Progressives are throwing their political might behind Holyoke, Mass., Mayor Alex Morse’s bid to unseat Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealYellen should utilize the resources available before pushing new regulations Pelosi: Democrats within striking distance of deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat MORE (D-Mass.), one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.
In the days leading up to the Sept. 1 primary in Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District, outside groups affiliated with some of the country’s most influential progressives have sought to boost Morse, a 31-year-old who has run on a message of generational and political change in Washington.
Last week, the super PAC affiliated with Justice Democrats poured $150,000 into a TV ad spot hammering Neal throughout the Democratic National Convention. And on Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled Republican spin on Biden is off the mark House progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting MORE (D-N.Y.) used her PAC Courage to Change to endorse Morse, an extraordinary move by a first-term lawmaker against one of her party’s most powerful incumbents.
Morse has cast Neal, who entered Congress the same year he was born and currently serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as a largely absent representative whose decades in Washington and acceptance of corporate PAC contributions have created a disconnect between him and his constituents.
“People here want someone who shows up in every corner of the district, that speaks to them, answers questions, allows constituents to hold them accountable,” Morse said in an interview with The Hill on Thursday. “You would never know that Congressman Neal has power when you look at the district.”
Neal’s allies have brushed off Morse’s characterization of the congressman as an absent politician. Kate Norton, a spokesperson for Neal’s campaign, said that the congressman has held more than 700 events in his district in recent years and argued that his top spot on the House Ways and Means Committee has given his constituents “a voice in the room.”
“It’s pure fiction, and frankly Mayor Morse has largely been absent from his own job and the City of Holyoke,” Norton said. “In recent years Richie has held over 700 events in the district, and he’s always available to his constituents, because this is his home.”
In Morse, progressives see their latest opportunity to add to their growing list of primary wins over establishment-aligned Democratic lawmakers. This summer alone, progressive primary challengers have ousted House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell NYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayThe FCC must act to promote minority-owned broadcasting Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past Lobbying world MORE (D-Mo.), handing losses to two lawmakers with decades-long tenures in Congress.
But many of the districts where progressives have notched wins over more moderate incumbents in recent years sit in or around major metropolitan areas, like New York, Boston and St. Louis. Massachusetts’s 1st District is unique in that sense, encompassing a vast stretch of the western part of the state that is more rural than much of the rest of the state.
“The district tends to swing a little bit more moderate,” one Massachusetts Democratic operative said. “There are pockets of the district where Alex Morse’s message gets through really well. But a majority of the district — that stuff’s not landing.”
Morse also weathered controversy earlier this month after he was accused of using his position as a guest lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to pursue sexual and romantic relationships with students. He acknowledged having had consensual relationships with some students and briefly considered ending his campaign.
Morse ultimately decided to remain in the race, however, after The Intercept published messages from some of the students who had made the allegations in which they discussed potential ways to undermine Morse’s congressional campaign. One student described himself as a “Neal stan” and openly acknowledged hoping to get an internship with the congressman.
Neal and his campaign have denied any involvement in the allegations, and there is no evidence that he had any knowledge of the effort.
Progressive groups are still lining up behind Morse, whose campaign saw a surge in fundraising in the week after the controversy unfolded. He has also scored a handful of new endorsements, the highest-profile of which came on Tuesday from Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC.
Morse told The Hill that he had spoken to Ocasio-Cortez over the weekend and that the two discussed their experiences as young progressives taking on powerful incumbents.
“We talked about this power argument. ... Why would we want to give up this power?” Morse said, drawing comparisons between his challenge to Neal and her 2018 primary victory over then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).
“That’s exactly what’s playing out here in this district,” Morse continued. “While people are suffering we have a congressman who’s using his power for corporations and special interests.”
Unseating Neal, however, will be an uphill battle for Morse. The 16-term incumbent has a massive financial advantage in the primary, reporting roughly $2.75 million in cash on hand heading into the primary to Morse’s $296,000.
A poll released on Thursday by Jewish Insider showed Neal leading Morse by 9 points, well outside the survey’s 4.3 percentage point margin of error. Prior to that, an internal poll for Morse’s campaign made public last week put Neal ahead by a narrower 5-point margin, with 13 percent of those surveyed remaining undecided in the race.
There’s also another variable in the race: the Democratic Senate primary between Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyTikTok, Snapchat executives to make Capitol Hill debuts The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Six big off-year elections you might be missing MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE III (D-Mass.). Both Kennedy and Markey are fighting for the support of the left, and allies of both Neal and Morse say that having the Senate primary at the top of the ballot on Tuesday could drive voter turnout among progressives.
“Because of the campaigns Kennedy and Markey have run, this is going to be largely dominated by progressive activists,” Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said. “That could help Alex Morse. He could surprise people. I don’t know if he’ll win, but it’s more of a race than it would have been otherwise.”