Sen. Ed Markey may have pulled off an impressive and historic win in the Democratic primary this summer. But his re-election isn’t clinched yet.
As much as Markey has focused on President Donald Trump and flipping the Senate majority in the Nov. 3 general election, the Malden native is facing an energetic challenge from Republican Senate nominee Kevin O’Connor back home.
General elections can oftentimes be a formality for incumbent Democrats in Massachusetts, but O’Connor, a Dover lawyer and first-time candidate, is working to contract his “commonsense” policies against Markey’s stalwart progressivism. In a recent interview, O’Connor asserted that proposals like Markey’s flagship Green New Deal resolution and Medicare-for-All health care are “totally out of step with the people,” while pledging to work across the aisle with Democrats at both the state and federal level.
However, he also stands by his support of Trump and plans to vote to reelect the Republican president for another four-year term. That’s not a popular stance in Massachusetts, where even Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has said he won’t vote for Trump.
The Markey campaign is more than happy to frame the race on those terms.
“Massachusetts voters have a choice to make this November as to whether or not they support Donald Trump’s policies of hate, climate change denialism, and an inability to address the public health crisis or if they want to elect a candidate who is dedicated to fighting for the issues that matter most to the people of this state,” Markey campaign manager John Walsh told Boston.com in a statement. “Ed Markey is a proud progressive because he knows that at its core the progressive movement is about anticipating the future and taking steps to address the challenges that lie ahead.”
The two Bay Staters are scheduled to participate in a single debate on Oct 5. hosted by GBH news, though O’Connor has pressed the 74-year-old senator to agree to more.
“When people understand the choice between the two candidates, they go our way overwhelmingly,” O’Connor told Boston.com.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Boston.com: I’ll start off with what’s probably the big question for your campaign. Obviously it’s not unprecedented for a Republican to win a Senate seat here in Massachusetts, but Scott Brown did so in a very different political environment. Given how blue Massachusetts is, what’s your strategy for winning this race?
KOC: Five of the last six governors have been Republicans. So we’ve elected Republicans statewide a number of times in the last 20 years, including Senator Brown. The common denominator in all those successful campaigns is that the Republican was offering commonsense solutions and the Democrat was running too far left. That’s exactly what’s going on here. I’m the commonsense candidate. And Senator Markey is a self-professed AOC progressive democrat. Most of his policies are at the extreme wing of the Democratic Party and are not even supported by Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi.
BDC: You said you’re running on commonsense policies. What are those policies that, if you’re a senator, you’d be pushing in Congress?
KOC: Everything’s about community safety and jobs. So I will support defending the police, not defunding the police. Senator Markey would make our communities much less safe by defunding the police and supporting an open borders policy.
And then pro-growth economic policies. Senator Markey wants to raise our taxes by at least $4 trillion. Plus, there’s massive Green New Deal spending proposals, which would cost $93 trillion over 10 years.
[The $93 trillion estimate, often cited by Republicans, has been criticized by policy experts, who note that it’s too early to put a specific price tag on the Green New Deal; a broad, if ambitious resolution that only outlines progressives’ climate action goals.]
I favor pro-growth policies, including strong trade agreements that defend the American worker against foreign competitors and ensure that our companies and our workers are competing on a level playing field.
I support, as a general matter, the deregulation of our economy so that small businesses are not unduly burdened by nonsensical regulation.
BDC: Are there any particular regulations that you have in mind there?
KOC: One is with respect to the fishing industry. Government regulation requires every fishing boat have a monitor that has to be paid for by the fisherman. So it’s this massively expensive regulatory program and it’s terribly wasteful. It would be like a lawyer or a doctor having to pay for a regulatory monitor to follow him or her around throughout the day.
BDC: I want to circle back to your point on community safety. When it comes to police reform and immigration, what would be your priorities there?
KOC: I support Senator Scott’s bill, as a general matter, on police reform. Senator Markey opposed even debating that bill because there is a recurring theme to Ed Markey’s career: he always avoids serious debates and that’s why he is an ineffective senator.
