Climate action key theme of primary races

Incumbents should take note of the movement's growing power

ON TUESDAY, Massachusetts voters sent a political shockwave to Washington, DC. as they for the first time in history rejected a Kennedy — with a double-digit margin — at the ballot box in favor of Green New Deal author and progressive champion Ed Markey. This victory should be seen as a sign of the climate movement’s increasing political strength and a warning to those who stand in our way.

When Joe Kennedy announced he would challenge Ed Markey for the US Senate, the dominant political wisdom was that this was a strategic move on Kennedy’s part. Ed Markey, as an older white man with low voter ID recognition, would be easier for Kennedy to defeat than the likely competition he might face in a future Senate opening. If, for instance, Sen, Elizabeth Warren’s seat becomes available, the interested field would likely include younger, better known, and more diverse candidates like Ayanna Pressley, Maura Healey, or Deval Patrick. While this run was seen as a waste of limited resources during this critical election and many tried to discourage Kennedy from running, it was also seen as a career-advancing move for Kennedy. Between Kennedy’s name, fundraising network, name recognition, and polling standing, he entered this race as the de-facto incumbent favored to win.

What Kennedy – and many political commentators – largely missed was the deep and passionate reservoir of support that Ed Markey had in the climate movement and youth activists after his crucial leadership in joining US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in co-authoring the Green New Deal resolution. That single, courageous, and visionary move wiped clean earlier career transgressions like his vote authorizing the Iraq War, and earned him the movement’s gratitude and loyal backing. A lesson, perhaps, for incumbents who fear the growing power of the climate justice and progressive movements: embrace and authentically lead on bold, courageous change, and we will back you, even if we had some previous disagreements.

Groups like Sunrise Movement, 350 Mass Action, and the Sierra Club mobilized their bases to turn out for Ed Markey, and helped this policy-focused thought leader drive a massive boost to his popularity. Led by the youth-powered Sunrise Movement, the climate movement collectively made hundreds of thousands of calls in support of Ed Markey, and partnered with a massive, passionate team of Markey campaign fellows and a dynamite campaign leadership team.

And while many note the wasted resources — over $20 million and countless thousands of volunteer hours expended on this race– in some ways, Kennedy gave Markey and the climate movement a gift through his primary challenge. Markey will enter his next term as senator with an enhanced national profile as a progressive leader, and with a strong and unambiguous mandate from the electorate to fight for progressive priorities like a Green New Deal and Medicare For All with every fiber of his being. Markey will contribute his now-more-prominent voice to the most important policy discussions happening in Washington when the need for seasoned, thoughtful, and bold leadership has never been greater.

Entrenched state legislative incumbents unfriendly to the climate movement’s agenda should also express gratitude for Kennedy’s failed effort, as energy that might have gone toward State House races was instead deployed to keeping the Green New Deal author in his Senate seat. There are literally thousands of young people and climate activists who are now much more experienced with phone-banking, and have tasted victory at the highest levels. While challengers like Damali Vidot and Jordan Meehan were not successful in their races, they should expect firmer and more experienced movement backing should they choose to run again, and the incumbents who successfully held them off should notice the closer-than-comfort margins the new challengers managed to achieve.

Indeed, the fact that many challengers got within shooting distance of incumbents is particularly notable given that this campaign season took place during a global pandemic. Almost every incumbent — with the notable exception of Ed Markey — had a substantial name recognition advantage over their challengers, who could not use the tried-and-true knock every door in the neighborhood method to move that balance in their favor.

And there were some very near misses: Newton City Councilor Allison Leary, who challenged incumbent five-term incumbent John Lawn with the backing of 350 Mass Action and the Mass Sierra Club – and whose twitter handle is @environista – came within 500 votes of victory. Jordan Meehan, backed by Sunrise, Sierra Club, and 350 Mass Action, was less than 700 votes away from Rep. Kevin Honan, who is entering his fourth decade in office. Climate activist Jeanne Cahill, also endorsed by 350 Mass Action and the Mass Sierra Club and who did not launch her campaign until March, managed to get within 900 votes of four-term incumbent Rep. Danielle Gregoire. Other challengers were not that far behind, including Sunrise-backed Nicole Mossalam who lost to 10-term incumbent Rep. Paul Donato by barely 1,000 votes and Sunrise, 350, and Sierra Club-backed Damali Vidot, who lost by 1,100 votes to three-term incumbent Rep. Daniel Ryan. These were not blow-out victories, and one can imagine that with a traditional ground game and door-knocking in the mix, these races might have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, incumbents who managed to secure the backing of movement organizations, like Rep. Christine Barber and Rep. Dave Rogers, both endorsed by 350 Mass Action, managed to hold off their challengers with larger margins of around 1,600 votes). But their margins of victory were close enough to help them remember, as all politicians should remember, that they are elected by their voters, not the Speaker, and should cast their votes accordingly and support the priorities of their constituents. Those priorities include both climate action and government transparency.

At the same time, several open races ensured that the fight for State House transparency will continue with increased vigor. In Somerville and Watertown, two districts who had historically been represented by State House leadership critics and progressive heroes Denise Provost and Jonathan Hecht, voters resoundingly voted to continue the resistance. In Somerville, voters elected Act on Mass co-founder and public critic of State House corruption Erika Uyterhoeven by 3,400 votes over a more “play by the rules” opponent favored by mainstream political actors in Somerville, In Watertown, voters elected Act on Mass Transparency pledge signer and Green New Deal champion Steve Owens by 4,600 votes, who like Erika was backed by a broad array of climate and other progressive groups. These were large victory  margins, without the benefits of incumbency.

And the movement helped secure two important victories over incumbents. In Lowell, controversy-embattled Rep. David Nangle fell to challenger and Green New Deal champion Vanna Howard, backed by 350 Mass Action, by over 700 votes. On the Senate side, Neighbor to Neighbor member and grassroots leader Adam Gomez defeated incumbent Sen. James Welsh by over 1,000 votes. Both of these nominees will bring important racial and ideological diversity to the State House, and will be partners to social movements.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
While incumbents largely were re-elected, the close margins of victories, the surprise upsets, the progressive victories in open races, and Markey’s defeat of a dynasty all playing out under the backdrop of a pandemic collectively point to an electorate that is increasingly demanding bold action on climate change and will support or defeat candidates based upon their doing the same.

Incumbents: take note.

Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of 350 Mass Action