At Year’s End, a Status Report on Morse’s Congressional Bid…
HOLYOKE—Alex Morse was ending his 2019 in the same location he radically shifted his year. At the Unicorn Bar here in downtown shortly before Christmas, Morse gathered with friends and supporters, just as he had in July to announce his bid for Congress. This time, it was a much more low-key affair by design, geared toward his support in the Paper City, where he serves as mayor.
How much progress he has made toward taking down the Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Ways & Means Committee, is hard to fully assess, though. Morse has raised substantial sums of cash, but he needs organization, staff and a message that transcends the 1st Congressional district’s varying political layers.
More to the point, has the brew of Morse’s political talents, committed base here and progressive rage at Neal coagulated sufficiently over the last five months?
At the Unicorn, the support—or Morse Force as they have been dubbed in this election—is palpable. Supporters paused their pre-holiday munching to cheer and hear the mayor speak. Standing next to a brightly-lit tree, Morse listed accomplishments and reminded them that as a young, gay, progressive first-time candidate he unseated an incumbent mayor. Then he turned to Neal.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that we don’t have a member of Congress that uses the power he has for the people in this room and the people that we represent,” Morse told supporters to applause.
This reaction is typical here and in the Upper Valley parts of the district. House parties there draw decent crowds as did his Medicare for All town halls. But south of Holyoke, the reaction seems more muted. While he has supporters everywhere, Morse’s pitch in Greater Springfield, home to a third of the primary vote, remains a hard sell. Plus, he is his campaign’s only emissary.
Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional district includes virtually all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties, and southwestern Worcester County.
“I think the takeaway is people are ready for a different type of leadership throughout the district,” Morse told WMP&I, assessing his bid thus far.
“I spent the beginning part of the campaign has spent a lot of time of me in the Berkshires and in the Hill Towns, introducing myself to people, again, talking about what this campaign is about, and then why I’m running,” he continued. The next move, he said, was working to activate people who don’t normally participate in primaries.
If Morse has a snowball’s chance, he must raise a grassroots army much as he has in his Holyoke elections. He said as much to his supporters at the Unicorn last week. However, he will need people in field to manage that effort.
Morse’s people say that is coming. The campaign is expected to make its first staff announcements in the new year. That includes a campaign manager, which as recently as September was posted on job search resources for politicos.
The campaign’s third quarter Federal Election Commission report lists no salaries. Longtime Morse confidantes and allies have taken on unpaid roles both informally and formally. Sara Seinberg, a Leyden activist and consultant, has been among his formal advisers and has staffed his events.
In the messaging department, Morse has been lucky. While barbs he hurled at Neal over impeachment and Trump tax returns were subsumed by Donald Trump’s game of Ukrainian telephone, Morse’s launch caught a flurry of national press attention. This coverage, while sometimes uneven, helped raise his national profile—or perhaps Neal’s—directing progressive donations to the Hillary Clinton delegate-turned-Medicare for All evangelist.
Morse’s line about Neal’s use of power has become the principal counter to the obvious rebuttal to turfing Neal: his Ways & Means chairmanship. It may also be one of the few ways Morse’s campaign has begun to face the daunting realities of challenging Neal.
Press coverage of a party for AIG in the Ways & Means Committee hearing room and the collapse of a surprise medical billing solution helped. These let Morse turn Neal’s biggest asset into a progressive battering ram.
“As more people pay attention to congressman Neal and how he uses power, most recently, on the surprise medical billing on weakening the drug prescription bill, and,” Morse said, “on opening up the Ways and Means Committee room to AIG, not only are people in the district paying attention, but people around the country are.”
While Neal did offer impromptu remarks at AIG’s event, Boston.com reported invitations made no mention of Neal and a Neal spokesperson told The Daily Hampshire Gazette the House’s public rooms host receptions all the time.
Surprise medical billing refers to a deal to limit the practice that fell through earlier this month. Some fingered Neal as the culprit after he introduced a competing proposal. Neal told Buzzfeed he was committed to passing legislation. The delay was appropriate, he said because the deal had not been properly scrutinized, given its sudden genesis. As for the prescription drug bill, it passed with no Democratic dissent.
Neal’s reelection campaign countered claims he had not used his power for the district’s benefit, pointing to millions of dollars directed to the 413, including Holyoke. Among them were funds for North-South rail and Holyoke Community College, in addition to New Markets Tax Credits that bolstered projects across the city and district. The campaign also highlighted language in the defense bill that could keep Springfield railcar plant open.
“To see how Richie Neal uses his power on behalf of his constituents, all Mayor Morse needs to do is look in his own backyard,” campaign manager Peter Panos said in a statement. “Richie has secured millions of dollars in federal funding to spur development and improvement in Holyoke.”
The campaign also defended Neal’s committee work, pointing to hearings on climate change and Trump’s tax cut and bills on preserving pensions and retirement, bolstering middle and lower class tax cuts and harmonizing tax laws for LGBTQ individuals.
Attacking an opponent’s perceived strength is not uncommon in politics. Yet, it opens Morse to critiques about his own governance. Among those the Neal campaign raised were fire hydrants, the aftermath of the school bond failure and city finances.
“While Mayor Morse has been out playing politics, Richie Neal is continuing to deliver for his constituents and hard-working Americans everywhere,” Panos added.
While not at the hoped-for pace, Morse has had some success with fundraising. Morse raised $218,000 in the third quarter, notable as he wasn’t a candidate until halfway through the quarter. Speaking to WMP&I, he confirmed he has spent significant time calling donors. He added that fundraising is difficult given his pledge to accept no money from corporate political action committees.
Challenging a sitting rep closes doors, too. Though, Morse held at least one fundraiser in New York last quarter and had scheduled another in Providence, home to his alma mater, Brown.
Pending the next fundraising report, some are wondering why Morse has not caught fire, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley dislodged incumbents last year.
Politico observed the campaign war chest disparity—Neal raised $640,000 in Q3 and had $4 million in the bank. The retrenchment of local news, despite some local exceptions and the distance from Boston’s somewhat healthier media haven’t helped.
Still, it may come back to whether and how Morse builds the organization he’ll need to overcome geography. The national attention may goose Morse’s fundraising, but it can’t win over voters who do not experience politics through Beltway political conversations. The Morse campaign will need to explain why his platform applies to their lives.
Alleging progressive heresies may excite Morse’s base, but might not animate the vote-rich Lower Pioneer Valley—that is, Neal’s base—the same way. Nor is there a districtwide, like-minded organization Morse can plug into, unlike when Morse first ran for mayor here in 2011.
This could change in the new year. Many campaigns spend their early days squirreling away money before expanding on the ground.
“I think it’s going to be much more outward,” Morse said of his campaign in 2020. He confirmed the next step will be building the groundwork and person-to-person organizing he promised in his remarks to supported. That will include hiring two full-time organizers and work on “relational organizing” to empower people and cultivate leadership.
“This campaign isn’t just about reaching out to people who’ve always been involved politically, but people who deeply care about the neighborhoods in their communities who may not see themselves as being political,” he said.
How to do that, remains the challenge.