In Busy Bay State Primary, Neal Rides Historic Wave of Turnout to Victory…
UPDATED 3:51PM: Due to a transcription error, a quote of Neal’s was incorrectly rendered. It is now correct.
SPRINGFIELD—An epic battle (mostly) in the 413 came to a close Tuesday as US Representative Richard Neal handily won re-nomination after year-long battle with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. The race captured national attention and coverage, becoming another proxy war between a restive left and a cautious Democratic establishment. Yet, Neal’s deep local ties held firm. Massive turnout magnified that advantage and carried him to victory.
Addressing supporters in Union Station, where he launched his first bid for office in 1977—promising to reopen it after its recent shuttering—Neal thanked volunteers and voters for entrusting him once more. With no opposition in the general election, Neal, 71, will almost assuredly remain in Congress and maintain his chairmanship of the Ways & Means Committee.
“I’ve lived my entire life in this district,” he said, noting key locations here that figured prominently in his life. “And, standing in front of you again tonight, representing central and western Massachusetts, has been the privilege of a lifetime.”
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.
This battle was set against several other prominent Democratic contests in Massachusetts. Not the least of these was the battle for the Senate nomination between incumbent Ed Markey and Newton Congressman Joseph Kennedy, III. When the race began, Markey, 74, seemed a hapless incumbent, ripe for knocking off. Markey fought back from relative obscurity to again seize the nomination, felling the 39 year-old grandson of Robert Kennedy by a decisive margin.
Further down the ballot, open contests in arch-Democratic Holyoke and Springfield effectively decided who will represent the seats next year. In the whole-of-Holyoke 5th Hampden district, where Aaron Vega did not seek reelection, his aide Patricia Duffy prevailed. She overcame City Councilor David Bartley and Patrick Beaudry, public affairs manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
The retirement of Rep Jose Tosado opened the Springfield-centric 9th Hampden district. Due to a crosscurrent of advantages among candidates, the race was among the most difficult to game out. At-large School Committee member Denise Hurst, community activist Sean Mullan and City Councilor Orlando Ramos all had strengths going into Tuesday. Ramos’ ground game won the day.
Senator James Welch, whose district covers West Springfield, much of Springfield and part of Chicopee, faced Springfield City Councilor Adam Gomez. In March, the shroud of the coronavirus fell. Consequently, Gomez’s opportunities to meet voters outside his base in Ward 1 diminished considerably.
With little money and some controversial votes, many assumed Gomez’s bid was hopeless. Instead, the tidal wave of turnout in the City of Homes swamped Welch’s advantage in Chicopee and his native West Springfield.
Across the river, councilors were not fairing as well. Republican state rep Nicholas Boldyga fended off a challenge from Agawam Councilor Dino Mercadante in the 3rd Hampden district. Meanwhile, next door in the Westfield-only 4th Hampden district, at-large Councilor Dan Allie failed to win the Republican nomination for the seat John Velis vacated after ascending to the state Senate. Instead, Kelly Pease, a former aide to now-Mayor Don Humason, will be the GOP’s standard bearer there.
Turnout surged everywhere due to pandemic-friendly early and mail voting. In-person voting was steady during the day as well. Between both major parties, 27,000 ballots were cast in Springfield, essentially double the total two years ago.
Still the main event in the Massachusetts Occident was the Neal-Morse race.
After years of governing Holyoke as a center-left reformer, Morse thrust himself leftward for this campaign. It won him the backing of groups like the Justice Democrats and Indivisible. But after nearly 10 years as mayor, he had a record to defend. Morse, 31, faced criticism of varying degrees of fairness from Neal and his allies, but he parried them with uneven defenses.
Morse’s congressional campaign wanted for funds until a bizarre turn of events. In an early August letter, College Democrats of Massachusetts claimed that Morse had engaged in behavior with students that made some uncomfortable. They mentioned no illegal or non-consensual actions on Morse’s part, but asserted that his liaisons with students were inappropriate.
