Massachusetts primary: Neal fends off challenge from Morse

Ways and Means chairman had come under fire from progressives

Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a news conference in December, defeated Alex Morse in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a news conference in December, defeated Alex Morse in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 1, 2020 at 9:53pm

Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal, who over his 16 terms in Congress has risen to the top of one of the House’s most seminal committees, overcame a Democratic primary challenge from his left Tuesday by defeating Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who had criticized him for a cozy rapport with corporate interests.

Neal was leading Morse 61 percent to 39 percent when The Associated Press called the primary for the 1st District in Western Massachusetts at 9:42 p.m. Eastern time.

Neal, who holds the gavel of the tax-writing and health care-focused Ways and Means panel, was first elected to the House in 1988, just months before Morse was born. 

In other contested Democratic primaries, Reps. Steven F. Lynch and Seth Moulton both comfortably won renomination. A there was a nine-way battle in the 4th District for the seat Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III vacated to what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for the Senate against Democratic incumbent Edward J. Markey.

‘Our own little tea party thing’

The Neal-Morse race followed a similar pattern to other recent challenges to Democratic incumbents, some successful, in which younger, more liberal upstarts argued that they’d move the party to the left from their safe Democratic seats — something akin to the right’s tea party movement. 

Former Rep. Michael E. Capuano, who lost in just such a 2018 primary to Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley in Massachusetts’ 7th District, said Tuesday’s balloting was part of a larger debate raging over the direction of the Democratic Party.

“We have our own little tea party thing going on,” Capuano said in a Zoom news conference Tuesday organized by the Association of Former Members of Congress. “The battle is on.” 

Morse, like Pressley, had the backing of Justice Democrats, an outside group aligned with the views of Sen. Bernie Sanders that has buoyed similar candidates, including Jamaal Bowman, who ousted House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York in a primary this summer. 

Still, it didn’t work in Massachusetts’ 1st District, at least not this year. 

Neal, who will run unopposed in November after Republicans failed to field a candidate, still may have to watch his back in the future. Some of the successful challengers who won their party’s nomination this cycle did so on second attempts. Those include the Justice Democrats-backed Cori Bush, who beat 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st District, and Marie Newman, who ousted eight-term Rep. Daniel Lipinkski in Illinois’ 3rd. 

“It’s an interesting case of this newly revitalized left in the Democratic Party starting to be more aggressive at challenging Democratic incumbents in primaries,” said David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, who writes the politics blog Honest Graft. He noted that unlike Lipinski, who was at odds with his own party over abortion, Neal has not been “out of step with the party” on major policy matters.

Neal’s voting record during this Congress proves Hopkins’ point. He voted 100 percent of the time with his party on votes that split Republicans and Democrats, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. And when it came to President Donald Trump’s desired outcome on House votes, Neal voted with the president just 6.5 percent of the time since 2019.

His voting record in the previous Congress, which ran from 2017 through 2018, was similar: siding 98.9 percent of the time with Democrats on votes that split the parties and 20 percent of the time in favor of the outcome Trump preferred. 

Corporate contributions cited

Morse, who is 31 and openly gay, and his outside allies hit Neal, 71, for his long history of taking donations from the political action committees of corporations. His corporate donors this cycle included the PACs of Eli Lilly, Procter & Gamble, Visa and Boeing, among others, according to federal election reports. 

Outside money was also a factor in the race. A group dubbed Fight Corporate Monopolies notified the Federal Election Commission in July that it was dropping $150,000 on a TV ad opposing Neal. An ad posted by the group online says, “Corporate power is corrupting democracy. And Richie Neal is part of the problem.” 

The American Hospital Association’s PAC, meanwhile, invested heavily on behalf of Neal, while progressive groups, such as Justice Democrats, spent to support Morse. 

Matt Szafranski, editor of the Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight blog, said policy matters such as the debate over surprise medical billing did feature in the race. But, he said, it centered more on issues of style and generation as opposed to deep substantive differences. Morse, he added, worked to mobilize “young people and liberal activists.” 

Morse did survive a late-campaign scandal involving allegations that he made unwanted advances to college students. It threatened his candidacy in the final weeks, but subsequently a group of College Democrats apologized to Morse for the “homophobic attacks” he faced as a result of the claims. 

Given his loss, Massachusetts political observers said they wondered if the controversy had still hurt Morse since voters began casting their ballots early and by mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In introducing himself to voters, Morse described his parents’ hardscrabble upbringing and his work as mayor of his hometown of Holyoke, which is part of the expansive district that also includes Springfield and the bucolic rolling hills, college towns and Berkshires of the western part of the state. 

Neal’s win puts an end to scuttlebutt about major reshuffling atop the Ways and Means panel, which the incumbent has served on for more than two and a half decades. He became chairman last year after his party retook the House majority.

Other House races

In the 6th District, in the state’s northeastern corner, Moulton fended off two primary challengers, nonprofit founder Jamie Belsito and gun control advocate Angus McQuilken. Moulton was leading with 78 percent of the vote when the AP called the race at 9:56 p.m. Eastern time.

He next faces entrepreneur John Paul Moran, who was unopposed in the GOP primary. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic.

Lynch, who is seeking a 10th full term in Massachusetts’ 8th District, which includes South Boston, was leading physician Robbie Goldstein 70 percent to 30 percent when the AP called the Democratic primary at 10:11 p.m. Eastern time. He is running unopposed in November.

The Democratic primary for the open 4th District to replace Kennedy was uncalled at publication time.

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