The party divide: Morse vs. Neal primary heats up

  • Light illuminates the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2020 7:16:08 PM
Modified: 7/10/2020 7:15:57 PM

HOLYOKE — Residents of western Massachusetts often complain about being ignored, overshadowed by Boston.

But the region is under the spotlight as a Democratic primary election approaches in the 1st Congressional District, pitting longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal — one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington — against a challenger from his left in Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. And as the Sept. 1 primary approaches, both campaigns and their supporters have been turning up the heat.

“This is definitely a national race in lots of ways,” said Holyoke state Rep. Aaron Vega, who has chosen not to endorse in the race. He said the same questions voters are asking in competitive Democratic primaries across the country are being asked in the 1st Congressional District, too: “What does progressiveness mean and what does incumbency and power bring to the table?”

The competitive race is making waves outside of the region, too.

“High on the left’s wish list: Knocking out another House chairman,” read one recent Politico headline. “Democratic leaders are much more progressive than you might believe,” retorted former New York Congressman Steve Israel and Democratic Party insider in an op-ed in The Hill.

Primary races between establishment-backed Democrats and insurgent candidates from the left have been playing out across the country, from New York and Kentucky to Ohio and California. And of course the Democratic presidential primary took place in the state on March 3, when centrist Joe Biden edged out democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and progressive Elizabeth Warren.

If the presidential primary is any indication, the 1st Congressional race could be a close one. In the presidential primary, Biden received 41,215 votes in the cities and towns that make up the district, compared with the 35,837 votes that Sanders picked up, according to a Gazette analysis. That doesn’t include the 19,210 votes received by Elizabeth Warren, considered more to the party’s left.

On attack against Neal

Morse has been on the attack recently, as have his backers. This week the progressive group Fight Corporate Monopolies launched a $300,000 ad campaign attacking Neal. The group accuses Neal of having “sided with greedy corporations” for his role in the demise of a bill that would have protected patients from surprise medical bills. Those medical bills benefit the private equity giant Blackstone Group, the ads say. Blackstone is Neal’s top donor.

Morse has often criticized Neal for his corporate donors, for not supporting Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and for what Morse has said is inadequate oversight of President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, Morse held a press conference criticizing Neal for not moving more quickly to obtain Trump’s tax returns. In a decision Thursday, the Supreme Court sent a case about congressional access to those records back to a lower court, meaning the tax returns will likely remain hidden until after the presidential election.

“We had a window of opportunity, and Neal blew it,” Morse said. “A real Democrat would have subpoenaed Trump’s taxes on Day 1, instead of delaying because he was more focused on cozying up to his Republican colleagues for votes on a bill to help his corporate donors.”

Neal leans on record

Neal, for his part, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s decision makes him confident that his case to obtain the tax returns will prevail. As the longtime incumbent, Neal has mostly focused his messaging not on his opponent, but on his role as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and the recent federal funding that has benefited the region.

On Thursday, Neal touted a $400,000 grant received by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission — money that was secured through the coronavirus stimulus package known as the CARES Act, which as chairman of Ways and Means he helped write. Neal has also visited local businesses that have received loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

In a statement to the Gazette, however, Neal campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton said that in these final weeks of the race the congressman intends to focus on Morse’s “failed record in Holyoke.” She specifically mentioned Morse not speaking out about the city settling — for $65,000 — a lawsuit that accused Holyoke police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014. She also accused Morse of running the city’s schools and finances poorly during his tenure as mayor.

Neal is one of the top fundraisers in all of Congress, receiving more corporate money this cycle than all but one other member of the U.S. House. He has spent some of the $4.5 million in his war chest running ads, including nearly $41,000 spent since May on Facebook. In addition to focusing on COVID-19 relief money he helped secure, those ads highlight issues that have long been part of Neal’s message to voters, such as defending Social Security.

Morse hits social media

Morse, meanwhile, has been taking to social media in an effort to capitalize on the recent success of other congressional candidates who have unseated more conservative Democratic incumbents.

Morse posted on social media late last month a video of him canvassing for Jamaal Bowman, a progressive challenger to longtime incumbent Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Congressional District. Bowman has declared victory in the race, and has endorsed Morse. The two are both backed by the political action committee that helped elect insurgent candidates including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in 2018, Justice Democrats.

Both camps have been rolling out big endorsements of late. Neal secured the backing of the state’s teachers union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, as well the national union it is part of, the National Education Association. The Civil Rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has also backed the congressman, according to a letter shared by the campaign.

Morse, meanwhile, has announced support from the state chapter of the group linked to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, Our Revolution, as well as the environmental group Sunrise Movement, the LGBTQ Victory Fund and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill Wednesday allowing residents to vote by mail beginning Aug. 1. Secretary of State William Galvin is set to mail applications to voters by next week. Vote by mail applications must be delivered to a local election office no later than four business days before the election.

Debates in offing

It is unclear whether Neal and Morse will get together for a debate before that mail-in voting can begin. Morse’s campaign told the Gazette that they’ve agreed to an Aug. 20 debate sponsored by TV station WWLP and are in conversations with other media outlets for another debate, possibly in mid-August.

Neal’s campaign said in a statement that “debate conversations are definitely in the works but no dates have been announced yet.”

Given the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to sweep the country, Vega noted that this race is different from any previous campaigns, which so often feature large events and face-to-face interaction. He noted that Morse may have an advantage because he has always been a savvy user of social media in his campaigns, but that Neal has name recognition that could help him.

“I think what’s really interesting now is that this campaign is in completely uncharted territory,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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