Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse, at left, is challenging Rep. Richard Neal, a moderate who has been in Congress since 1989 and chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary for Neal’s House seat.
(CNN)The Democratic Party’s long primary season is nearing an end, but one of the year’s most sensational races, an ideological fight wrapped up in a generational debate that was scrambled by controversy in its final weeks, remains in the balance.
In Massachusetts, 31-year-old Alex Morse began his campaign to unseat Rep. Richard Neal, 71, in July 2019. Winning his current job as Holyoke mayor straight out of college in 2011, Morse supports “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal — defining issues for the more liberal wing of the party. Neal, who has been in Congress since 1989 and chairs the House’s powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, is seen by progressives as an unfriendly obstacle on both fronts.Ousting Neal would be a two-for-the-price-of-one blow for the left, clearing the way for a new, more liberal committee chairman — Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett would be Neal’s most likely successor — while adding another young insurgent to the ranks of a growing bloc of progressive lawmakers, headlined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose political action committee endorsed Morse last month. A victory for Morse, coupled with the re-nomination on Tuesday of Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who co-wrote the Green New Deal resolution with Ocasio-Cortez, and is facing a primary challenge of his own from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, would cap off a bittersweet year for progressives, who made gains in Congress despite seeing their champions, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, lose out in the presidential primary.
“When it became obvious that Biden was going to be the nominee, we saw a lot of energy and momentum shift to down-ballot progressive campaigns, and our campaign in particular,” Morse told CNN last month. “With a Biden administration, it’s more important now than ever before that we have more progressive members of Congress to hold his administration accountable, to make progress on health care and climate change and expand the progressive caucus.”Early voting in the race to represent Western Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District began August 22, a little more than two weeks after a letter written by the state’s College Democrats to Morse, alleging that he had used his positions, as an elected official and former lecturer at University of Massachusetts Amherst, to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with students. The school quickly announced it would open a Title IX investigation and a number of groups supporting his campaign froze in place, as they tried to sort through the accusations.Read MoreMorse, who is gay, apologized at the time, saying that while any relationships he’d had were consensual, he regretted making anyone feel “uncomfortable,” as the letter alleged. But the story took another turn August 12, when The Intercept published messages between students who, before the accusations became public, appeared to be discussing ways to undermine Morse’s candidacy.Neal’s campaign has denied any connection to the writing or publication of the letter and there is no evidence he was aware of or did anything to stoke the controversy.The Massachusetts Democratic Party, which The Intercept was also first to report had referred the student group to a lawyer with ties to the party, has since begun the process of launching a separate probe into “the actions and decisions that led to the release of the letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts.”On Saturday, the College Democrats released a statement, addressed to its membership, apologizing for its handling of the situation — in particular the “homophobic conversation” that followed the publication of the initial letter to Morse. Elliot Imse, communications director for the Victory Fund, a group that works to elect LGBTQ candidates and endorsed Morse in July, told CNN in August that the letter played into homophobic stereotypes.”For us, it was really important that these political attacks against Alex failed,” Imse said, “because if they didn’t, it would only set a precedent to use these types of attacks against LGBTQ candidates in the future.”Justice Democrats, the group that launched the candidacies of Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush, the Missouri activist who defeated Rep. William Lacy Clay in an August primary — her second attempt after falling short in 2018 — furthered its commitment to Morse after The Intercept’s reporting cast doubt on the motivations behind the letter.By Election Day, Justice Democrats’ independent expenditure arm is expected to have spent more than $600,000 on television, digital and radio ads — in addition to the group’s fundraising directly for his campaign, which it said came in at $140,000. Indivisible and the Sunrise Movement were among the other high profile progressive organizations to back Morse.Neal received outside support from a group called American Working Families — not to be confused with the Working Families Party, which backed Morse — and outspent his challenger, according to filings from the middle of August, by a more than 4-to-1 margin, as he dipped into his deep war chest. Morse’s fundraising spiked in the closing weeks, as voters were casting their ballots early and by mail, but not enough to draw close to the incumbent.Morse and Justice Democrats have centered much of their case against Neal on his donor list, calling him “corporate America’s favorite Democrat,” and pointing to the amount of money — no Democrat has taken more — he’s raised from corporate PACs. Those relationships, progressives say, are behind Neal’s efforts to pushback or water down popular legislation.”If you contribute to my campaign you buy into my agenda,” Neal said, rejecting those charges, during a recent debate. “I’m not buying into yours.” He has also pointed to his record of spreading those funds around to other Democratic House candidates, arguing that it helped build the party’s majority in Congress.House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been among Neal’s most vocal national supporters. She cut an ad for him, touting the “over a billion dollars” he’s delivered to the district. Neal, too, has warned electing Morse, who would arrive on Capitol Hill next year as junior member of the caucus, would make it more difficult to secure those dollars. And unlike some of his colleagues, who lost primaries after losing political touch and clout within their districts, Neal remains a political stalwart in Western Massachusetts, where he gained prominence as the mayor of Springfield in the 1980s.
“He’s still the local guy,” said Candy Glazer, the former chair of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee and a Neal supporter. “You’ll get a call if someone in your family dies. He’ll be at the wake. It’s still the old grassroots politics.”If Morse is going to notch an upset on Tuesday, allies believe he’ll have to cut into Neal’s base in Springfield. And he’ll have to perform well in the Berkshires, with its mix of bucolic landscapes and former industrial towns. Pittsfield, the largest city in Berkshire County, was home to Morse’s brother, Doug, who died there in February after a long battle with heroin addiction.