Ed Markey's climate flex
The youth climate movement was a more powerful ally than Nancy Pelosi in the primary race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.
Today’s newsletter contains two sections. The first is a story about Senator Ed Markey’s primary victory over Rep. Joe Kennedy on Tuesday, and what it reveals about the state of climate politics.
The second is an exclusive poll about California’s blackouts and renewable energy from Data for Progress, “the think tank for the future of progressivism.” DFP is doing climate-related polling for HEATED readers every few weeks. Do you have questions about the climate crisis you’d like to see polling on? They’d love to hear your thoughts. Email your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A decisive win for the climate movement
Sen. Ed Markey of Massachussetts speaks after winning his primary race over challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Source: Allison Dinner/Getty Images.
When Congressman Joe Kennedy III announced his entry into the Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts nearly a year ago, the incumbent Senator Ed Markey looked to be in trouble.
At the time, Kennedys weren’t just expected to win elections in the Bay State. They were guaranteed. Since John F. Kennedy’s first Congressional win in 1946, members of the political dynasty had wracked up exactly 30 primary and general election wins and zero losses. A Kennedy, in other words, had never lost in Massachusetts—and most people believed that wasn’t going to change.
But it did change. The young Kennedy’s bid to unseat Markey failed. The final tally from Tuesday night: Markey 55.6 percent, Kennedy 44.4 percent. That means Markey—who has been in Congress for longer than Kennedy has been alive—will now advance to the November general election, which he’ll likely win. He’ll then represent the solidly liberal state for another six years, until he is 80 years old.
Markey’s decisive victory over Kennedy has since sparked an obvious question: How is it possible that a 74-year-old Democrat could defeat a 39-year-old, progressive, up-and-coming Kennedy?
The answer, to many climate activists, is simple: Markey ran as a climate leader. Markey ran on a Green New Deal.
Markey ran as a climate leader. Kennedy tagged along for the ride.
Kennedy, to be fair, also ran on climate. He tried to, at least. Kennedy was a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, a massive policy package to remake and decarbonize the U.S. economy. While on the campaign trail, Kennedy noted many times that he was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.
But Markey ran as the primary sponsor of that resolution. He literally introduced the Green New Deal text. More importantly, Markey ran as the person who sponsored the Green New Deal alongside Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the energy of the progressive movement, a young woman of color, a darling of the left.
“Markey’s leadership on environmental issues helped him bring AOC on board, and that really helped position Markey as the more liberal of the two candidates, which in a Democratic primary really helps these days,” said J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Another thing that helped Markey position himself as the more progressive candidate was his authenticity on climate issues, Coleman said. Though both candidates appeared to have the same climate policy platforms, Markey was able to make a more credible case for his commitment to the issue.
“Markey’s been working on these issues in Congress since before Kennedy was born,” Coleman said. “Even going back to the 1970s, one of his biggest issues was that he was against nuclear power because of the environmental impact of the radiation and waste.”
“Millennials tend to value authenticity when it comes to who to support,” Coleman added. “I’m not saying Kennedy wasn’t authentic, but when it came to these environmental issues, Markey seemed like a leader where Kennedy was a follower.”
The Sunrises Movement flexes its political muscle
Markey also ran with the support of the youth climate movement—most notably, the Sunrise Movement. The advocacy group responsible for putting the Green New Deal on the map was, according to Grist, Markey’s “secret weapon.”
Not only did they throw their collective weight behind Markey—campaigning, phone banking, making viral videos—they publicly chastised Kennedy for attempting to frame himself as the better climate choice.
“We never endorsed you,” the group tweeted earlier at Kennedy this summer, after he tried to claim that Sunrise supported his candidacy. “We want Ed Markey in the Senate, not you.”
The Sunrise Movement is, of course, taking credit for Markey’s victory. “Sunrise Movement helped Markey win the youth vote, win the internet, and define himself as the clear progressive choice in this race,” Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash said in a statement. “Perhaps just as significant, the visible and enthusiastic support from the youth of Sunrise made it nearly impossible for Kennedy to credibly position himself as the candidate of generational change.”
