WASHINGTON — In a blow for progressives, Democratic Rep. Richard Neal fended off a primary challenge from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse in Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District.
Neal, the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, came out on top after a tightly contested and closely watched primary. The race was marked by unsubstantiated allegations of sexual impropriety against Morse, bitter generational infighting, and major spending by Justice Democrats, the progressive group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez two years ago.
After a string of several high-profile progressive wins in House primaries — including Cori Bush in Missouri, Jamaal Bowman in New York, and Marie Newman in Illinois — Morse’s loss is a tough hit for Justice Democrats and their allies. Neal was the highest-ranking Democrat the group took on this cycle, and they hit him repeatedly for taking corporate donations and holding up major legislation, including blocking Medicare for All and not seeking to obtain President Donald Trump’s tax returns in his role as the chair.
Morse ran on a progressive platform contrasting Neal, pushing for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, legalizing cannabis, and decriminalizing sex work, hoping to emulate the success of other progressive challengers who have run successful campaigns on similar platforms, but he came up short Tuesday.
Last month, Morse made national news after the College Democrats of Massachusetts released a letter outlining vague allegations of sexual impropriety and announced that Morse was not invited to any future events because he had “made college students uncomfortable.”
The students said Morse, while an adjunct professor at UMass Amherst, had added them to his "close friends" stories on Instagram, matched with some students on Tinder and Grindr, and had sex with students.
In a statement after the allegations were first made, Morse said that “every relationship I’ve had has been consensual,” but Justice Democrats said they were “disappointed” with Morse. Bowman, who had recently pulled off his own high-profile primary victory, said he was going to “pause” his endorsement of Morse.
But, later, the Intercept reported that the college Democrats group coordinated the allegations in an effort to sink Morse’s campaign and ingratiate themselves with Neal.
“It’s important to be unapologetically myself — being gay and a young person and someone who has sex,” Morse said in an interview with BuzzFeed News after the Intercept article was published. “I won’t apologize for being gay and using gay dating apps and going on dates with other adult men. I won’t apologize for being human.”
Neal denied any involvement in the scandal, and the College Democrats later apologized.
Justice Democrats and other progressives then went all in on the race, spending more than $500,000 on ads for Morse, while Neal was backed by similar six-figure ad buys from other PACS, including Democratic Majority for Israel and Working Americans.
Annise Parker, president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorsed Morse, said Tuesday night that the College Democrats' letter helped Neal win.
“The efforts to sensationalize and weaponize Alex’s sexual orientation certainly influenced the outcome of this race,” Parker said in a statement. “We are grateful Alex stayed in the race and took the body blows necessary to expose the double standards too often placed on LGBTQ candidates. ... While Alex’s loss is disappointing, it proved our community and our allies can respond forcefully in exposing the dog whistles and stereotypes that too often haunt LGBTQ candidates."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also endorsed Neal, calling him a “progressive leader in the Congress” at a recent press conference.
“People will say what they will say, but I know what he has done, and it would be a tremendous loss to that district to lose the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee,” she said.
Morse, for his part, attracted a major endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC.
“When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took on her own entrenched incumbent in 2018, she changed public service for the better, further inspiring me and so many others to fight for our districts and empower those who have long been forgotten,” Morse said in a statement following her endorsement. “I am honored to have the congresswoman’s Courage to Change in our corner, and it will be the honor of my life to bring the people alongside me to Washington.”
Throughout the campaign, Morse argued that while Neal had seniority, he wasn’t using it to the benefit of his constituents, an attack many progressive challengers have had success with this cycle.
“The fundamental question for this election over the next year is — yes, Congressman Neal has seniority and he has power — but how is that power benefiting each and every one of you in this room? How is it benefiting places like Holyoke?” Morse said at a fundraiser last fall. “How is it benefiting people that are actually struggling here in the district — people that are struggling to put food on the table, to find a job, to get health insurance?”