Massachusetts is producing a bumper-crop of primary challengers this election season — an early indication that the state’s long tradition of respecting incumbency could be crumbling.
Many of these candidates have cited congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s victory over longtime incumbent Michael E. Capuano as part of the reason for their efforts — including Alex Morse, the 30-year-old, four-term mayor of Holyoke seeking to oust Richard Neal, one of the most senior — and powerful — members of the delegation, who represents Western Massachusetts.
“Personally, for me it was inspiring to watch,” Morse said of Pressley’s success in an interview last week.
His takeaway from her race and other triumphant upstarts: “It wasn’t the candidate who raised and spent the most money at the end of the day, it was the candidate that was able to build a grass-roots movement and organize a campaign throughout the district that really made the difference.”
Morse is drawing national attention but faces long odds in toppling Neal, who has held the seat since 1989, is a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and leads the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most influential posts in Washington.
Regardless of whether Morse prevails, he is part of a larger generation of politicians emboldened to take on their elders, and tear away at the comforts of incumbency in the Commonwealth. But it remains to be seen if even the strongest entrants in the state’s 2020 congressional primaries will grow into serious contenders.
“The era of waiting your turn is being dismantled, and people are increasingly going to agitate for positions,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “We live in a state that is used to, in its history, people serving forever, and I’m not sure that’s what the future is going to look like.”
Various elected officials may still end up serving for very long periods, but they can expect “many more bumps to their renomination than there had been in the past,” he predicted.
In 2016, not a single member of the Massachusetts delegation faced a primary challenger. But with more than a year to go, half of the 10 delegation members up for reelection in the fall 2020 primary have drawn challengers — and more may be coming.
Senator Edward J. Markey, the delegation’s longest-serving member (he has been in Congress since 1976), so far has two primary opponents, both newcomers: Shannon Liss-Riordan, a high-profile labor attorney, and Steve Pemberton, a former foster child who became an executive and author.
And Massachusetts political circles are rife with speculation a bigger name could jump in. Politico recently reported that a telephone poll was testing a one-on-one race between Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. It’s not clear who paid for the survey, and Kennedy has said he doesn’t plan to challenge Markey.
Meanwhile, on the North Shore, two fellow Democrats are trying to oust Representative Seth Moulton, who says he will run for reelection if he loses his long-shot bid for president. And there are at least a half-dozen other people who are reportedly weighing the prospect of taking him on in the Sixth Congressional District.
Moulton rocketed into politics by defeating a long-serving Democrat, John F. Tierney, in 2014 — when it was basically unheard of to challenge an incumbent in a primary. And now, ironically, Tierney, who served in the House from 1997 to 2015, is among those considering challenging Moulton.
“He’s not afraid of democracy,” said Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni. “His record speaks for itself, [and] he’ll be running for Congress again on that record” if he doesn’t win the presidential primary.
In the Eighth Congressional District, Brianna Wu, a video game developer, is taking a second run at unseating Representative Stephen F. Lynch after he handily beat back her first challenge last fall.
While drawing less notice, other challengers have cropped up:
Ihssane Leckey of Brookline has declared a run against Kennedy from the left, saying that she wants to align herself with progressive stars such as Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
While a rematch is far from set, Lori Trahan is girding for a challenge from one her former rivals in the Lowell-based Third District — Dan Koh, whom Trahan beat in a recount by 145 votes. Without naming him, Trahan, who hasn’t been in the House a full year yet, blasted out a fund-raising e-mail earlier this week warning that “one former primary opponent made it pretty clear last week that he is running against me.
Last month, Koh called on Trahan to support impeachment proceedings, and soon after she decided to back a congressional inquiry. Koh has yet to make an official move to seek the seat again. And local news reports indicate at least one fellow Democrat is eyeing a challenge of Representative Bill Keating in the Ninth District.
The challenges are happening amid a nationwide surge in Democratic voters who are clamoring — and voting — for more women, people of color, and political outsiders to fight Trump in Washington.
Morse, who made history as Holyoke’s first gay mayor and its youngest, said his strategy is to expand the universe of voters – mobilizing folks who don’t usually participate in congressional primaries. It’s a playbook that Pressley used to win last fall, and Morse has two top Pressley aides working for him: Wilnelia Rivera, who served as Pressley’s political strategist, and Gina Christo, Pressley’s finance director during the 2018 primary.
“There’s an urgency in this moment that isn’t matched by our current representative in Congress,” Morse said.
The current occupant of the Oval Office provides inspiration of another sort. “There’s this hair-on-fire mentality about politics right now,” said Boston Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. Democrats feel like the country is burning, “and no one can do enough to try to put the fire out.”
That sentiment factors into Neal’s race against Morse. The 15-term congressman has drawn the ire of some liberals for not moving quickly enough to seek Trump’s tax returns, which his leadership post enables him to do. And since Neal sued earlier this year to get the tax returns, the congressman has been taking heat from the left for not being more aggressive in using every legal tool at his disposal to challenge the Trump administration’s recalcitrance.
Neal is also part of a rapidly shrinking minority in the Massachusetts delegation who has not said that he believes the House should begin impeachment proceedings.
A spokesman for Neal’s campaign referred the Globe to a statement Neal put out when Morse announced his bid for office: “We are fortunate to live in a country where everyone can have his or her voice heard by running for office, and that’s why Congressman Neal will welcome anyone into this race.”
Still, political experts caution that the lesson provided by Pressley’s win — and others around the country, such as Ocasio-Cortez’s — can’t be applied too broadly. As earthshaking as Pressley’s win was, she brought to the contest strong ties in state political circles, in part due to her years as an aide to John F. Kerry when he was a senator and later her nine years as a Boston city councilor.
Pressley’s Seventh District — the only majority-nonwhite district in Massachusetts — is far more liberal than Neal’s in Western Massachusetts. Some towns in the suburbs of Springfield backed Trump in 2016.
Neal trounced his 2018 primary opponent with more than 70 percent of the vote, and has nearly $4 million to defend his seat. A former Springfield mayor, Neal also can cite his role in securing federal support for numerous projects in the district.
The editorial board of the largest newspaper in the district, The Republican, greeted Morse’s announcement by declaring that it “comes at the worst possible time.” To vote out Neal, it said, would diminish Western Massachusetts’ clout in Washington and remove a rare politician who understands how to compromise.
“There are probably many districts in the country where a candidate like Morse would be an appealing replacement for the incumbent, but this is not one of them,” the editorial said.