Newly active voters, insurgent outsiders, political unrest, and targeted incumbents in Mass congressional races make for one of the most interesting battlegrounds in America
The Commonwealth’s 7th Congressional District incorporates all of Somerville, Chelsea, and Everett to the north. It stretches over 20 miles south, through Milton and Randolph.
To the west, it covers most of Cambridge. To the east, the Boston Harbor Islands.
The district includes some of Boston’s most distinct and diverse neighborhoods: Jamaica Plain, Eastie, Mattapan, Allston-Brighton, Roxbury. It is the only district in Massachusetts where whites don’t represent a majority of the population, nor does any other demographic.
Just 12 districts across the nation are statistically more liberal. The 7th is quintessentially Boston’s district, and for the first time in decades its congressman is facing a viable primary challenge.
Twenty years after his first House campaign, Rep. Mike Capuano is locked in a marquee battle with Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, whose activist-driven candidacy has caught national attention.
“This campaign is about the ‘we,’” Pressley has said on the trail. “It is not about me.”
Seeking to become the first woman of color from Mass to be elected to the House, and just one of two women from the Bay State’s delegation (not including Elizabeth Warren in the Senate), Pressley has served as an at-large member on Boston’s City Council since 2010 (she likewise became the first woman of color elected to that position).
But Pressley’s challenge to Capuano doesn’t follow the familiar formula of a young progressive taking on an old moderate-to-conservative Democrat guilty of losing touch with his constituents after decades in DC.
By most accounts (on the left, anyway), there is nothing wrong with the way Capuano has represented the district. A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he’s a politician who, when liberals look back at his votes on the most controversial measures, almost always looks honorable. Capuano opposed the PATRIOT Act, voted against the invasion of Iraq, famously admonished big bank CEOs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and has been a strong proponent (and sponsor) of HR 676—former Rep. John Conyers’ single-payer healthcare bill—for years.
“With Donald Trump in the White House, we are in the fight for our lives,” Capuano said at a debate at UMass Boston. “He’s threatening everything we care about: from healthcare, to the environment, to a woman’s right to choose, Social Security, and Medicare.”
The campaign hasn’t centered around policy battles or ideological sparring, but rather on the candidates’ ability to effectively organize and advocate in the Trump era—and, to a certain degree, the value of having a representative who better embodies the demographics of their constituents.
“They both have their merits,” said Zachary Hollopeter, a progressive activist who plans to vote for Pressley. “They’ve voted the right way on the issues that really matter. … The main thing, I think, is that [Pressley] will be a vocal advocate.”
The Pressley campaign especially took off after 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset New York Rep. Joe Crowley, the third-ranking Democrat in the House. In the weeks leading up to the election, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez fundraised together, and the Pressley campaign even sent a staffer down to New York to help the get-out-the-vote operation, according to Politico.
But while they share similar storylines, positions, and the backing of the left-leaning group Justice Democrats, the two progressives vary in their proximity to Democratic establishment. Ocasio-Cortez, likely to be the first House rep to be endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016. Pressley (and Capuano) endorsed eventual-nominee Hillary Clinton. As Commonwealth magazine reported, in 2016 Pressley derided Sanders thusly: “Plans without price tags are simply pandering. … Anger is not a plan.”
There’s little daylight between Pressley and Capuano when it comes to policy, but an area where the congressman has been lauded on the left over the years is on issues of foreign affairs and militarism.
“Do you know anything about her foreign policy?” an Allston resident asked me at an immigration rally in June. “Because—I don’t know—Capuano’s not bad.”
In a candidates questionnaire from Massachusetts Peace Action, Pressley said that the US had a “responsibility” to nations facing conflict in the Middle East, but emphasized intervention as a last resort.
“My approach is to always exhaust all diplomatic and non-military options before committing U.S. forces in any capacity to any conflict,” she wrote. “With respect to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, the United States has a responsibility to provide leadership—in concert with the international community—that brings about an expeditious end to the conflicts and creates stability in the region—it would be irresponsible to foreclose any potential avenues to achieving that goal.”
Hardly a dovish response, and certainly more opaque than Capuano’s explicit opposition to unauthorized military involvement in Syria and Yemen, and his support for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It is yet to be seen what the role of militarism, or any of the other areas where the candidates show modest disagreement, will have on voters. At this point, it’s all about organizing and turning out the vote. And that’s an area where Pressley has a lot of experience. Over the past three Boston elections, she has topped the City Council ticket twice and picked up over 57,000 votes her last time around. This will be her fourth election over the past five years.
“[Former rep and presidential candidate] Shirley Chisholm has been a big influence on my life,” Pressley said. “She said, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’”
Capuano, on the other hand, could be rusty, given the dearth of competition since being first elected.
Whatever happens, a key question this primary will answer is how much the electorate values diversity, and the reflection of its constituents, in a representative. What is often clumsily and erroneously derided as “identity politics” is an important factor in American politics and society for many.
“I really want to see more diversity,” Hollopeter said. “Life experience is important.”
