Massachusetts is a strongly Democratic state with all its congressional and the two senate seats held by Democrats. The governor is an outlier in being a Republican but he has been careful to position himself as a centrist moderate technocrat and distanced himself from the nutjobs that currently make up the Republican party. So the primaries are where the real action is and on Tuesday we saw two proxy battles between the party establishment and progressive insurgents.
In the senate race there was a generational switch in that the incumbent Ed Markey who has been in Congress for 44 years represents the progressive wing and the much younger challenger Joseph Kennedy turns out to be the establishment candidate. Markey has aligned himself with the progressives in Congress, co-sponsoring the Green New Deal with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and they in turn strongly backed him. Kennedy was clearly seeking to use his famous name to move from the House of Representatives (where he currently holds a seat since 2013) to the Senate. No Kennedy has lost an election in Massachusetts and no doubt he hoped to ride the wave of the family name to victory. His problem is that his politics are more Republican-friendly.
Since Nancy Pelosi clearly hates the progressive wing of the party and AOC and ”the squad’, she decided to endorse Kennedy, which raised eyebrows in terms of propriety for the Speaker to endorse a challenger to someone like Markey whom she was worked with for decades, especially since she had condemned primary challenges to party incumbents. But young people and progressives rallied to the 74-year old Markey and he won by 10 points. As Rachel M. Cohen writes, Kennedy tried to spruce up his progressive credentials but his record in Congress said otherwise, with him declining the offer to lead the electoral campaigns against the Tea Party Republicans.
In a different race for a congressional seat in the western part of state known as the Berkshires, the young mayor of Holyoke named Alex Morse, who is a progressive, challenged long-time incumbent Richard Neal, a powerful party leader who is very close to the corporate and financial industry, doing them many favors and, as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, thwarting progressive agenda items that would hurt his corporate Super PAC backers.
This race turned very ugly with the party establishment covertly resorting to anti-gay smears against Morse late in the campaign. The secret collusion of the party establishment with local pro-Neal forces to spread these untruths was exposed in a series of articles in The Intercept but was too late to prevent the damage.
On August 7, three weeks before the election, a week before the first debate, and just ahead of early voting, all hell broke loose. The College Democrats of University of Massachusetts Amherst sent Morse a letter, which was quickly leaked and published by the college paper, disinviting him from future events, alleging that he had made students uncomfortable by making advances on them, along with other vague accusations.
On August 12, The Intercept began publishing the first of four exposés that reported, in order: One of the students who orchestrated the scheme was motivated by a desire to launch his political career through Neal; that the students had sought to entrap Morse and, having failed, went ahead anyway with vague allegations; that the state party had offered legal advice and media training in preparation for the letter being leaked; and finally, that the state party, once the scheme was exposed, publicly ordered an investigation into the students’ conduct while at the same time privately urging the students to delete messages that showed collusion with the state party.
The New York Times called the reporting “a cascade of head-spinning revelations,” but in the district, voters who relied on the local news were still treated with he-said, he-said coverage that made room for Morse’s denial but gave little oxygen to the reality that it had been an orchestrated smear. Major damage had been done, as the race turned into a conversation not about corruption, but about gay sex.
This may be a short-lived reprieve for Neal. Recall that long time incumbent conservative Democrats like Dan Lipinski in Illinois, William Lacy Clay in Missouri, and Elliot Engel in New York all fought off challengers in 2018 only to lose this year. So we may well see Neal in trouble in 2022, if not from Morse again, then from another progressive candidate.