Last Night’s Elections Remind Us Change Doesn’t Come Overnight

Yesterday's primaries were full of disappointments for the Left. But by rallying around the Green New Deal's coauthor Ed Markey and striking fear into the hearts of conservative incumbents, progressives and leftists have put the Democratic establishment on notice.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) speaks at a primary election night event in Malden, Massachusetts, 2020. (Allison Dinner / Getty Images)

There’s reason to celebrate after yesterday’s Massachusetts elections, which saw Green New Deal–backer Sen. Ed Markey beat back a primary challenge, and Holyoke mayor Alex Morse give corrupt House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal a genuine fright. But all in all, it was a mixed bag at best.

The bad news first. Yesterday saw close to a clean sweep for incumbents, which means a host of conservative Democrats from the Senate and House on down held onto their seats. The most high-profile of these was Neal, who as of the time of writing convincingly beat Morse by nineteen points, winning even in Morse’s home turf of Holyoke, and sailing to a seventeenth term in the House.

Neal was propelled to victory by one of the dirtier pieces of political villainy in recent memory, in which local college Democrats and the state party drummed up a fake controversy around Morse’s sex life that successfully baited progressive groups supporting him into temporarily rescinding their backing. Even when the scheme was exposed by the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, whose reporting single-handedly saved Morse’s campaign, the dirty tricks continued: an anonymous pollster rang up locals asking about a different made-up allegation against Morse, while a pro-Neal super PAC first drew controversy with an ad referencing the original scandal (“Now Alex Morse admits to sexual relationships with college students ― even while he was a university lecturer”), then “accidentally” sent the uncorrected version to local television stations.

Neal was also helped by millions of dollars in spending from outside groups, including the Democratic Majority for Israel, the right-wing PAC that has taken aim at progressive outsiders this campaign season over Israel policy. An eleventh-hour endorsement from House speaker Nancy Pelosi no doubt helped, too. Their efforts have ensured that Neal, who has used his recently acquired Ways and Means chairmanship so far to do the bidding of insurers, hospitals, and finance, is in place as the House’s one-man corporate veto of progressive legislation should Joe Biden defeat Trump.

It was much the same everywhere else. The conservative Stephen Lynch, one of only three House Democrats left who voted against Obamacare back in 2009, handily beat his progressive challenger by more than thirty points. Seth Moulton, who led a failed rightward coup against Pelosi in 2018 before becoming one of the platoon of dull centrists you couldn’t tell apart during the Democratic primary, easily fended off his challengers with 77 percent of the vote.

In the seven-way race to replace Joe Kennedy III, not only did socialist former Wall Street regulator Ihssane Leckey lose, but the candidate currently clinging to a slim lead is Jake Auchincloss, a former Republican who was the only one of the seven to oppose voting rights for prison inmates. His opponent, trailing by just 1,506 votes at the time of writing, is a former Deval Patrick aide who backs Medicare for All, free college, and defunding the police.

Things look much the same at the state level, where many of the more conservative Democrats (and one Republican) getting help from a super PAC aligned with Massachusetts’ Republican governor Charlie Baker survived their challenges from the Left, including Boston’s Daniel Ryan, Lawrence’s Frank Moran, and Milton’s Walter Timilty. Boston DSA member Anna Callahan was handily beaten back by progressive incumbent Christine Barber. Meanwhile, in the state’s second congressional district, another QAnon enthusiast has become an official Republican candidate for November.

Now for the good news, which is largely at the state level. In the Hampden Senate district, Springfield city councilor Adam Gomez won the endorsements of progressive groups and ousted western Massachusetts’ longest-serving state senator, the conservative Jim Welch, who opposed eliminating qualified immunity for police officers. Likewise, conservative Democrat David Nangle, who was arrested in February on twenty-eight counts of fraud, was defeated by Vanna Howard, a Cambodian immigrant who heads the Lowell Community Health Center’s government relations department. And the relatively progressive Michelle DuBois, who won the support of dozens of environmental groups and unions, beat back a more conservative challenger supported by police and the super PAC linked to Charlie Baker.

Progressives also won contests for several seats vacated by outgoing officials. Orlando Ramos, a Springfield city councilor who has waged a battle to ban facial recognition software, won a three-way race for the open seat in the ninth Hampden district, Berniecrat Erika Uyterhoeven won the twenty-seventh Middlesex district’s open seat, and progressive Steve Owens took the open seat in the twenty-ninth Middlesex district. Candidates backed by the Baker-aligned super PAC took the other two open seats up for grabs.

But if we’re talking about Left victories, the night belongs to Ed Markey. An outside observer might wonder why. Markey is, after all, an establishment liberal with flawed politics, and is a long, long-serving incumbent. Why should the Left be concerned about him?