“I’m not silly enough to think that people don’t take [race and ethnicity] into consideration, of course some do,” Capuano said at a recent debate. “I think most don’t. They will look at my record. They will look the record of accomplishments we’ve had. The fights we’ve had against Donald Trump. The fights we’ve had in favor of the [Affordable Care Act].”
The race in the 7th District may be the competitive primary getting most of the attention, but it’s not the only hot contest. In a year dominated by political unrest, the number of candidates seeking office and volunteers getting active has surged. In the Bay State, that energy has translated to the targeting of incumbents who’ve spent decades in Washington.
“I think there’s a magnetism to people challenging incumbents,” Hollopeter said. “It’s good for democracy.”
In the 1st District, which spans from southern Worcester County to the state’s western border, Rep. Richard Neal is fending off a progressive challenge from Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, an attorney from Springfield. If elected, Amatul-Wadud would become the first Muslim elected from Massachusetts and would join a small group of recently electeds as the first Muslim women in the House.
The 1st is the third most liberal district in Massachusetts, according to Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI).
“I am running this race because I have noticed an absence of moral leadership and of being able to advance policy that meets our families,” Amatul-Wadud said in a debate. “I support policies that will deliver us to success and victory not only for the 1st District, but through our country.”
Some of those policies include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and supporting a Medicare for All system. Neal supports raising the minimum wage and hasn’t ruled out single payer, but is currently committed to strengthening the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which he helped craft.
Back east, the other Boston district is home to the Bay State’s most conservative congressman.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D, MA-8) has served in Congress’ lower chamber since 2001, and while he’s evolved on most of the fundamental liberal issues, he still stands to the right of most of his Democratic colleagues. Most recently, he defended ICE in a nonbinding affirmation of the controversial government agency.
“Calling me the least liberal member from Massachusetts is like calling me the slowest Kenyan in the Boston Marathon,” Lynch told the Boston Globe in 2010. “It’s all relative.”
While steeped in a history of conservatism, the 8th District has a D+10 PVI, making it the fourth most liberal district in the Commonwealth. This has drawn a left-wing challenge from video game developer Brianna Wu. Wu has taken up support for popular progressive ideas like single-payer healthcare, combating inequality, and a strong commitment to protecting the environment. But she’s also taken her platform a step further, promoting ideas like a universal basic income.
Also in the race is Christopher Voehl, an Air Force veteran running as a moderate challenging Lynch’s vote on the Iraq War authorization.
The most wide open race is taking place north of Boston, in the Merrimack Valley, where an array of candidates have clogged the Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Niki Tsongas in the 3rd District. A field that at one point included 15 candidates will feature 10 hopefuls on the primary ballot.
Leading the pack financially is Dan Koh, former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Koh has raised close to $3 million since jumping in the race.
A pair of progressive state legislators make up the primary’s left lane. State Rep. Juana Matias, formerly a practicing attorney and social worker, has the backing of the progressive group Justice Democrats, while state Sen. Barbara L’Italien has been endorsed by the single-payer group Mass-Care and progressive state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (who contemplated running for the seat himself). L’Italien, a longtime proponent of universal healthcare, enjoyed some recent national attention when she duped Fox News into a live interview—pretending to be a conservative Democrat running for the Senate in Arizona—only to chastise the Trump administration for its policy of kidnapping immigrant and refugee children.
Other prominent candidates include Lori Trahan, who was chief of staff to former Congressman and current UMass President Marty Meehan, and Rufus Gifford, who was ambassador to Denmark during the Obama administration. Jeff Ballinger, Abhijit Das, Alexandra Chandler, Leonard Golder, and Bopha Malone round out the wide-open field.
Rick Green is the only Republican running for the seat, which Democrats won by more than 37 points in 2016.
The House remains the top target for Democrats in 2018. This is primarily due to the fact that other goals are too lofty or have less of an immediate impact when it comes to the priority of stopping Donald Trump.
“We have a wider path to take back the House,” Mass Sen. Elizabeth Warren said.
In the Senate, Democrats are defending a whopping 26 seats up for reelection—including 10 in states carried by Trump in 2016—compared to the nine GOP seats up in 2018 (only one of which, held by Nevada’s Dean Heller, is in a traditional blue state). But when it comes to the statehouses, it’s a much more favorable map for liberals.
Of the 36 governorships up for grabs this year, 26 are occupied by Republicans, including eight in states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Overtaking local governments is one of the most practical and effective ways to counteract the Trump administration, but it likely won’t fulfill the visceral desire among liberals to skewer the president directly. That will involve winning some federal elections.
The idea of retaking the House for the first time since the GOP bloodbath of 2010 became realistic in March, when Democrat Conor Lamb beat Republican Rick Saccone in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a gerrymandered swath of counties outside Pittsburgh that had favored Trump by 19 points only 16 months earlier. The Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to gain control of the House—no easy feat, but no Everest either. As CNN pointed out, there are 119 GOP-controlled districts rated as less conservative than PA-18.
