BOSTON — Sen. Ed Markey beat back Rep. Joe Kennedy's primary challenge in Massachusetts on Tuesday, striking a blow against the longtime Kennedy political dynasty and notching a significant victory for the Democratic Party's left wing.
Voters renominated Markey, who has held a seat in Congress since the mid-1970s, over Kennedy, the 39-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, who attempted to take on a sitting senator rather than wait for a spot in the Democratic hierarchy to open up.
Kennedy called Markey to concede the race shortly before The Associated Press declared a winner, according to Kennedy campaign spokesperson Michael Cummings. With about three-quarters of the vote tallied late Tuesday night, Markey had 54 percent of the vote to Kennedy's 46 percent.
Kennedy, the scion of the state's best-known political family, was favored to win when he entered the race a year ago, and many suspected Markey might retire to avoid an embarrassing loss. But Kennedy became the underdog in the final weeks of the campaign. And unlike other primary battles, it’s was Markey, the 74-year-old incumbent, who morphed into the favorite candidate of young liberals taking on the party establishment.
"Tonight is more than just a celebration of a movement," Markey said in his victory speech in Malden, Mass. "It is a reaffirmation of the need to have a movement, a progressive movement, of young people demanding radical change, demanding justice. A movement giving voice and power to young people when for far too long they were ignored."
Markey also said the intraparty battle was "fierce at times," though he praised Kennedy's commitment to the commonwealth. Kennedy shared a similar message during his concession speech after speaking with Markey.
"The senator is a good man. You have never heard me say otherwise," Kennedy said at his primary night event in Watertown, Mass. "It was difficult at times between us. Good elections often get heated. But I'm grateful for the debates, for his commitment to our commonwealth and for the energy and enthusiasm that he brought to this race."
Another incumbent prevailed in a House district in Western Massachusetts, where House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal easily dispatched his young, progressive opponent, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. He led by 20 points when The Associated Press called the race.
Because of their late spot on the primary calendar, Tuesday’s Massachusetts races likely represented some of the final skirmishes between the establishment center-left and insurgent liberal wings of the Democratic Party. The primary electorate was been difficult to gauge — the state rolled out a coronavirus-inspired vote-by-mail program for the first time this year, which may have resulted in record turnout. Around 800,000 voters had already cast ballots ahead of Tuesday, and state officials expected a substantial number of in-person voters to turn out.
Once in the shadow of his better-known colleagues, Markey used his work on the “Green New Deal” and an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to develop a national profile over the past year and amass a powerful small-dollar fundraising operation. Markey's strength lay with young progressives and well-educated, suburban voters, many of whom voted by mail. Kennedy was banking on support from voters of color in cities including Worcester, Springfield, Lowell and Boston.
A series of polls released last week showed Kennedy trailing Markey by a significant margin, and the Newton Democrat scrambled to turn things around. Kennedy campaigned for 27 straight hours last week, announced a last-minute endorsement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and sent members of his famous family onto the campaign trail.
No Kennedy had ever lost an election in Massachusetts, but the four-term congressman entered the primary significantly behind in the polls.
Meanwhile, at the House level, national progressive groups including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement eyed Neal as the next powerful Democrat to knock out of office.
That energy intensified after what Morse decried as an organized smear campaign against him: Groups of College Democrats accused Morse, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, of behaving inappropriately toward students. Morse apologized for his conduct; further reporting suggested that the revelations were engineered to benefit Neal's reelection prospects.
Neal's victory is a blow to the momentum coursing through the progressive movement.
Already, one House committee chair, Eliot Engel of Foreign Affairs, was felled in a primary, and Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney, like Engel a New Yorker, narrowly survived her own primary challenge.
A Morse upset would have also ushered in generational change — Neal was sworn into Congress in 1989, the same year Morse was born.
But with Markey also successfully dispatching the primary challenge, both races illustrated the power of incumbency in Massachusetts politics.
"It's very hard to defeat an incumbent. We spend a lot of time on those moments when incumbents have been defeated, but even when there's a Seth Moulton or an Ayanna Pressley demonstrating how you can do it, the reality is, it's a very difficult undertaking," said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist and dean at Stonehill College.
Kennedy gave up his House seat to run against Markey, and the rare opening drew nearly a dozen Democrats to a crowded primary race to replace him. The expensive race — candidates and outside groups spent a collective $4.4 million on television advertising — was too close to call late Tuesday night. Jesse Mermell and Jake Auchincloss were fighting for the lead among the seven-candidate field.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, a moderate from South Boston , easily fended off a primary challenge from his left from physician Robbie Goldstein, an infectious disease specialist who staffed a Covid-19 intensive care unit at the height of the outbreak in Massachusetts. Goldstein emphasized how he differs from Lynch on health care issues, including abortion and “Medicare for All.”
One of the sleepier primaries this cycle was in Rep. Seth Moulton's district, where the congressman — who won his seat by defeating an incumbent, John Tierney — easily defeated Democrats Jamie Belsito and Angus McQuilken. Moulton led with 77 percent of the when The Associated Press deemed him the victor on Tuesday night.
James Arkin and Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.