The general election is still 64 days away.
But in deep blue Massachusetts, which rarely sends Republicans to Congress and hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, Tuesday’s Democratic congressional primaries are the main event.
At the top of the ballot is a heated intra-party Senate battle: Sen. Ed Markey, the septuagenarian co-author of the Green New Deal, is being challenged by Rep. Joe Kennedy III, an heir to Massachusetts political royalty who has staked his bid on voters’ longing for generational change.
To run for Senate, Kennedy has vacated his House seat in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, sparking a scramble for power in a district that stretches from affluent Boston suburbs down to blue-collar, industrial towns in the southeastern part of the state. A crowded field of progressive contenders risks clearing a path for a former Republican who is significantly more conservative than Kennedy.
In the western-most district of the state, a young and openly gay, progressive mayor is hoping to oust one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. The race has been marked by a smear campaign against the mayor that could have been mistaken for the plot of a Coen brothers film.
And just south of Boston, an infectious disease doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital is challenging a centrist Democrat in a primary that has slipped below the national radar, but that local progressives think is the incumbent’s most competitive reelection race in decades.
It’s possible we won’t see all the results on Tuesday night, especially if these races are tight. Massachusetts offered an expanded vote-by-mail option that all voters had until Aug. 26 to opt in to; ballots must be received by the local election authority’s office by 8 p.m. on Tuesday to be counted.
Here’s a rundown of four races to watch on Tuesday.
A Democratic Senate Showdown
Before this year, there was really no reason to question whether Markey, the junior senator from Massachusetts, would get reelected. Then Kennedy decided to challenge him in what became one of the most hotly contested Senate primaries of this election cycle.
It’s a race that’s perplexed people deeply involved in Massachusetts politics, from moderate old-timers to young progressives. They have wondered aloud why Kennedy, a well-liked 39-year-old with a promising political future, wants to jump in line.
On its face, Kennedy’s primary challenge looks like many others. Kennedy, a young, ambitious lawmaker, is railing against what he sees as an entrenched politician too distant from his own constituents to lead. Kennedy has argued that Markey, 74, isn’t doing enough with the Senate seat; he’s been in Congress for more than 40 years and is still in the shadows of other senators. Massachusetts politicians are supposed to have big national presences, according to Kennedy — at least, that’s been true for his family, and former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry.
But Markey doesn’t quite fit that narrative. He has newfound star status in the national progressive movement for his role in co-writing the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), about whom he talks often. Ocasio-Cortez, Warren, the Bernie Sanders-aligned grassroots group Our Revolution, and the Warren-aligned Progressive Change Campaign Committee are all backing Markey, not Kennedy. Oddly, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) himself has stayed out of the race.
The youth-led climate action group Sunrise Movement has been especially dedicated to reelecting Markey, mobilizing legions of high school and college students to volunteer for his bid. Together with Markey’s youthful digital media staffers, this volunteer army has managed to turn the gray-haired Capitol Hill veteran with a wicked Boston accent into a meme-able Generation Z icon.
Markey makes the case that he isn’t standing in the way of a progressive change. And as for a national presence, Markey asks only: Isn’t the Green New Deal “national” enough?
Neither campaign will say a bad thing about the other’s character, but the primary has become increasingly nasty as the two trade jabs over their records in public office. Kennedy’s final push in the days leading up to the election is that Markey has been weak on issues around race — an attack that feels particularly poignant as cities across the country erupt in protest around yet another shooting of a Black man by a police officer. Markey, who has admitted to making some bad votes throughout his 40 years in office, says equality is central to each of his major pieces of legislation, whether the Green New Deal, which mentions intersectionality by name, or his push to get internet access in schools and libraries.
Kennedy, too, has evolved; up until last year, he was not in favor of legalizing marijuana.
But over all, there isn’t much daylight between Kennedy and Markey on policy — certainly not on what they’re running on.
This race has blurred conventional political divides, underscoring differences in style and personal background more than substance. Although Markey and Kennedy are both white men, one is a senior, the other is a millennial; one comes from a working-class background, the other is a descendent of the most prominent American political dynasty.
Progressives Eye The Ultimate Prize
In Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District, progressive Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, 31, is taking on Rep. Richard Neal, 71, chairman of the mighty House Ways and Means Committee. Neal, who has represented central and western Massachusetts since 1989, is a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House’s top recipient of donations from corporate political action committees this election cycle.
The stakes of the race for the balance of power within the Democratic Party, as well as the kind of legislation that would be likely to advance in Congress under a Joe Biden presidency, cannot be overstated. Neal has used his perch at the helm of the congressional panel that oversees taxation and social programs to stall bills that would expand Social Security, close a tax loophole benefitting hedge fund managers, and end “surprise” medical billing for patients who unknowingly receive care from out-of-network doctors.