But this isn’t just a case of activists patting themselves on the back to further their own cause. Political analysts outside the climate advocacy space also say Sunrise played an important role in Markey’s victory.
“They have every right to celebrate it,” said Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at UMass Boston. “There was not a lot of great polling in this race, but [what we had] showed a really high concern over climate change, to a surprising degree. I think it translated, particularly among young people, to a degree of activism that should be encouraging for the movement.”
The sun sets on Nancy Pelosi
For the Sunrise Movement, one particularly delicious detail of Markey’s win was that it happened against the wishes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed Kennedy back in August.
Pelosi has long been Sunrise’s main target; the person they want most to start advocating for a Green New Deal. After the 2018 midterm elections, they staged sit-ins outside of Pelosi’s office, demanding Democrats support the policy package. More than 100 people were arrested.
Sunrise Movement protesters sit outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to advocate that Democrats support the Green New Deal in 2018. Source: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
But Pelosi has refused to support Sunrise’s effort, and has at times actively antagonized the group—at one point dismissing the Green New Deal as the “Green dream or whatever they call it.”
Pelosi’s endorsement of Kennedy was thus seen by Sunrise as yet another act of overt hostility toward youth climate activists—especially because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reportedly has a policy against supporting candidates who challenge Democratic incumbents.
“This endorsement is embarrassing because it plainly reveals a ridiculous double standard,” Prakash said in a statement at the time. “Speaker Pelosi is saying that when she likes the challenger, or the challenger has a rich and wealthy family, helping challengers is okay. … This has never been about protecting incumbents, it’s been about protecting big Democratic donors profiting off the status quo.”
Are the climate youth more powerful than Pelosi?
In the race between Markey and Kennedy, the youth climate movement wound up being a more powerful ally than the Speaker of the House. There is no question about that.
There remains a question, however, of how meaningful this particular race is in the grand scheme of elections. Is the Sunrise Movement really on track to become a more powerful electoral force than the Democratic establishment?
There isn’t sufficient evidence for that yet, Cunningham argues. “Endorsements generally aren’t all that meaningful, and a Speaker of the House endorsing a House member isn’t all that surprising,” he said. It’s also not like Pelosi and Sunrise campaigned for their candidates equally. Sunrise endorsed Markey in August 2019, before Kennedy even announced his candidacy. Pelosi endorsed Kennedy in August 2020.
What there is sufficient evidence for, however, is that Sunrise and the youth climate movement are becoming a true force to be reckoned with in Democratic politics.
“They had a significant impact on this race,” he said. “They should be celebrating.”
POLL: Voters reject Trump’s lies about renewable energy
Our poll from Data for Progress today is about the recent power blackouts in California, which were implemented because of a searing heat wave, and affected up to 4 million people.
Trump has been attempting to use these blackouts to attack Democrats, particularly Democrats who want a Green New Deal. Trump has said, without evidence, that the blackouts were caused by California’s transition to renewable energy under Democrats, and that he “gave America energy independence in fact, so much energy we could never use it all.”
These arguments are not true. The blackouts were caused by utility companies mismanaging their power reserves. As Seth Hilton explains at Utility Dive:
The causes of the rolling blackouts on August 14 and 15 may be numerous and complex, but few of those reasons have anything to do with California’s shift to more renewable generation. Fundamentally, the challenges faced by CAISO this past week and a half were significantly exacerbated by climate change.
California, and the rest of the western United States, were impacted by an unprecedented heat storm that saw record-breaking temperatures across the West. This heat wave drove high load, including air conditioning load that may have been exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions confining many people to their homes.
Fortunately, voters—including Republicans—seem to understand this, too. A majority polled by Data for Progress did not agree that California was relying too much on solar and wind energy. A majority believe utility companies should be more responsible about managing their power reserves so they don’t fail during periods of hot weather.
This survey was conducted on August 21 of 1,135 likely voters nationally using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting. The margin of error is +/- 2.7 percentage points.
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