Our Opinion: Democratic incumbents remain formidable in Massachusetts

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On Tuesday night, the two most senior members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation proved their staying power against a pair of ambitious primary challengers. Despite a vigorous attack from his left flank, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal easily defended the House seat he's held for 31 years, defeating Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse by nearly 20 points. Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Markey came out on top in a progressive showdown, issuing a stunning rebuke to a Massachusetts political dynasty with a double-digit victory over Rep. Joseph Kennedy III.

While both of these races featured shades of the upsets and insurgents that characterized many 2018 midterm Democratic primaries, the outcomes were notably different. This time around, at least in Western Massachusetts, young energy was not enough to get voters to discard longtime Capitol Hill experience. Whether this is a Bay State anomaly or an indication that 2018's wave of youthful progressive insurgencies is already past its crest, time will only tell.

Regardless, for Democratic coalition-builders, this primary has some lessons — some more obvious than others.

Mayor Morse's left-populist critique of the more-moderate Democratic establishment embodied by a powerful incumbent like Rep. Neal is a model for interparty contests to come — even in relatively politically stable regions. In analyzing Rep. Neal's sizable margin of victory, it should be noted that Mayor Morse did manage to considerably eat into the 40-point differential between the incumbent and his 2018 primary challenger.

Rep. Neal's victory, while a landslide, shows the kind of traction grassroots campaigns have been able to build on grievance toward the political status quo in the post-2016 electoral world. Mayor Morse has not counted out another congressional run, but even if it's not him in the future, this cycle made Rep. Neal sweat a bit in a way he hasn't had to in decades. Progressive upstarts in the region have surely taken note.

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Nevertheless, as the challenger sought to make the race a referendum on the incumbent's use of his accumulated legislative heft, 1st District voters have indicated by a considerable margin that they appreciate how that power has been and can be used for them. With eyes now turning to November, a Joe Biden presidential victory would likely make Rep. Neal's Ways and Means chairmanship all the more valuable for the district.

The Senate primary leaves a somewhat more open-ended query about a skirmish within the Democratic Party's left wing that, in this contest, was summarized as the quest for "progressive leadership" — who gets to plant the flag of progressivism and where? Given the similarity of Sen. Markey's and Rep. Kennedy's actual political positions, the narcissism of small differences reared its head often, and as the race heated up, it wasn't just Massachusetts voters who weighed in. Sen. Markey, an incumbent who has been in Congress for more than 40 years, got some "Squad" energy injected into his campaign by way of a key endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rep. Kennedy, the younger candidate making the pitch for new blood, was backed up by Congress' most powerful establishment Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The ironies don't end there. Crucially for Sen. Markey, polling showed early on that the youth vote broke significantly in his favor. Anyone looking to build a progressive coalition is looking for those young voters, though the rest of the demographic picture is not so clear-cut. Those same polls showed Sen. Markey excelling with whiter, wealthier and more educated constituents. Rep. Kennedy's campaign, meanwhile, was frequently assailed as one of privileged ambition — even though he fared better with voters without a college degree, voters of color and voters who earn less than $50,000 a year.

It all amounted to a decisive victory for Sen. Markey. What it says about the future of progressive coalition-building, however, is less definitive.

One thing these two primaries unfortunately had in common was that they both got ugly in the final stretch. While that ugliness took different forms, it's a warning to those on the ramparts of internal Democratic ideological battles: They might get more bitter before they get better.


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