The 10-term Democrat has been facing a primary challenge from Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, for much of this year in his safe Democratic district.
But the unexpected fall of Rep. Joseph Crowley, a member of House leadership, combined with a narrow victory for his fellow New York Rep. Yvette D. Clarke on Tuesday, raised a question: What other Democrats could lose to primary challengers who, until now, have been mostly dismissed as long shots?
Capuano is actually one of three Massachusetts Democrats facing notable, albeit underfunded, challenges from women in the state’s September primaries. If Crowley’s race proved anything, it’s that money spent isn’t everything. And with his loss to 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inspiring renewed chatter on the left about unseating incumbents, there’s still time for those races to heat up. At least two freshman Democrats in Florida are also facing notable primaries in August.
Democrats on Wednesday cautioned that Crowley’s defeat was likely an anomaly, with an incumbent who didn’t take his race seriously enough in a district that had undergone massive demographic change. And it was a low-turnout primary since only federal races were on the ballot.
Watch: Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat
The post-2016 threat of primary challenges to sitting Democrats has largely gone unrealized. Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski was forced to spend money and had the closest call before Tuesday, but he ultimately prevailed over a challenger backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Democrats stressed that what happened in New York was a wake-up call for other incumbents that they need to work harder to convince their constituents they’re change agents in the face of President Donald Trump.
“It’s hard to make the case you’re a change candidate when you’ve been around for a long time — and that’s an increasing challenge for an incumbent,” one Democratic strategist said.
Massachusetts’ 7th District
Like Crowley’s in New York, Capuano’s 7th District in Massachusetts is majority-minority.
Capuano is half-Irish and half-Italian. But if Pressley won, she’d be the first nonwhite member of the House from the Bay State.
The incumbent has locked up support from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and has called in reinforcements from the likes of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who campaigned with him in May. Former Gov. Deval Patrick has also endorsed him.
“Those are institutions, and this is a campaign focused on people,” Pressley campaign manager Sarah Groh said Wednesday. “Our path to victory was never dependent on the old boys club and old institutions lining up behind us.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Seth Moulton have chosen to stay neutral. Moulton defeated a Democratic incumbent to win his seat and said it would be hypocritical for him to side with the incumbent now.
Democrats who say Capuano has a real race on his hands admit that the threat says more about his opponent’s strengths than it does about his weaknesses. Pressley, who previously worked for former Sen. John Kerry and former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, is a past recipient of the EMILY’s List Rising Star Award. The pro-abortion rights group has been in touch with her, but does not endorse against Democratic incumbents who support abortion rights.
Pressley is trying to run to Capuano’s left, calling for the the defunding of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week. But observers say hitting from the left against a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is harder to do than it was against Crowley, the former leader of the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
“Every race in every district is different,” Capuano campaign spokeswoman Audrey Coulter said in a statement Wednesday. “Mike is an unwavering fighter for progressive values who is taking on Donald Trump at every turn and working hard for the people he represents.”
Still, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has energized Pressley’s supporters. The New York Democrat gave Pressley, and a handful of other challengers, a shout-out on Twitter on Tuesday night. Pressley’s team reported that new volunteers flooded her campaign office Wednesday morning, and that the campaign had received more than 100 new “small-dollar donations” following Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.
Capuano still has a hefty financial advantage, though, ending the first quarter of 2018 with $1.2 million in the bank compared to Pressley’s $260,000.
Other Bay State races
Capuano isn’t the only Massachusetts Democrat who’s spending money to fend off a primary challenger in September, although strategists agree his challenge is the most serious.
Elsewhere in the state, 15-term Rep. Richard E. Neal is facing a challenge from Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a board member of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. She has the backing of the progressive group Indivisible Project.
First elected in 1988 to the 2nd District, Neal is the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. He said he has a full staff in the district, and his Federal Election Commission report shows he spent $339,000 during the first quarter of the year, which is more than 12 times what Amatul-Wadud raised during the same period.
“I don’t think you ever want to wake up the day after and say, ‘If I’d simply done this or if I’d simply done that,’” Neal said Wednesday off the House floor.
He ended the first quarter with $3.2 million in the bank to $22,000 for Amatul-Wadud.
And in the 8th District, Stephen F. Lynch is facing a primary from Brianna Wu, a software engineer at a video game company, who’s received death threats from the “Gamergate” community. On Wednesday, she tweeted that her platform is “identical” to that of Ocasio-Cortez.
As one of three Democrats remaining in the House who voted against the 2010 health care law, Lynch is more conservative than most Democrats still facing primaries this year. But he’s fended off challenges before, winning a 2010 primary by 29 points. He ended the first quarter of the year with $1.3 million on hand, compared to Wu’s $3,200.
Grayson, a controversial former member, ended the first quarter of the year with $695,000 in the bank to Soto’s $364,000. But Grayson’s campaign committee is more than $2.2 million in debt.
Rather than be concerned by the defeat of the first Democratic incumbent on Tuesday, the first Florida congressman of Puerto Rican descent found the results encouraging for his own primary prospects.
“A fellow young Puerto Rican won in a Hispanic plurality seat. Democrats are looking for youth, diversity and bold leadership,” Soto said in a statement Wednesday, alluding to his 2016 primary victory. “This is exactly why I prevailed against Grayson’s wife and others in my last primary, and we will keep up the fight!”
In the 5th District, another freshman Democrat, Rep. Al Lawson, is facing a primary challenge from former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.
Brown’s campaign said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has also energized its supporters, noting an increase in volunteers and a large attendance expected at a Wednesday night fundraiser. Brown outraised Lawson during the first quarter, bringing in $167,000 to Lawson’s $84,000. He spent more, too. Lawson ended with slightly more cash on hand.
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t single out either of those challengers in her tweet Tuesday night, but she did mention one of her friends, Chardo Richardson, who’s challenging freshman Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District. Richardson is a former board member of the central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He ended the first quarter with just $9,000 to Murphy’s $1.3 million.
Besides Pressley and Richardson, Ocasio-Cortez also gave a Twitter shout-out Tuesday night to nurse and activist Cori Bush, who is one of three Democrats challenging Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st District.
Bush is vying to be the first woman to represent the district, and the first black woman to represent the Show-Me State in Congress. She ended the first quarter with $1,000 in the bank compared to Clay’s $303,000.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.