MA-1: Will Rep. Neal Become #9?

By Jim Ellis

Rep. Richard Neal (left) finds himself defending his seat against credible Democratic challenger Alex Morse.

Aug. 25, 2020 — The intense Democratic Senate primary battle between incumbent Sen. Ed Markey and challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Newton), is not the only Massachusetts competitive intra-party campaign to be decided in the upcoming Sept. 1 nomination election.

House Ways & Means Committee chairman Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) finds himself defending his seat against credible Democratic challenger Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, a city of 40,000-plus people located just eight miles north of Springfield on I-391. Neal is clearly taking this primary seriously and fighting hard to avoid being the ninth House incumbent denied re-nomination in the 2020 election cycle.

Rep. Neal has already spent $4.3 million for his re-nomination campaign as reported in the Aug. 12 pre-primary Federal Election Commission campaign finance disclosure report. Conversely, Mayor Morse has spent just over $1 million, but the contest still appears close.

Now, an outside organization, Democratic Majority for Israel, has launched an attack television ad that hit Morse for a poor attendance record at Holyoke City Council meetings while claiming the local schools are among the lowest performing in Massachusetts. They cite, in support of their contention, the state government coming into the Holyoke district and assuming control of their education system.

Earlier, controversy arose when the College Democrats organization at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, located within the 1st District, accused Morse of sexual impropriety, which resulted in an immediate loss of local and national support. The move backfired, however, when it came to light that no such incidents had occurred during the times when Morse appeared at the university both as a candidate and previously a guest lecturer.

This challenge appears typical of the other three Democratic primaries where candidates successfully opposed veteran incumbents from the political left armed with money and support from national activists and progressive organizations. The three such challenges that transformed into upsets came at the expense of Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL; 8 terms), Eliot Engel (D-NY; 16 terms), and Lacy Clay (D-MO; 10 terms). Whether the Morse effort proves as successful remains to be determined.

A 1st District poll was released last week, from the Beacon Research organization (Aug. 15-16; 391 MA-1 Democratic primary voters) that gave the congressman only a 46-41 percent lead over Mayor Morse. The margin seems reasonable when looking at the campaign activity level and attention being paid to the race. The spread suggests that we will see a highly competitive final week of campaigning, with both camps attempting to increase voter participation among their supporters both through mail and in person ballot casting.

The 1st District of Massachusetts occupies the far western part of the state past Interstate 91. It stretches all the way to both the New York and Vermont borders before sweeping along the Connecticut boundary through and east of Springfield to include the territory immediately past Interstate 84. The seat is reliably Democratic (Clinton ’16: 57-36 percent; Obama ’12: 64-34 percent), but not as liberal as the Boston area districts. In his 16 victorious congressional elections, Rep. Neal has averaged 71 percent of the vote.

During his long congressional tenure, the congressman has turned back three Democratic primary challenges: in 2018, 2012, and when he was first elected in 1988. In the two most recent primaries, the congressman recorded 70.7 and 65.5 percent re-nomination victories, respectively.

Demographically, MA-1 is 79 percent non-Hispanic white according to the Citizen Age Voting Population statistic, 13.5 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent black. Females constitute 51.9 percent of the district population, and 79.5 percent are over age 18. The average household income of $55,716 ranks MA-1 as the 220th wealthiest district, or $1,901 below the national congressional district mean average.

The 1st District battle is another primary election to watch and likely the last serious House nomination challenge we will see in what has already become a surprising election cycle.

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