In fact, Markey’s comfortable victory last night is rich with significance. It’s not only a defeat for a particularly cheap and cynical playbook by centrist Democrats, but an unexpected display of electoral strength for the burgeoning Left. Until Joe III’s loss last night, no Kennedy had ever lost a Massachusetts Democratic primary, a trend that polls had been indicating for months was likely to continue: several that were taken before Kennedy entered the race showed him with a significant lead over Markey, a lead that held as late as May this year.

This was after Markey had emerged as one of the few genuine climate leaders in the US political system, coauthoring the Green New Deal resolution last year with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who endorsed him, and received the backing of the Sunrise Movement. When Pelosi violated her own rule against supporting Democratic primary challengers by endorsing Kennedy in the home stretch, the message seemed to be bigger than Markey. Establishment Democrats, it seemed, would be punished for aligning themselves with the party’s younger, progressive wing, and backing ambitious progressive goals.

Then there was the insidious emptiness of the Kennedy campaign itself, whose basis seemed to be one part coasting on the family name and its candidate’s youth, and one part contempt for voters’ intelligence. Kennedy’s public statements belong in the hall of fame of faux-inspiring nothing-burgers, so comically devoid of substance that Democratic consultants somewhere are no doubt already using it as a teaching aid.

Realizing he couldn’t realistically outflank Markey to the left on policy, Kennedy instead adopted a strategy that married the smears that were tried against Bernie Sanders earlier this year with a cynical co-optation of progressive anti-establishment energy without any of the substance. The pampered scion of American political royalty cast himself as a plucky outsider opposed by “the establishment” and waging “the fight of my generation.” With nothing but a conservative, corporate-friendly record to run on, he hypocritically (albeit accurately) attacked Markey on racial justice, and whined about online “bullying” from random pro-Markey Twitter users (this seems to be a Massachusetts thing).

That Markey triumphed over all this, while important, is perhaps less important than how he triumphed: namely, by leaning into his newfound association with the leaders and organizations of the millennial left and benefiting from Pelosi’s opposition to his campaign. As former Sanders campaign national organizing director Claire Sandberg put it, “the Left rallied around a longtime politician with a mixed record because he actively courted their support and became a champion of one of their major legislative priorities. It’s actually not that hard to get support from the left. Just give us the things that we want.” If the Biden campaign is serious about rectifying Hillary Clinton’s mistake and turning out the youth vote this November, they’d do well to take note of this instead of wasting time pitching yard signs in Animal Crossing.

Just like in the presidential primary — where gay millennial South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg was adored by older voters and the crusty septuagenarian Sanders cleaned up in the youth vote — the seventy-four-year-old Markey was consistently more popular than the thirty-nine-year-old Kennedy with young voters, whose critical support he acknowledged in his victory speech. It’s a reminder that, just as voters of color overwhelmingly backed the two old white men in this year’s presidential primaries, a youthful candidate isn’t automatically entitled to the youth vote.

More worrying is that Markey’s victory seems to have come largely from affluent white Democrats in Boston and its suburbs, while Kennedy benefited from black and working-class support. Given that it’s the latter groups who would most benefit from something like a Green New Deal, this ought to be a flashing red alert for anyone who hopes to see anything like it enacted someday.

There is also reason for optimism in Morse’s loss to Neal, bitter though it may be. Morse was always a long shot to win, and AOC-style first-time upsets against powerful Democrats were never going to be the norm. Cori Bush had to run twice to unseat Lacy Clay earlier this year, and, as the history of the conservative movement’s takeover of the GOP reminds us, epochal political shifts are built on years of exactly these kinds of defeats, small victories, and snowballing momentum.

For decades, Neal was able to quietly pursue a corporate-friendly agenda by flying under the political radar, with most of the country, and even some of his own constituents, not realizing he existed. Again and again, he ran unopposed in his district, facing no consequence for taking steps that enriched his donors and set back working Americans.

What changed was not only his ascension to the Ways and Means chairmanship in 2019, but the threat of a serious challenge to his seat, leading the state party’s establishment to launch a desperate smear campaign against his opponent that, tragically, may actually have worked — but that in the end also gave life to his challenger, while shining an uncomfortable spotlight on Neal himself. In the weeks since Grim’s reporting changed the race, report after report after report has uncovered new lows in Neal’s melding of his work in Congress with industry favors.

As a key player in a potential Biden presidency, Neal must now tread carefully. If he continues to use his position to block attempts to end surprise billing, shield Wall Street from taxes, or otherwise hold up progressive reforms, his constituents will undoubtedly hear all about it by the time Morse challenges him a second time two years from now. And as the list of corporate-friendly Democrats knocked off or seriously spooked by progressive insurgents gets longer, establishment politicians are starting to realize they may face a serious cost for bucking the Left.

Things have been better for the Left, both electorally and otherwise, and yesterday had more than its share of disappointments. But Markey’s victory and Neal facing the first serious threat to his seat in decades have sent an unmistakable message to the Democratic establishment. As Markey triumphantly announced last night, “the age of incrementalism is over”

Sometimes, there really can be victory in defeat.