsement as a show of strength. It accomplished the first phase of that plan, with the senator winning a clear majority of state delegates at Democratic ward and town caucuses across the Commonwealth. The campaign claimed it had won roughly 70% of delegates; the Kennedy campaign contested that total was closer to 54%.
But there was no Massachusetts Democratic Convention in 2020. In March, the state party called off the convention set to be held in Lowell. The deal was Markey, being the incumbent, would receive the party’s official endorsement, but there would be no convention spectacle to propel him into the primary.
Markey’s long record on issues like the environment (along with Kennedy’s centrist record in the House) has defined him as the candidate of the left in 2020. But it’s tough to tell how far that gets you in Mass.
A recent survey found that 72% of Mass Dem voters identified with the “Democratic Party of Obama and Biden,” compared to just 17% identifying with the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party. In March, Joe Biden won the Mass primary by close to 100,000 votes (though Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s combined totals exceeded Biden’s).
Kennedy has represented the state’s 4th Congressional District since 2013, replacing Barney Frank. He had his big moment in 2018 when he delivered the official Democratic Party response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, and has seen his profile skyrocket from viral moments on the House floor.
Kennedy has also bucked the party’s progressive base. In 2013, he was the only member of the Mass delegation to vote against modest reforms to the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) in the wake of revelations by Edward Snowden that the agency had been abusing its data-collecting apparatus. And in 2016, Kennedy voted for PROMESA, a debt restructuring plan for Puerto Rico that led to deep cuts to social spending.
“You voted to hollow out Puerto Rico, cut their education, their health care, their housing, and other programs,” Markey said in a July debate. “You took a vote that harmed Puerto Rico in a distinctly serious way.”
That hasn’t diminished support for the young congressman from within the Democratic ranks. Kennedy has earned the backing of a long list of current House members, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Joaquin Castro, and the late John Lewis, who endorsed the challenger in January. Pelosi is one of the highest-profile opponents of the Green New Deal in the Democratic Party and certainly the most powerful.
Markey has been in Massachusetts politics since the early 1970s. And while that long career is riddled with its share of problematic positions, he’s also been ahead on issues before their time had come, and is running on his record of accomplishments.
In a campaign ad released in early August, Markey is dubbed the Green New Dealmaker, pushing hard the notion that he can turn political pipedreams into tangible policy. The ad splices footage of the senator crusading for still-relevant issues through his career with images of young people taking to the streets in protest. It closes with a swipe at the Kennedys.
“We asked what we could do for our country,” Markey says over the ad. “We went out. We did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
The establishment strikes back
Like 2018, a major theme of the congressional primary season has been progressive and left-wing challengers laying siege to moderate and conservative incumbents in safe Democratic districts.
The most recent anti-establishment triumph was Cori Bush’s victory over Rep. William Lacy Clay in St. Louis early in August. Bush, a Medicare-for-All proponent who has organized with Black Lives Matter, had the backing of progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement. Clay, who will have represented the district for 20 years, has been a fixture in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.
Others on the left, like Marie Newman of Illinois and Jamaal Bowman of New York, pulled off similar feats earlier in the year, taking down more conservative incumbents in positions held for decades.
But with the modest success of the left-wing electoral movement in congressional primaries has come a new, predictable theme in 2020: well-funded challenges to incumbent progressives.
Three members of the so-called “Squad”—a group of left-wing congresswoman including Ayanna Pressley (MA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), and Rahsida Tlaib (MI)—faced aggressive, high-profile challenges this cycle from moderate candidates.
While each progressive incumbent successfully fended off their big-spending opponents, in many ways, the Massachusetts US Senate seat is the biggest target of the year.
Markey’s no lifelong champion of the progressive vision, and his (at the very least) spotty record that includes support for the 1994 Crime Bill and the 2003 invasion of Iraq have earned him criticism on the left. But as the senator has moved to the center stage on some of the most robust and existentially necessary policy proposals, he has become a figure of at least symbolic prominence among progressives.
For the left, Kennedy’s attempt to usurp the Senate seat is more than an ambitious politician trying to achieve higher office—it’s an attempt to knock one of the most visible proponents of the Green New Deal out of the halls of power. Kennedy has expressed support for key progressive issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and on paper there’s little daylight between the two candidates on the major issues.
But taking down a leader sends a message. The political spin: How popular can a proposal like the Green New Deal be if its co-sponsor can’t win a primary in one of the country’s most liberal states?
The more sinister angle: Even if you are a center-left Democrat, if you try to take on the powerful industries of America, you will be replaced, or at least slapped with a super-funded, high-profile challenger.
The results of the Massachusetts primary will tell us a lot about how these fights will unfold, but regardless of the outcome, it is a dynamic almost certain to intensify. Progressives aren’t slowing up their efforts to push the Democrats left, and the party’s dominant moderate wing won’t allow a shift without a fight.
On the House
Kennedy’s decision to run for Senate guarantees one thing: There will be a new congressperson representing the Bay State’s 4th Congressional District. Who that person is is anyone’s guess.
Since Kennedy can’t simultaneously run for Senate and reelection to his House seat, his decision to seek higher office created a vacancy in the Mass delegation, and it wasn’t long before the race was flooded with candidates.
In total, there are eight hopefuls running in a district that stretches from the Boston suburbs into southern Mass. As with most national races, the distinct political “lanes” became defined early.
The progressive wing is led by Ihssane Leckey and Jesse Mermell.
Leckey and Mermell represent a more nuanced proxy in Democratic politics, between a resurgent progressive reform movement and a deeply anti-establishment left-wing vision. In simplest terms, it’s the fight between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on a smaller scale. While neither former candidate has endorsed in the race, Warren allies have backed Mermell and Sanders-aligned groups have supported Leckey. The candidates both support robust proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and both have support from members of the “Squad” (Pressley has backed Mermell and Omar endorsed Leckey).