Though the authors later said the letter had not been for public consumption, its leaking created a maelstrom that nearly consumed Morse’s campaign. Morse, who is gay, turned the tables, alleging the claims trafficked in homophobic tropes. The offensive prompted an explosion of donations for Morse.
Following reporting from the Intercept, which obtained messages that compromise at least one underlying claim in the letter, officers of college Democratic groups apologized for how the letter phrased its claims. However, they never retracted anything and consistently rejected suggestion Neal had any involvement.
In his concession speech, Morse alleged a broad conspiracy against him.
“The day before early voting began, we saw a coordinated political attack that goes all the way up to Washington, DC, Congressman Neal, the people around him, the Massachusetts Democratic party, corporations that invested millions of dollars in attack ads over the weekend,” Morse said.
Neal has consistently denied any involvement and condemned any intrusion of homophobia into the contest.
Throughout the campaign, Morse, third-party groups and progressive media outlets highlighted the principal source of Neal’s campaign funds: political action committees that corporations and trade groups control. (The money itself does come from individuals as direct corporate financing of campaigns is illegal). Reams of stories and ads sought to persuade voters Neal had become a sellout after 32 years in Congress and securing the chair of the Ways & Means Committee.
“Too often as Democrats, we point fingers at Republicans and think they are the only party guilty of being bought and paid for by corporations,” Morse said Tuesday.
He pointed to pharmaceutical and oil companies and health care entities that intervened in the race. They spent via PACs donations to Neal or via third-party groups.
“This is who funds our congressman right here in Western Massachusetts,” Morse continued.
According to the media reports, Morse intimated that he may yet seek the office again.
Neal did not address Morse and his allies’ argument directly Tuesday night. While remarking on the reopening Union Station and how Social Security helped him and his sisters after their parents died, he emphasized a foundation of his victory.
“I want to say something tonight. I won tonight, again, with working class Democrats,” he said.
By many accounts, Neal is right. Earlier in the day after voting at the Boys & Girls Club, Neal downplayed the success of leftist insurgents in primaries. He noted that only five had successful dislodged incumbent Democratic members of Congress in two cycles.
While tony suburbs like Longmeadow delivered mightily, Neal racked up huge numbers in urban working class precincts. As of posting time, Neal was winning 59% to 41% according to figures from WBUR and the Associated Press.
Morse did improve upon the vote totals of Neal’s 2018 challenger, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud. She gleaned 30% of the vote. However, she raised only $150,000 to Morse’s $2+ million. Even before the College Dems situation, Morse was on track to raise 10 times Amatul-Wadud’s haul.
The mayor showed strength in the southern Berkshires and the upper Pioneer Valley as many expected. Still, the Berkshires did not stampede toward Morse. From the Turnpike town of Lee and north, the commonwealth’s western frontier favored Neal.
Penetrating Neal’s base in Hampden County proved an even taller task, though. The ties Neal has developed after a life and career in the lower Valley were too formidable. Even Morse’s Holyoke succumbed, prompting Neal to give the Paper City its own shoutout in his remarks.
Conventional wisdom had held that higher turnout in the cities could benefit Morse. Indeed, Morse shaved off some of Neal’s vote percentage in Springfield. Yet with raw turnout doubling this year, Neal still netted 1000 more votes from Springfield compared to 2018.
In his remarks, Neal described an agenda for his next term and invoked the prospect of former Vice-President Joe Biden displacing Donald Trump next year. Then, he laid out promises to protect Social Security, overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, tackle income inequality and rebuild American infrastructure.
Appropriately enough for an event in a train station, Neal raised better rail service several times in his remarks. Toward the end, he made clear he was already laying the groundwork.
“I intend to continue my efforts, I spoke to Senator Warren about it tonight, to make sure that commuter rail from Boston To Worcester to Springfield to Pittsfield becomes a reality,” he said.
In other words, the length of the district.