The campaign of Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat fighting a spirited progressive challenge from Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse, called for a pro-Neal group to take down an advertisement using a politically motivated smear to attack Morse.
The 30-second TV ad, funded by American Working Families, a super PAC funded by labor unions and health care industry groups spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to reelect Neal, begins by hitting Morse for a number of alleged failures that Neal himself has brought up. Neal, 71, has, among other things, faulted Morse for the state’s takeover of Holyoke’s schools under his watch and a police brutality incident in which city cops beat a 12-year-old boy nearly unconscious.
The ad closes, though, by invoking a scandal that broke in early August that, it subsequently became clear, was at least partly the work of a college student plotting to ingratiate himself with Neal by accusing Morse of abusing his power to have sexual relationships with male college students.
“Now Alex Morse admits to sexual relationships with college students ― even while he was a university lecturer,” the ad says. “Alex Morse, terrible judgment, we don’t need in Congress.”
Although there was never a specific allegation of misconduct beyond Morse making some students feel uncomfortable, he has apologized for any hurt he caused while also defending his right to have consenting relationships with adults. Morse has also said that in keeping with university policy, he never had relations with any of the students he taught.
Neal has repeatedly said that he had nothing to do with the effort to smear Morse, which LGBTQ community advocates believe exploited homophobic tropes about gay men. (Morse, 31, is Holyoke’s first-ever openly gay mayor.)
“Our campaign has been consistent: There is no place for homophobia in our society, and Richie condemns it,” Neal campaign manager Peter Panos said in a statement to HuffPost. “Voters will make a choice in this race based on both candidates’ records and issues that actually affect the district. The outside group should take this ad down.”
The super PAC preemptively announced that it would be withdrawing the ad before HuffPost published the Neal campaign’s statement. American Working Families said it “accidentally” sent an uncorrected version of the ad to TV stations.
Neal’s campaign followed up with HuffPost with a statement approving of the super PAC’s comments.
“This ad should not have been aired, and we are glad it’s been taken down,” Panos said.
Even if the network TV stations in the Springfield-Holyoke media market take down the ad immediately, viewer data obtained by HuffPost showed that it already reached more than 30,000 viewers. It has aired 10 times as of Saturday afternoon.
A representative from the CBS affiliate, WSHM-LD, told HuffPost he did not know if the ad had been removed.
HuffPost reached out to sales departments for local affiliates of NBC and The CW and was awaiting a response.
The Morse campaign reacted by linking the ad to Neal’s ties to corporate special interests such as those contributing to American Working Families.
“Richie Neal is the top recipient of corporate money in Congress for a reason — he protects the profits of big corporations,” the campaign said in a statement. “Now Neal’s friends are repaying him by spending millions in desperate, last-minute homophobic attack ads against Alex Morse because they know Alex can win on Tuesday. This is exactly the type of ugly, old-school politics Alex is running to change.”
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which backs Morse, tweeted that the ad’s creation in itself was cause for outrage.
’It aims to perpetuate a false and homophobia-laced narrative against a gay candidate just days before the election,” the group said. “The way to prevent these ugly campaign tactics is to ensure they backfire. Lets get [Alex Morse] elected on [Tuesday].”
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group backing Morse, expressed skepticism of the super PAC’s claim that the ad wasn’t deliberately crafted to harm Morse,
“There is little about these desperate, last-minute smears against Alex Morse that seem like an ‘accident’ at this point,” he said.
A number of poll watchers suspected that broadcasting the ad was no accident because of its timing on the weekend. TV stations typically program their weekend advertisements in advance and use a skeleton staff on the weekend that is less capable of pulling an ad from the air.
“It’s next to impossible to take a spot down ― even if it’s your own spot ― over the weekend,” said Mike Mikus, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant. “It is possible they sent the wrong version, but I’ve never seen that happen.”
In response to accusations that American Working Families deliberately sent the video referencing Morse’s relations with college students to TV stations and criticism of the video itself as a homophobic, the pro-Neal super PAC provided HuffPost with a statement firmly denying that its actions were intentional.
But the group also pushed back on the idea that the video is homophobic in any way, arguing instead that it had decided against airing the ad on television because it predicted that the criticism it would elicit would “create a distraction caused by people distorting it to suit their own agenda and narrative.”
American Working Families added that the ad was “factually correct,” drawing as it did on Morse’s own admission of consensual relationships with college students and his apology for what Morse called “unacceptable behavior.”
Mikus, the Democratic consultant, told HuffPost that the super PAC’s actions would be less suspicious if it could provide immediate evidence of a video that did not include the segment it said it had sent to TV stations by accident.
A version of American Working Families’ 30-second video that does not mention Morse’s relationships with college students has in fact been on YouTube since Monday.
Morse came under fire on Aug. 7 when The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts, published a leaked letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts informing Morse that he was no longer welcome at the group’s meetings because he had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” with college students.
The letter stated that Morse, who had taught a course at UMass Amherst since 2015, matched with college students as young as 18 on the dating apps Tinder and Grindr and that he had “sexual contact” with students at the UMass Amherst and other colleges near Holyoke.
It also said that Morse “us[ed] College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram” and that he messaged them in a way that made students “feel uncomfortable.”
Five days after the Daily Collegian article upended the race, The Intercept reported that at least two students active in the UMass Amherst College Democrats chapter sought to ensnare Morse by flirting with him on Instagram. One of the conspirators explicitly said that he was interested in currying favor with Neal so he could advance professionally.
A second Intercept report revealed that the Massachusetts Democratic Party, which is officially neutral in competitive primaries, referred Democratic power broker and former Neal donor Jim Roosevelt to the student group as an attorney to counsel them on how to handle confronting Morse. Roosevelt reportedly advised them to publicize the letter, against the students’ instincts, according to sources close to the College Democrats; Roosevelt insists that he advised that it be kept private.
Even before The Intercept exposed the claims against Morse as at least partly politically motivated, Morse argued that the timing of the leaked letter so soon before the Sept. 1 primary suggested it was designed to affect the race.
Neal denied any involvement in the letter or the Daily Collegian article covering from the very beginning. But prior to The Intercept story, his campaign sounded more encouraging of the students who were trying to speak out against Morse.
“The College Democrats independently came forward, and our campaign commends these courageous students,” Neal spokesperson Kate Norton said.
By the time Neal met Morse for a televised debate on Aug. 17, 10 days after the Daily Collegian story, Neal said he was content to let a UMass Amherst investigation of Morse’s conduct proceed without any additional comment from his campaign.
“Clearly, unequivocally, no room for homophobia ― and my campaign was not part of this action,” he added.
Unlike the candidate himself though, American Working Families, the pro-Neal super PAC, still considers Morse’s dating life fair game. Notwithstanding its claim that discussing the matter would create a “distraction,” other parts of the group’s statement on Sunday suggested it wants to revive the mid-August scandal as a topic of interest in the waning days of the campaign.
“We challenge Alex Morse to explain how having relationships with college students while working as a university instructor is good judgment, even when the students are not in his classroom,” the group said.
Democrats of all ideological stripes have been watching the Neal-Morse race closely. Since Neal, a 32-year incumbent, chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, unseating him would be the biggest prize yet for an ascendant activist left that has ousted three incumbent House Democrats so far this cycle.
A poll commissioned by the news site Jewish Insider found Neal leading Morse 49% to 40%, with 12% of voters “not sure” for whom they plan to vote.
Election Day is Tuesday.