“There are real differences in this race,” Mermell said at a July debate. “I’m one of few candidates to have consistently supported the policies we need to create progressive change: Medicare for All, free college and technical school tuition, student debt relief, and defunding police.”
Mermell has experience in public service, serving as a member of the Brookline Select Board before joining the Deval Patrick administration as communications director.
In addition to Pressley, Mermell has been endorsed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Planned Parenthood, and a big group of various labor unions.
“Jesse has spent her career in pursuit of progressive change, and her leadership has always been undertaken in close partnership with the community,” Pressley said in a statement endorsing Mermell.
Leckey, who emigrated from Morocco to the United States when she was 20, draws experience from her time as a regulator on Wall Street. She’s been endorsed by Sanders-affiliated groups Our Revolution and Brand New Congress as well as Massachusetts Peace Action, an anti-war foreign policy oriented organization.
“An immigrant, a survivor and a mother, Leckey understands firsthand the struggles of minorities and the marginalized,” Mass Peace Action wrote in its endorsement.
Foreign policy defines much of the distinction between Leckey and Mermell. In a district with the largest Jewish population in New England, Leckey is the only candidate to support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a movement seeking to pressure Israel into unravelling its oppression against Palestinians.
Like the other candidates, Leckey primarily campaigns on domestic issues, focusing her message on healthcare, the environment, and the economy. But even tepid, vague support for BDS has earned Leckey harsh criticism from the Democratic Party’s hawkish ranks.
“Ihssane Leckey is one of the most strongly anti-Israel candidates on the ballot anywhere in the country this year,” Democratic Majority for Israel spokesperson Rachel Rosen told Jewish News Syndicate.
Leckey also supports repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists and the Patriot Act, and seeks to “end America’s forever wars.”
In the moderate-liberal lane are Jake Auchincloss and Becky Grossman. Both candidates oppose Medicare for All and have made gun control and contrasting Donald Trump focal points of their campaigns.
Auchincloss is a Newton city councilor with a questionable record for somebody running in a Democratic primary. The former Marine is a self-described “Obama-Baker” voter who worked for the Massachusetts Republican Party in 2013 and 2014. Auchincloss also worked to help elect Gov. Charlie Baker governor and at one point made a maximum donation to the controversial Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis. Evangelidis, a former Republican state rep, has a history of anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration stances.
In 2016, Auchincloss urged school officials not to punish students who’d flown a Confederate flag at Newton North High School.
“I doubt you would ban a Black Lives Matter banner, for example, and I know you would not ban an LGBT flag, though these might sincerely upset some students,” Auchincloss wrote in a letter to the school superintendent.
Auchincloss has since called the letter a “mistake.”
But Baker’s overwhelming popularity among Mass Democrats shows that GOP affiliation isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, even in a wide-open primary. Auchincloss has framed himself as a strong progressive with a track record of leadership. He has the support of a lot of local officials and was endorsed by the Boston Globe (in what resulted in a controversy of its own).
“Donald Trump’s America is not the America I fought for as a Marine captain and it’s not the America I have worked for as a city councilor,” Auchincloss said.
Grossman also holds a seat on the Newton City Council. She jumped into politics after Trump’s election and has made her identity as a mother central to her candidacy.
“I am especially proud to be running at a time when we only have 25 moms of school-age children in Congress,” Grossman said. “That is a perspective that is missing and that is needed.”
The daughter-in-law of former Mass Treasurer Steve Grossman, Becky Grossman has been endorsed by former HUD secretary Julian Castro and California Rep. Ro Khanna, who served as the national co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign.
There’s been just one public poll in the race, with Auchincloss and Mermell in a tie at the top. But a whopping 45% of likely voters said they were still unsure who they would vote for.
An internal survey from the Leckey campaign found Grossman, Auchincloss, Leckey, and Mermell with a firm hold on the top four spots, respectively, with 25% undecided. Alan Khazei, Natalia Linos, Ben Sigel, and Chris Zannetos round out the crowded field.
Linos, who got into the race late, jumped to third in the August poll. An epidemiologist whose platform includes single-payer health care and universal child care, Linos has run on her health experience in countering the pandemic.
“We are in the middle of a global pandemic that our country, our world, has never seen before,” Linos said in a debate. “And if it wasn’t for COVID, I would not be on this panel. But I am an epidemiologist, I am someone who has 10 years of experience with the United Nations dealing with global emergencies. I worked with the New York City Health Department during Ebola. And I have the skills that are needed for this moment.”
The 4th is the seventh wealthiest congressional district in the United States. The district went strongly for Joe Biden over his progressive opponents in the March presidential primary, with only Brookline bucking the trend by favoring Warren. But it’s a deep blue district that hasn’t elected a Republican since major redistricting in the 1940s.
The biggest bulk of votes will come from the affluent Boston suburbs, with Newton, the Commonwealth’s 11th biggest city, representing the largest municipality in the district. It becomes more working class to the south. While southern Mass has traditionally been one of the Bay State’s more conservative regions, voters in May flipped a long-time Republican state rep seat in the area, and progressive state Sen. Paul Feeney won a special election in 2017 in a district that covers some of the 4th’s southern front.
“We live in a district that is fragmented economically,” Leckey said. “We have some of the wealthiest towns in the country, coupled with towns that have been lacking economic opportunity for generations.
“We have way too much poverty in this district, and we have people who have the economic comforts who should stand up to vote for people who will fight for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and green public transportation dignity for the lives of the most vulnerable in our district.”