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A year after Morse campaign against Neal, 1st District progressives see challenging path ahead

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U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, survived a 2020 progressive challenge from then-Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Neal, first elected to Congress in 1988, chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

A year after Alex Morse challenged U.S. Rep. Richard Neal in a widely followed Democratic primary, no one has stepped up to run against Neal in 2022.

Former staffers and supporters see some promise in what the Morse campaign accomplished in a high-turnout election, believing that his message reached residents who had tuned out from politics but since have paid greater attention to their representation. But, for many in Morse’s camp, the race — it included a late-breaking news story that shifted the focus from policy to Morse’s personal life — showed the difficulty of pulling off a progressive challenge in the 1st Congressional District.

And it might get even harder, with the district likely to expand into more conservative towns at its southeastern edge, while shedding upper Pioneer Valley communities that favored Morse, as proposed in redistricting maps released Monday.

Morse — at the time, he was the mayor of Holyoke — championed “Medicare for All,” a federal jobs guarantee and other policies to the left of Neal, a moderate Springfield Democrat who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee. At the ballot box, Morse received 59,110 votes (41.2 percent) — more than any other challenger Neal has faced since he first was elected in 1988, a year before Morse was born — but well short of Neal’s 84,092 (58.6 percent).

To Neal, the results showed voters’ faith in his message that he “delivered” for the district, and that his experience and powerful position allowed him to shape “legislation that changes our lives.”

Morse supporters, though, saw the record-high turnout as evidence that many were eager for change, even though the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to interact with voters in the sprawling district of 87 cities and towns. Twice as many people voted in 2020 than in the 2018 primary, when Chicopee attorney Tahirah Amatal-Wadud took on Neal.

The Morse campaign made efforts to reach long-marginalized voters who tend to vote at lower rates. But, it had to balance that drive with a fundraising effort catered to nationwide progressives, who were drawn to Morse’s advocacy for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, as well as the opportunity to unseat Neal, whom they view as an obstacle to those goals.

Morse, who refused donations from political action committees and criticized Neal’s corporate donors, raised $2.1 million, while Neal, the top congressional recipient of PAC money during the 2020 cycle, raised nearly $5 million. Although the national support brought Morse much-needed publicity, it forced the campaign to juggle local and national priorities in its messaging, said Sara Seinberg, of Leyden, a staff member on the Morse campaign.

“I do think that the national groups put a lot of pressure on a very local campaign to transform messages into something that was resonating on a national level to a donor class, to a Twitter audience that didn’t necessarily speak to voters on doors and voters at home,” Seinberg said.

Seinberg and others saw promise in the conversations they had with voters on the ground. Freddy Stokes, who canvassed in public housing projects in Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee, said he found potential voters to be receptive to the case he made that Morse’s platform could make “a serious material difference” in their lives.

“It wasn’t so much an issue of people being, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but it’s never going to happen,’ ” said Stokes, who grew up in the Hampshire County town of Westhampton and graduated from Connecticut College in 2020. “There was some of that, but I think once we were able to talk to someone, the challenge just was getting them to turn out.”

For many aligned with Morse, it is impossible to discuss the race without mentioning an August letter from a group of college Democrats at the University of Massachusetts. Publicized less than a month from Election Day, the letter raised concerns of misconduct against Morse without offering specific claims.

Reports from The Intercept later suggested that some students had political motivations, quoting one who said, “Neal will give me an internship.” The student group later apologized to Morse, who is openly gay, for using language that “played into homophobic stereotypes that have been used to oppress gay men in politics.”

The state Democratic party also violated its own bylaws in advising those students, a party-ordered investigation found.

“After seeing what happened to Alex, who else would decide to run here?” Seinberg said.

An internal poll from the Morse campaign two weeks from Election Day showed Morse within 5 percentage points of Neal, who held a 46-41 percent lead. While 85 percent of those polled said they heard news related to Morse and the college Democrats, most said it did not change their choice. While 21 percent said the news made them more likely to support Morse, 18 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Neal.

Morse supporters point to voting results from Pittsfield, where Morse might not have had significant name recognition before the election, as evidence that the letter might have hurt voters’ perception of Morse. Although Neal nearly doubled Morse’s early voting tally, Morse narrowly won in-person voting on Election Day.

Other observers suggest that Neal’s influence and the district’s demographics made a Morse victory unlikely from the start.

For one, the district is more white and more rural than largely urban districts where progressives have toppled powerful incumbents.

“On paper, you can turn out a big vote in Springfield’s North End, precincts in Holyoke’s lower wards,” said Matt Barron, a Democratic strategist from Chesterfield. He worked on Amatul-Wadud's 2018 campaign but was not heavily involved in the Morse campaign, which he supported.

“But, in practice, Black and Latino voters feel so beaten down and apathetic about elections, and it’s very, very hard to get those people out, whereas Neal’s base of ethnic Catholics comes out in droves,” Barron said.

Pragmatic vs. ideological 

Matt Szafranski, editor in chief of Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight, added that Hampden County voters already likely had some perception of Morse and his mayoral record, regardless of its accuracy, before the race or the college Democrats' letter, including that Morse supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for president in 2016. Szafranski said he believes that much of Hampden County remains comfortable with Neal, who won Holyoke with 51.8 percent of the vote.

“A lot of people are more pragmatic than ideological,” Szafranski said. “Would it be better to have a more progressive congressman who is a backbencher or a less progressive one who is chairman of Ways and Means?”

In the Morse camp, though, many viewed the policies he supported as more material than ideological.

Homer Winston, who grew up in Lee, had no party affiliation before the Morse campaign, which he worked on for eight months. Morse talked about health care gaps and the opioid epidemic, Winston said, not as abstract issues, but rather as everyday realities with often-deadly consequences, including in Morse’s own family.

“I got invested because I felt that he was fighting for people like me,” said Winston, a Williams College student who invited Morse to meet with activists in Lee about their opposition to a proposed toxic waste dump. “Whether or not he could win, he was trying to put forth a theory of change.”

“The campaign felt really personal in my life as a young person facing the climate crisis, with health care issues that my family faces,” added Gabbi Perry, a Mount Holyoke College student who worked on the Morse campaign. “As a student, I think leading up to 2020 there felt like [there was] a lot of urgency for me relating to issues, especially climate, and this race felt important on a community level but also on a broader, kind of national scale.”

National progressive groups have continued to target Neal. A September digital ad from Our Revolution criticizes Neal’s receipt of fossil fuel donations and asks voters to push Neal to end fossil fuel subsidies. Several groups likely would support another progressive seeking to challenge Neal, but no one yet has entered the fray.

Some say the absence of a challenger has to do with the slim odds of defeating Neal, a three-decade incumbent. While in office, Neal has accumulated positive media coverage, and cemented relationships with local and nationwide elected officials who provide him with endorsements. A growing number of left-leaning Democrats also have lost trust in the state party after its involvement in the college Democrats letter.

Most expect Neal to serve until he chooses to retire. State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle are among those thought to be interested in the seat when Neal eventually vacates it, but it is highly unlikely that either would run against Neal.

Many who worked on the Morse campaign say they believe progressive organizing has shifted to local issues and elections. Nevertheless, they still are keeping an eye on Neal.

“It takes really serious community organizing to [take on Neal],” Perry said. “But, I also don’t think there’s much sense in making us believe that any kind of real change will still happen in his office.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.

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