PA-18 is not necessarily a reflection of the rest of the country, or even those 119 other districts, but the Democrats don’t need an entirely clean sweep in the House as they do in the Senate. If they hit on 20 percent of those elections, the Republicans lose the House. And so far, the primary voting numbers look pretty good for both major parties, but better for Democrats. It’s not a fine science, but at this point near the end of 2018 primaries across the country, there have been 20 races in GOP-held districts that feature competitive contests on both sides in which the Democrats outvoted the Republicans. It other words, in scenarios where both parties have a reason to drive out their voters, the Democrats have outperformed their GOP counterparts.
Mass won’t be a factor in whether or not the Democrats flip seats from red to blue. The Commonwealth’s 11-member delegation—nine representatives along with the two senators—are all on the blue team. There hasn’t been a Republican member of Massachusetts’ delegation since Scott Brown’s brief tenure in the Senate ended in 2013, and Bay Staters haven’s sent a GOP congressperson to Washington since the 20th century. That seems unlikely to change this time around.
A relatively gerrymandered state, Mass offers little in the way of electoral opportunity to Republicans—especially in a year when so many Bay State voters despise the conservative president. It’s not unheard of to see a conservative push in the Commonwealth, particularly at times when the sitting president belongs to the same party dominating Mass politics. In 2009, at the height of the country’s most intense healthcare debate in decades, Mass voters elected to send Brown to the Senate over a Democrat. In 2014, the GOP nearly swiped a House seat in the state’s 6th Congressional District from scandal-plagued Rep. John Tierney, but Seth Moulton saved the day, soundly winning a primary before defending the seat from a strong Republican challenge on Election Day. Charlie Baker won the governorship that same night.
But with a polarizing figure like Trump occupying the most powerful office in the land, it’s not too likely there will be enough Republican voters at the polls on Nov 4 to send him some help in the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
Meanwhile, most of the money coming into Mass on the Republican side in 2018 will be for races not including bids for House seats. The gubernatorial contest will draw big money because Republicans know that that’s a race they can win, and holding the corner office in a liberal state is an enormous accomplishment. Dirtying potential presidential contender Elizabeth Warren’s reputation in a longshot bid for the Senate will be the other big-time money target from the right, leaving little for the deep blue Bay State House seats.
That doesn’t mean no credible challenges will materialize from the GOP. The Commonwealth’s 6th and 9th districts lean Democrat and are currently represented by moderate liberals, but are relatively affluent and have hosted tight races in recent years. Both Rep. Seth Moulton (D, MA-6) and Rep. Bill Keating (D, MA-9) will face Republican challenges in November.
Some potential defense could be key in the Democrats’ efforts to retake the House, but the Commonwealth won’t be a central point of that project. What the Commonwealth will be key to, however, is shaping what the Democratic caucus looks like when, and if, those reps retake power.
The Massachusetts Dems in office stand to gain a lot of influence if the party flips the House in November. Neal is the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means committee. Thus, should he survive the challenge from Amatul-Wadud, the veteran congressman is in line to become the committee’s chairman. If that comes to fruition, Neal, a relatively progressive pol from a deep blue district, would become the most powerful member of the House when it comes to topics like tax policy, much of the nation’s social safety net, and—one of the congressman’s central issues—strengthening Social Security and workers’ pensions.
In April, following the death of Rep. Louise Slaughter, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named Jim McGovern (D, MA-2) as the ranking Democrat on the House Rules committee. The aptly named committee dictates the rules of debate on the House floor. For more liberal Dems, someone like McGovern occupying the chairmanship won’t just be integral to keeping Trump in check but also to passing important policy in the event that they get back on top. It wouldn’t be the first time a Bay Stater headed the committee; the late Boston Rep. Joe Moakley—considered McGovern’s mentor in the House—headed the group until Republicans took control in 1995.
Beyond seizing power of influential committees, flipping the House could also create an opportunity for some of the Commonwealth’s younger pols to raise their profiles.
Moulton has been very active this election cycle, forming the Serve America PAC, a political action committee devoted to “supporting a new generation of leaders,” frequently running liberal and moderate candidates who have served in the military. A critic of Pelosi who supported Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-OH) failed bid for minority leader in 2017, there’s been speculation that the former Marine could seek a leadership position or even the presidency. Taking control of the House would only shine the light brighter on Moulton.
Then there’s Rep. Joe Kennedy III. As long as there’s a Kennedy in politics, there will be an absurd amount of attention following their every move. That only heightened in January when Kennedy delivered the official response to Trump’s State of the Union speech from Fall River.
“We see an economy that makes stocks soar, investor portfolios bulge, and corporate profits climb, but fails to give workers their fair share of the reward,” the moderate Democrat said in his speech.
The role of responding to the State of the Union is usually overblown, but nonetheless leads to speculation regarding the speaker’s ambitions. Over the past three presidencies, seven politicians to make the official response have gone on to run for president, vice president, or one of the leadership roles in Congress. 2020 might be too early for Kennedy, who will turn 38 in September. But he’s a Kennedy who can deliver the rhetoric to repudiate an unpopular president, and that’s a recipe for political speculation.
At the very least, Kennedy is yet another reason that a lot of eyes are prudently on Mass, whether there is an election underway or not.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.