Senator-elect Edward J. Markey will land in Washington with less fanfare than any Massachusetts senator elected in recent memory, a 1970s holdover who triumphed in a sleepy election with an outcome that seemed foregone nearly from the start.
Even Markey’s comfortable victory margin over Republican nominee Gabriel E. Gomez will not fashion him a celebrity senator, in the mold of first Scott Brown and then Elizabeth Warren, who came to Washington with national profiles. Nor does he spark talk about someday running for national office, the way Brown and Warren, and their predecessors, did.
Instead, Markey is likely to operate in the Senate as he has for years in the House, focused on policy and without the marquee name recognition that Massachusetts senators have long had.
Further, Markey will arrive in a Senate deeply ossified and largely dysfunctional, in part because of the way the body has changed in recent years and in part because any bill approved by the Senate must clear the House, which is even more limited in its ability to advance legislation. A comprehensive immigration bill cleared an important test vote in the Senate Monday, but faces an uncertain fate in the House.
For the Malden Democrat, who has carved out a profile as a policy wonk during his 37 years in the House, there are opportunities and warning signs. In policy areas where major debate is expected in the coming years, such as telecommunications and energy, Markey has distinguished himself as a go-to member in the House, a role he could reprise in the Senate. Congress will probably grapple with how to distribute broadband spectrum and how to manage the nation’s burgeoning natural gas and clean energy industries.
“There may be some opportunities to legislate there and create supermajorities,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who praised as “masterful” Markey’s work on House passage of cap-and-trade legislation.
“Senators know that he’s got a deep vein of expertise in legislating in those areas,” Ornstein said. “And unlike most freshmen, they’re going to listen to what he says. He’s going to be able to play a major role right away.”
But, said Ornstein, the Senate has become so jammed with partisanship that significant work in any areas has become rare.
“The big problem is the one that everybody coming into the Senate faces, which is: Will any of that matter?” Ornstein said of Markey’s policy chops.
And no one expects Markey to re-create the high-profile, household-name profile held by his Bay State predecessors. For the first time in a half-century, Massachusetts will be represented by an elected senator who does not have presidential ambition or an outsize ability to draw national attention.
One of the state’s two US Senate seats passed grandly from Leverett Saltonstall, the former governor who served for 22 years and rose to the GOP leadership ranks, to Edward Brooke, then from Brooke to Paul Tsongas to John Kerry. Edward M. Kennedy held the other, for 47 years, before dying of cancer in 2009, only to have Scott Brown win a special election by running against a bill that Kennedy envisioned as the capstone to his legislative career.
Even before the youngest Kennedy brother took his seat, replacing seat-warmer and family associate Benjamin Smith, Massachusetts had John F. Kennedy, who served with Saltonstall for eight years. The future president took the seat from Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who ran for the Republican presidential nomination eight years later.
For many years bipartisan, and then for nearly 25 years dominated by Democrats Edward M. Kennedy and Kerry, the state’s representation in the upper chamber has been one of uncommonly high wattage.
Both those long-serving senators leveraged their well-known personas into significant achievements on Capitol Hill. Both ran ill-fated campaigns for the White House, Kennedy in 1980 and Kerry in 2004, before turning to substantive policy work in a familiar chamber they had long inhabited.
Warren has, through the aggressive brand of economic populism she champions, followed the more recent Senate model of cultivating a celebrity fueled by personality. When Democrats discuss their 2016 presidential ticket, Warren’s name frequently pops up.
Still, she is something of a neophyte in Washington. After 25 years with just two senators, Massachusetts will now have seen seven in less than two years, including interim senators Paul T. Kirk and William “Mo” Cowan.
“When you lose people like Kerry and Kennedy, you’re losing something, naturally; you’re losing the influence,” said Francis X. Bellotti, the state’s former attorney general who was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. “When you lost Kennedy, you lost a lot, because, on both sides of the aisle he had influence. Now, with Markey, we’ll see what he can do. He’s got plenty of experience, he’s got plenty of relationships down there, unlike [Warren], so he should be able to do some things.”