What’s next for Markey’s meme-driven campaign?

Sen. Ed Markey speaks to hospitality workers in the Seaport on Sept. 20, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

By Rhian Lowndes
BU News Service

When Sen. Ed Markey won the Democratic primary against Joe Kennedy III on Sept. 1, his closely watched campaign slipped off the front pages of most news sites and publications. But for Markey, the 2020 race was never about print media.

The Markeyverse, as his online following came to be known, changed the idea of political engagement. 

“Seeing not only this new way of campaigning but the new faces of campaigning–how authentic it is, how young it is, how representative of America that it is—I think this old façade of politics is crumbling down,” said Liana Ascolese, co-founder of the Facebook group that launched Markey into meme-fame, “Ed Markey’s Dank Meme Stash.”

Young people who shared memes of the 74-year-old Democrat also participated in phone banking and encouraged their friends to vote. But after their victory, and public interest in the race waned, their energy hasn’t disappeared. 

“We’re still using it as a place to gather and talk and keep progressive ideas going,” said Ascolese, 26, of the Facebook group.

In September 2019, Ascolese was celebrating a friend’s birthday at a bar and joked about starting a meme group just for Ed Markey. She and two friends founded the “Meme Stash” on Sept. 28., and it garnered 1,500 members from all over the country. Ascolese has been involved in youth political organization since college, and now works as a digital consultant with a progressive political communications firm, SBDigital, which she joined in March.

“What we didn’t know when we created the meme group was that COVID was going to happen,” Ascolese said. “And so campaigns were kind of scrambling.” 

Suddenly Markey’s team, like all others around the country, could not reach voters through traditional means, like canvassing or hosting fundraisers.

Ascolese says that what started as a joke became an “unintentional virtual campaign office,” especially after some of Markey’s campaign staff started using the memes in their digital content. 

“It cannot be replicated,” said Paul Bologna, Creative Director/Digital Communications Director for the Markey campaign, at a virtual panel for Young Democrats for America on Wednesday night. “It was a really unique thing under a really crazy and extreme set of circumstances.”

The Markeyverse was an undeniable presence in the Massachusetts political scene in the run-up to the primary, and they haven’t stopped as Markey faces off with Republican Senate candidate, Kevin O’Connor. 

“Actually we had a huge surge in requests the day after the primary,” Ascolese said.

She was encouraged, of course, because Markey still has to win the general election and shows that voters are committed to Markey and his cause.

Members share the goals of stopping climate change and pushing progressive ideas into light, and right now, they are “uniting around Ed and uniting around defeating Trump,” Ascolese said.

She emphasized that while she and the other founders are listed as admins, they don’t steer the group’s conversation. 

“The beauty of the group is that there’s not really a leader,” she said. “Everything you see there is completely organic. No one person is driving the discussion or agenda.”

The page’s focus now more heavily includes Biden and Harris’s election into the White House and Trump’s removal.

Taylor St. Germain, Markey’s Communications Manager, agrees that the campaign now incorporates the presidential race, and says that removing Trump from office has been a priority since his 2016 win. 

“What is more important now than ever is that we get Trump out of the White House,” said St. Germain. She said that the campaign’s list of priorities is to Defeat O’Connor, get Biden and Harris into the White House and get Democrats elected across the nation.

Markey himself reminded voters that his campaign was about more than just getting himself reelected during his victory speech in Malden on Sept. 1, but he ranked Biden’s election even higher.

“For the next eight weeks, we have to hit the streets,” he said. “And priority number one is to remove Donald Trump from the White House.”

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