Ed Markey should have lost last night.
He was running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts and a Kennedy has never lost in Massachusetts. Joe Kennedy is not some dilettante trading on his famous last name. He is a smart, talented politician that was tapped by the party leadership to deliver the response to the State of the Union just a few years ago. Kennedy was better funded, better known and a younger, fresher face.
On paper, Markey looks like a lot of the Democratic incumbents who have lost primaries in recent years. He is a 74 year old, card carrying member of the Democratic Establishment. He has spent four decades in Congress voting for some of the bills most reviled by the Left. Markey supported the 1994 Crime Bill, the Iraq War, and NAFTA. His record is a lot more Joe Biden than Bernie Sanders.
Yet, Markey was propelled to victory by a wave of progressive enthusiasm and with the help of a talented cadre of organizers and activists from the ascendant Left. Markey’s success can be primarily attributed to one issue: Climate Change.
Ed Markey’s decision last year to partner with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to introduce the Green New Deal legislation changed the trajectory of the campaign and his victory last night sent a powerful message to the Democratic Party about the political and moral imperative to support bold climate action.
A Primary Lesson In Politics
Most politicians are in safe districts. There are in much greater danger of losing a primary than the general election. Therefore, the narratives that emerge from consequential primaries often have a bigger impact on how the party views politics than even surprising general election losses.
After the 2012 election, most political observers assumed the Republicans in the House would eventually pass an immigration reform bill. Obama had won reelection in part because of huge margins with Latino voters. The Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy identified Romney’s right-wing, proto-Trumpian immigration stance to be a major cause of his defeat.The Senate quickly passed a bipartisan immigration bill sponsored by Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and others. Sean Hannity would never admit it now, but back then even he was on board with the concept of immigration reform (I have the receipts).
But all of the Republican appetite for immigration reform came to a screeching halt when Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, lost his primary to Dave Brat, an unknown, underfunded Tea Party candidate. Brat had relentlessly attacked Cantor from the right on immigration and in doing so, tapped into the energy of the Republican base.
The lesson for the Republican Party from Cantor’s defeat was clear. The best way to avoid being Eric Cantor was to move hard right on immigration.
The lesson for Democrats from Markey’s victory is also clear. Thanks to Markey, every Democrat now knows that the best way to avoid a primary defeat is to adopt bold, progressive climate policies — namely the Green New Deal.
A number of prominent Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, could face primary challenges in 2022. No one wants to be the next Joe Crowley, Eliot Engel, Lacey Clay or any of the other Democratic incumbents who succumbed to an energetic primary challenge from the left. I suspect that the list of co-sponsors for the Green New Deal legislation is about to get a lot longer.
Just as Cantor’s loss pushed the Republicans away from immigration reform, I believe Markey’s victory will push Democrats towards a closer embrace of the Green New Deal.
Climate Change is Where the Energy Is
Prior to the Green New Deal, Markey was a relatively unknown figure. He was powerful within the confines of Washington, but unknown outside of it. His name ID in Massachusetts was pretty low for someone who had been in Congress for forty years. But all of that changed once Markey embraced the Green New Deal.
As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel wrote in his excellent newsletter, The Trailer:
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.
The best example of how Markey’s newfound celebrity is the viral success of the “The Green New Dealmaker” video made by the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led political organization that brought the Green New Deal to the forefront. Using allusions to the classic Boston movie The Departed and the song “Old Town Road,” the video transformed Markey from a journeyman Congressman into a veritable progressive superhero. (For more discussion of the video, please check out my discussion with Sunrise Movement’s Alex O’Keefe, the very talented creator of the ad, on Crooked Media’s YouTube Channel).
Virality is about more than a cool video. People make cool videos about politicians all the time. Most of them go nowhere. Something can only take off when it speaks to an engaged, motivated, digitally savvy audience. The most engaged, motivated audience in American politics is young climate activists. The Green New Deal is a litmus test for a lot of these young activists. Climate is literally a life or death issue for them and they have no patience for the older politicians that keep telling them to have more patience.
Markey’s climate activism translated into a surge of support among young voters. A poll from late July showed Markey with double Kennedy’s support among Massachusetts voters age 18-29.
The Sunrise Movement is tremendously savvy about how they use their influence to push their agenda. Sunrise went to the mattresses to reelect Markey, because they appreciated his support of the Green New Deal, but they also knew the message defeating a Kennedy in Massachusetts would send — be on the side of bold climate action or beware.
I promise that every Democrat — whether they are worried about a primary challenge in ‘22 or harbor national ambitions in ‘24 — heard that message loud and clear.
It’s Not Just About the Primary
A lot of political observers will look at Markey’s win and point out a Democratic Primary in Massachusetts is a bad way to make decisions for a party that needs votes in a lot of places redder than the Bay State.
This is, of course, true, but the observation reflects an internalized belief that Democrats should be defensive about Climate Change. A couple of tweets from Trump about Democrats banning cows and too many of us go running for the hills.
A new poll of Pennsylvania voters from Climate Power 2020 shows just how powerful the issue can be right now:
82 percent of PA voters view climate change as a “serious” issue;
By a margin of 59-38 PA voters chose a generic Democrat that “supported taking bold government action to combat climate change” over a Republican that opposed such action; and
Engaging on climate increased Joe Biden’s lead over Trump from +8 to +15.
The poll also found real power in connecting Republican climate denialism to Trump’s failure to prepare for and respond to the CoronaVirus. Trump’s anti-mask stance and his consistent disregard for the opinions of scientists like Dr. Fauci are sentiments directly related to his absurd belief that climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” Climate Power 2020 combined these messages into a very effective video released earlier this summer.
One of the most encouraging signs for the Biden campaign (and his Presidency) was his willingness to adopt a much bolder climate plan as part of the policy working group chaired by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and John Kerry. Most politicians move to the center once they secure the nomination, the fact that Biden moved left on climate is a testament to the political potency of the issue and the political power of the activists that just reelected Ed Markey.
There is no future for the party or the planet that does not involve a wholehearted embrace of ambitious climate plans like the Green New Deal. We just got a lot closer to that future thanks to Ed Markey’s victory.