BDC: On immigration, you mentioned that Markey supports an “open borders” policy. Do you think that the current approach needs to be changed?
KOC: Senator Markey [supports] granting citizenship to everyone who is here illegally. And he supports paying $2,000 per month for every person in the United States, regardless of whether the person is here legally, for COVID-19 relief. And that dates back to March of this year, so for a family of four, Senator Markey wants to hand out $96,000 per year under the guise of COVID relief. There is no way to pay for that. He would bankrupt the American economy. He would provide massive disincentives for people to work hard to try to build better futures for themselves and their families.
BDC: You’re obviously not a fan of the Green New Deal. I was curious if you think climate change is something that we should be acting aggressively to address and, if so, what policies you support there.
KOC: I believe that climate change is an important issue. And I believe that human activity contributes. I am an environmentalist, and I favor strong environmental policy. I want clean air, clean water, and a healthy planet, as all commonsense people do.
BDC: Do you think that we should rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement?
KOC: Not under the present terms. I favor efforts to address climate change internationally, so long as the terms are fair for American workers and American families.
BDC: Was there anything under the current terms of the agreement that you felt was unfair?
KOC: The existing accord imposes no immediate emission standards on developing nations, including China. So Senator Markey favored the United States of America paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the communist Chinese government. He favored putting the American worker at a severe disadvantage in comparison to Chinese workers whose companies would not be subject to emission standards for years to come.
It was a bad deal for the American people. We were wise to withdraw. A fair deal can be reached. And I’m open to that possibility.
[The Paris Climate Agreement allowed China, the world’s largest polluter, to continue increasing its carbon emissions until 2030, though it has been on track to peak its emissions years earlier than that. The United States, the world’s largest per-capita polluter, had already been reducing emissions and committed to cut them at least 26 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels.]
BDC: Another issue that Sen. Markey has more recently championed is Medicare-for-All, which is something you don’t support.
KOC: No sensible person supports it. Joe Biden doesn’t support it.
BDC: Joe Biden has proposed a national public health insurance option. Would you support something like that? Or what do you think would be the right way to address the affordability issues around health insurance?
KOC: In Massachusetts, we have pretty close to full coverage. So that can be achieved. The way to reduce costs is to promote private-sector competition, to use government clout in terms of negotiating drug prices, and to focus on the elimination of middlemen in the health care purchasing process.
Right now our healthcare system, in terms of pricing, is very opaque for most consumers. I favor an approach where healthcare providers are obligated to disclose the actual cost of each procedure so that people don’t have surprise billing and consumers can price shop based on quality.
BDC: Just to follow up, you mentioned private-sector competition. I think a lot of people, especially Democrats, would argue that having a government option would introduce some competition and sort of drive down prices by making insurance companies compete with that government option. That’s not something you would support?
KOC: No. I think in Massachusetts we have great health care providers, and efforts to nationalize health care would place our great healthcare industry at a competitive disadvantage. We have a robust healthcare industry that employs many people in Massachusetts and employs them with great jobs. Any effort to nationalize health care will disfavor the high-quality providers that we had in Massachusetts, who won the competition — or are winning the competition — based on the merits, the quality.
BDC: Switching gears somewhat from policy, Markey has referred to you as a Donald Trump supporter. Do you identify as a Donald Trump supporter? Do you plan to vote for him in the general election?
KOC: Every election is a choice. Donald Trump has a much better economic record than Joe Biden. The economy is coming back very strongly on the national basis and we will need that in the years ahead to come through the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition, Joe Biden’s been wrong on every major foreign policy issue in the last 40 years.
BDC: Were there any particular positions you’re referring to?
KOC: Oh, sure, sure. Joe Biden opposed President Reagan’s peace through strength that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He voted against the first Iraq war and for the second Iraq war.
And when he was confronted with the reality that his second vote was a mistake, he lacked the character to accept responsibility for his decision.
He has also been feeble when it comes to dealing with China. Donald Trump has stood up to China and has achieved peace deals in the Middle East, as we have seen. Joe Biden has been a total accommodationist when it comes to China and has been weak in the Middle East. Joe Biden, you may recall, was also the person who recommended against going after Bin Laden.
