BOSTON —For decades, a job as a member of Congress from Massachusetts was one of the safest around.
But in the wake of Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s shock primary victory here in 2018, restive progressives are besieging the state’s Democratic establishment, forcing a handful of veteran incumbents to keep a close eye on their left flank.
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None of them are getting pressed as hard as Sen. Ed Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976 — when Pressley was two years old — and won his Senate seat in a 2013 special election. In an increasingly youthful and diverse party, the 72-year-old Markey already has two lesser-known challengers — and there’s speculation that there could be more.
“Given the political environment we’re in, especially in Massachusetts, it makes every race a dangerous race. Some more than others, for sure. But if the people who get into the Senate race against Markey turn out to be real candidates, Markey’s got a real problem,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a political analyst at Dewey Square Group.
Recent polling shows Markey’s support among Massachusetts Democratic and unenrolled voters is a little shakier than he would like. He has support among 44 percent of voters, but about as many voters say they are undecided about who they would vote for in a primary, according to a recent Boston Globe and Suffolk University poll.
The senator’s favorability rating is an anemic 38 percent, with 25 percent of voters expressing an unfavorable view of him. More than a third of voters are either undecided (22 percent) or have never heard of him (14 percent), a bad omen for a pol who’s been in Congress for more than 40 years.
“You look at that, and the fact is basically that’s a Senate seat waiting for someone to take it. If a name candidate got in today, whether it’s Rep. Joe Kennedy III, Attorney General Maura Healey or Mayor Marty Walsh, anybody, Ed Markey would have the race of his life in a presidential year,” Marsh said.
Walsh, the mayor of Boston, says he hasn’t given much thought to his next political move, Healey says she’s focused on the job she has. But neither Democrat has completely ruled out a Senate run, either.
Markey isn’t the only incumbent in the state’s all-Democratic delegation looking over his shoulder. The well of pent-up progressive talent is also generating a handful of House primary challenges, including to longtime Reps. Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch, and four-term Rep. Joe Kennedy III.
For many of the progressive challengers, Pressley’s upset win over former Rep. Michael Capuano served as the inspiration for taking on the party establishment, proving that primary voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic state have an appetite for change.
“I think people like Ayanna Pressley and [progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and others who ran … [have] shown that there’s a path for people with different life experiences and different viewpoints. And the energy and excitement that people have brought to Congress and other positions, I just think it’s exciting and new and important,” said Doug Rubin, the consultant behind former Gov. Deval Patrick’s out-of-nowhere primary victory in 2006 and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 defeat of former Sen. Scott Brown. “I think that competition is good for Democrats.”
Rubin is currently advising Steve Pemberton, who is exploring a run against Markey. A corporate executive and inspirational speaker, Pemberton’s best-selling memoir about the neglect and cruelty of his foster home in New Bedford, Mass., was recently made into a movie. Pemberton recently moved back to Massachusetts from Chicago.
Markey’s other challenger is labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who announced her Senate campaign in the spring. Liss-Riordan makes the case that it is time for a woman to hold Markey’s seat, wants to impeach President Donald Trump immediately and says she was inspired to run after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearing.
She describes herself as a political outsider who stands up for workers’ rights.
“I’ve taken on big, bold challenges. I’ve fought David and Goliath battles, and I’ve won,” Liss-Riordan said in a recent interview. “I think there is a lot of momentum and excitement out there for new voices and I think there is a lot of excitement to get more women into elected office.”
Recognizing the emerging threat from the left, Markey has been shoring up his progressive bona fides in recent months. He offered testimony in support of Medicare for All bills to the state legislature in June, further solidifying the position he took when he signed onto Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2017 Medicare for All bill, and teamed up with Ocasio-Cortez to write the Green New Deal resolution earlier this year.
Markey is also reminding voters of his liberal record by pitching himself as a “progressive voice in the United States Senate” and notes that he is a leader of the resistance to Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Massachusetts.
“I am excited to run for another term to make sure the Trump resistance is alive and well in the United States Senate,” Markey said in a statement. “This primary will be my opportunity to make my case to the voters of Massachusetts that I am fighting for them every day in the Senate. Whether it’s authoring the Green New Deal with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, protecting a woman’s right to choose, or working to pass gun safety legislation, I wake up every day energized to bring an end to the destructive, hateful, and corrupt Trump administration.”
With $3.5 million cash on hand — $1 million of which he raised in the first quarter of 2019 — Markey begins with an advantage. But a packed war chest does not scare off challengers the way it used to: Capuano out-raised and outspent Pressley in 2018 and still lost in a contest that featured some of the same generational and gender dynamics as the Senate primary.
Being on the ballot in a presidential year where turnout is likely to be higher will challenge Markey in a way that his 2013 special eelction campaign did not, says Liberty Square Group founder Scott Ferson. Ferson, who advised Lynch’s 2013 campaign against Markey for the Senate seat, says that race was unusual because it was a special election and also because campaigning was brought to a halt in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
“I don’t think Markey was really put to the test [in that contest]. I don’t think he’s really been put to the test, maybe since his first election in ‘76,” Ferson said. “It was a special, so you weren’t in the normal cycle where people were paying attention.
“The only people paying attention were the real activists. And those were Markey people,” Ferson said. “This dynamic’s going to be different.”
The Democratic statewide primary in Massachusetts won’t take place until September 2020, which is one factor that works in Markey’s favor — his Senate primary won’t be on the ballot when voters turn out for the state’s Super Tuesday presidential contest in March. But Rubin says the right candidate could inspire high turnout — like when more than 900,000 people turned out for former Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2006 primary.
The most recent statewide primary turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest its been since that 2006 race — nearly 22 percent of voters cast ballots last November, instead of the usual 10 to 15 percent turnout.
Pemberton will make a decision by the end of the summer, Rubin said.
“I haven’t been this excited about a candidate since 2006,” he said. “I’m fired up about him.”