Unlike other moderate incumbents ousted in recent Democratic primaries, Neal has spared no expense or line of attack to defend his seat. A win for Morse, who is running on the now-standard platform of the party’s left wing in an overwhelmingly white and rural district, would demonstrate that nothing can inoculate establishment Democrats from the threats posed by an increasingly influential activist left. A loss for Morse, by contrast, would give Democratic leaders one more reason to dismiss the reach of the party’s largely young progressive wing, which has had its greatest successes in deeply liberal metropolitan areas.
In the end though, Morse’s chances hinge just as much on the enduring appeal of Neal’s congressional seniority to residents of the struggling district, and the lasting impact of an attempt to smear Morse with allegations of misconduct.
In early August, it emerged that the College Democrats of Massachusetts were barring Morse from attending future meetings on the grounds that his sexual relationships and social media interactions with male college students at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and other regional colleges had made students uncomfortable. Morse, who had been a part-time lecturer at UMass Amherst since 2014, responded by acknowledging that he had had relations with college students and apologizing for the discomfort he caused. But he also said that all of his relationships had been with consenting adults whom he had not taught, in keeping with university policy.
The Intercept subsequently reported that leaders of the UMass Amherst College Democrats involved in pushing for Morse’s ban had plotted to entrap Morse on social media. No specific claims of inappropriate behavior by Morse have since become public.
Some election watchers think the bizarre scandal-turned-smear ended up helping Morse by raising his profile and rallying progressive voters, particularly those from the LGBTQ community. But other prognosticators, including some Morse allies, wonder whether the dust-up has done just enough to sow doubts about Morse in the minds of voters he needs to win.
One Too Many Progressives
There are seven candidates seeking to succeed Kennedy in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, which snakes from upscale Newton, Brookline and Wellesley to less affluent and more socially conservative working class communities like Fall River.
The overwhelming majority of labor unions, progressive elected officials and grassroots activism groups have gotten behind Jesse Mermell, a former aide to then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and senior Planned Parenthood official. Mermell, who supports “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, goes about as far as left as one can in a district that has deeply moderate pockets.
Some progressives are concerned that the candidacy of Ihssane Leckey, a financial regulator and Muslim immigrant from Morocco, could prevent either progressive from triumphing in the race. In campaign videos and literature, Leckey casts herself as the next member of the House’s diverse “Squad” of progressive legislators, and she’s picked up the support of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
But there is little evidence that Leckey has a shot at winning in the crowded field. She lost the support of the Boston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America following charges of a harsh management style at odds with progressive labor ideals. And a public poll that came out Friday showed her in a distant fourth place.
The divided progressive field has raised the prospect that Jake Auchincloss, a Marine veteran and business consultant who was previously a registered Republican, will replace the more-liberal Kennedy. Auchincloss was neck-and-neck with Mermell in Friday’s poll.
A Sleeper Bid To Unseat A Centrist
Robbie Goldstein, 36, a gay, progressive infectious disease doctor is challenging Rep. Stephen Lynch, 65, in Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional District, an oddly shaped area that includes a sliver of Boston and a host of increasingly diverse, working class communities south of the city.
Goldstein, who founded Massachusetts General Hospital’s Transgender Health Program, wants his race to be the next big progressive upset. While Goldstein’s bid has received little of the press coverage ― or cash ― of other progressive insurgents, he points to a recent internal poll that shows him within 7 percentage points of ousting Lynch.
Goldstein wants single-payer health care, universal child care, a Green New Deal and a monthly cash assistance program during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has the endorsements of Andrew Yang, local Sunrise Movement chapters, the Our Revolution and Indivisible, one of the largest grassroots progressive organizations.
Lynch, who has been in Congress for 20 years, is a low-profile target. He’s a centrist Democrat with a pretty unassuming record in Congress. His last major news cycle was when he voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 — a vote that cost him significantly when he tried to run for Senate against Markey in 2013.
Lynch’s record is all over the place. He’s an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, but once called global warming an “elitist” issue. He has a long record as a self-described anti-abortion Democrat — and voted to restrict abortions while in the state legislature — but has changed his tune over the last decade and now votes on party lines.
Local grassroots activists think Goldstein has an opening because Lynch isn’t campaigning like he’s facing a serious challenger. He’s raised less money this cycle than he has in the past three. The official campaign arm of the Democratic Party doesn’t appear to be helping him out. And in the coronavirus age, Goldstein’s career as an infectious disease doctor is compelling.