And tying it back up to my race, Senator Markey has been wrong about just about every foreign policy issue in the last 40 years as well. And he has lacked the courage to accept responsibility for his votes, including his vote for the second Iraq war.
BDC: Yeah, no, those were definitely brought up a good amount in the Democratic primary too.
KOC: Yeah, when he doesn’t vote present, he points the finger at someone else.
BDC: On the domestic front, you said you thought President Trump has done a good job handling the economy. I was curious about your thoughts on the 2017 tax bill. Obviously the economy was already recovering at that point and I think most economists would say that the tax bill definitely didn’t hurt that recovery. But it also increased the national deficit at a time when the economy was already growing. So when you look at Trump’s economic record, is that a policy you thought was the right decision?
KOC: I thought the tax cut was good. I thought that the deregulatory emphasis was good. The economy achieved record numbers, including record numbers for the African American community and women. The revenues generated in the year following the tax cut were better than the year before. So I don’t accept the narrative that the tax cut [increased the deficit].
The national debt is a function of excessive spending. And Senator Markey, in the face of that, proposes nothing but massive federal handouts.
(Nominal revenues did increase due to inflation and economic growth during the 2018 fiscal year. However, when accounting for inflation and the size of the economy, revenue fell $275 billion, or 7.6 percent, from what the government previously projected. Analysts attribute the shortfall to the 2017 tax cut bill.)
BDC: When it comes to how President Trump has spent his last four years in office, do you have any big critiques or points on policy where you diverge?
KOC: We’re very different people. My approach is to be forthright and direct about the facts and focus on the facts. The President has his own unique style.
And in terms of China.
BDC: When it comes to actual policy, the things that he’s doing, do you have any disagreements there?
KOC: I felt like with North Korea, I thought it was constructive that he engaged with them. I thought he was too solicitous of the leader there in terms of extending invitations.
I am, on balance, more of a free-trade advocate than the President, but I think he has done well standing up for the American worker and for American interest in some of our international agreements.
BDC: If you win it’s probably safe to say that would indicate, nationally, that Trump wins as well. How do you view yourself, potentially in office, during a second term of President Donald Trump?
KOC: I think the difference between Senator Markey and me is that I can work with a president in either party. Senator Markey has already repeatedly professed that he cannot work with a Republican administration. And he’s proven to be totally ineffective working with any of his colleagues across the aisle in the United States Senate.
I will be a person who will fight for the people in Massachusetts and focus on the interests of the people in Massachusetts, and work with people regardless of party.
BDC: Are there any points of agreement where you could work with, say, a President Joe Biden?
KOC: I would make every effort to work as well as possible with him. My focus will be on the people of Massachusetts. And if the president of the United States is Joe Biden, then Kevin O’Connor will be working with him respectfully and industriously to find common ground to help the people in Massachusetts, and to make sure that America is as strong as possible.
BDC: What about Senator Warren? Either way, you’d probably be serving some time along with her, and she has very similar views and policies as Senator Markey. How would you approach that tandem in the Senate?
KOC: Amazingly, Senator Warren is more moderate than Senator Markey. Senator Markey, for example, opposed the [United States Mexico Canada Agreement], which Senator Warren, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and The New York Times all heralded as a great advance for the American worker. So, Senator Warren is less extreme than Senator Markey and I would make every effort to work with her. She is a substantial thinker, and I hope and expect that we would be able to find common ground to advance the interests of the people in Massachusetts. And I would pledge to make every effort to do the same with every member of our congressional delegation.
BDC: Lastly, looking ahead to the next two months or so, what do you see as the biggest challenge for your campaign?
KOC: Just getting the word out to voters. When people understand the choice between the two candidates, they go our way overwhelmingly. Senator Markey’s extreme positions are totally out of step with the people of Massachusetts. He has broken faith with our cops, our first responders, and the American worker.
When they hear the substance of our common sense positions and compare them to Senator Markey’s record and his extreme policy ideas, I’m confident they will go our way.
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