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In High-Profile Mass. Senate Primary, Markey Fends Off Kennedy Challenge


No member of the Kennedy family has ever lost a congressional election in Massachusetts until last night. In a high-profile Senate primary, Incumbent Democrat Ed Markey held off a challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is on the line. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Wow. How would this happen? Ed Markey had been there a long time, 74 years old, but not the biggest name in terms of fame out there. Kennedy was a Kennedy. How did he lose?

SNELL: Yeah. This race has really interesting dynamics. And they're big dynamics. You're talking about powerful Democratic forces involved on the left and on the - and, you know, on the establishment side. Kennedy had the support of people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And she's someone who rarely gets involved in primary races. And when she does, she rarely loses. And this is a fairly significant rebuke of her influence here.

But Markey was an early supporter of the Green New Deal. And progressive organizations turned out in droves when he had a challenger. Places like the Sierra Club, the Sunrise Movement, which is a major climate activist group on the left, unions and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York, all came to defend Markey. And, you know, he even had the support of the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. Markey totally embraced them and kind of became an Internet sensation as a major leader in this movement. And it's something he celebrated in his speech last night.


ED MARKEY: Tonight is more than just a celebration of a movement. It is a reaffirmation of the need to have a movement, a progressive movement of young people.

SNELL: Right. So you're talking about a 74-year-old who has been in Congress for decades being the leader of a young (laughter) movement. You know, he - Markey is also an incumbent senator. And he had all the support that involves. And Kennedy is - even though he's more than a household name, particularly in Massachusetts, he really didn't make a compelling case for himself to voters. And Markey really had the upper hand here.

INSKEEP: Incumbents tend to win. And you're an incumbent with the support of an insurgent like AOC.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: You've got a strong hand to play. There was another vote of note last night in Massachusetts. This is a House primary now, so it's one House district in Massachusetts. There's a powerful committee chairman, Richard Neal, who is not the first Democrat to face a progressive challenger. How'd he do?

SNELL: Well, not only did Neal win, he, as of the last tally, was winning by around 20 percentage points. So he's winning a lot.


SNELL: Yeah. He is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And they handle everything from taxes and health care to Social Security. And he's been in Congress since 1989. He easily beat that progressive challenger, Alex Morse, who is 31 and the mayor of a small city in the district. You know, he had similar endorsements, too. Morse had similar endorsements to Markey, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But, you know, Neal is really well-known and really well-liked and, again, really well-funded.

INSKEEP: Well, what does this mean? - because we have someone like AOC, who runs in New York and ousts a top Democrat running from the left. You have Markey, who keeps his job but by running to the left of his challenger. But in this case, you have an establishment guy who wins and dominates. What does that say?

SNELL: Right. So that might not seem like a really neat and tidy way to look at the Democratic Party, right? We - there's a tension here. But it does tell us that the left is energized and willing to defend candidates in primaries and that that's not going away. In some ways, it's a message to sitting senators and House members not to get complacent.

But those successes that they had - the progressives had successes in places where the dynamics were changing, where the districts were changing. We're thinking again about longtime committee chair Eliot Engel in New York who lost. Those are districts that are getting more progressive and more diverse. And that's just not the case in the story of Richard Neal's district. His district is just simply staying very similar to what it has been for a long time.

INSKEEP: Demographically and otherwise. NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks so much.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.