The 31-year-old Morse, backed by Justice Democrats and other leading progressive groups, was taking aim at Neal, 71, over his refusal to embrace “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal and, in his powerful position as the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, more aggressively pursue oversight of the Trump administration. Morse has described Neal as an absentee representative, detached from struggles of his constituents, and a magnet for corporate campaign cash.
A campaign that believed it had been gaining ground and momentum ahead of the September 1 primary, appeared — for a few long days — to be on the brink of collapse. Many of Morse’s most prominent supporters, from Justice Democrats to the Sunrise Movement and Indivisible, went silent or announced they would pause their efforts until more information became available.
One notable exception was the Victory Fund, a group that works to elect LGBTQ candidates and has known Morse since around the time he was first elected mayor as a 22-year-old, which almost immediately reaffirmed its July endorsement. Because the rumors that ultimately filled the College Democrats’ letter had been floating around for months, the group told CNN it had been able to discuss them with Morse before they became public.
Satisfied by his denial of any misconduct, the Victory Fund, concerned that the allegations would play into homophobic stereotypes, rushed to his defense, while staying in constant contact with indecisive progressive groups.
“For so long, gay men in particular have been branded as pedophiles and sex deviants and all these things that understandably conjure up negative images that no one wants to be associated with,” said Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s communications director. “For us, it was really important that these political attacks against Alex failed, because if they didn’t, it would only set a precedent to use these types of attacks against LGBTQ candidates in the future.”
Untangling the allegations
Neal’s campaign has denied any connection to the writing or dissemination of the accusations and there is no evidence Neal was aware of, or played any role, in stoking them.
The Morse campaign has since said it was made aware, earlier this year, that accusations similar to those in the letter — which does not mention any names or detail any specific incidents — were being peddled to national news organizations. And in an interview with CNN, Morse, as he’s done in other public forums, said the timing of its publication led him to believe he was the target of “a coordinated smear campaign.”
Morse said his apology email, sent the same day he received the letter, was a simple, “human” response.
“I thought it was important to respond to that email and express regret,” Morse said, “if I have made someone feeling uncomfortable unintentionally.”
If their most recent debate was any indication, both candidates appear eager to move on from litigating the episode. The College Democrats have said they will cooperate with the party’s probe and, in a statement, condemned any homophobic attacks that followed the publication of the allegations.
“I read about it, as everybody else did on a Friday night,” Neal said, when asked about the letter by a debate moderator last Thursday night. “The students then pointed out in a subsequent press release, that what they did was independent of my campaign and my organization. Here’s the point: we had nothing to do with this. The students should be heard. There’s a process in place.”
Morse pressures Neal on campaign cash
With the probes underway, but unlikely to return any definitive conclusions before the primary, Morse has plowed ahead with the renewed support of progressive groups and leaders. Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, among others, have all doubled down on their endorsements and Morse has, over the last week, unveiled new slates of local officials who are now backing his campaign. His fundraising totals are growing, beating old records, new volunteers are signing on, and the race appears to be neck-and-neck coming into the final stretch of campaigning.
On Tuesday afternoon, Morse got another major boost: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, Courage to Change, endorsed his campaign.
“When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took on her own entrenched incumbent in 2018, she changed public service for the better,” Morse said in a statement, “further inspiring me and so many others to fight for our districts and empower those who have long been forgotten.
But Morse allies, enthused by the backlash but still bitten by the incident, say the abrupt pause in outside activity following the letter’s publication cost the campaign and its supporters precious days of messaging before the start of early voting.
“The Morse campaign has done a really good job of turning an incredibly difficult situation into a positive for their campaign,” said Lucy Solomon, political director for Indivisible’s independent expenditure group. “But obviously, a lot of folks on (the independent expenditure) side paused their ads right when the letter came out, to figure out what was really happening here, and so those are missed communications with voters.”
Morse’s case to those voters has, from the beginning of a campaign that began last summer, centered on the question of how Neal has wielded his indisputable power on Capitol Hill. Neal has been criticized, and not only by the party’s progressive wing, for not pursuing President Donald Trump’s tax returns immediately after taking over the Ways and Means Committee at the start of 2019.
In debates, Neal has denied that his contributors have any effect on his legislative decisions.
“If you contribute to my campaign you buy into my agenda,” Neal said during an exchange last week. “I’m not buying into yours.” He has also pointed to his record of spreading that money around to other Democratic House candidates, arguing that it helped build the party’s majority in Congress.
“Alex Morse is not going to become the Ways and Means chair, Jamaal Bowman didn’t become the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, but we not only picked up a seat, we fundamentally changed the direction of those committees — for decades, potentially,” said Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director.
Doggett, she added, is “not a Justice Democrat, but he is a lot more progressive and actually believes in something like Medicare for All.”
A Morse victory would be a capper on a bittersweet primary season for progressives. Joe Biden’s late surge to the presidential nomination set the movement briefly back on its heels. But subsequent victories for newcomers like Bowman and Bush, and steamrolling performances by members of the “squad” — including Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated her centrist primary challenger by more than 56 percentage points — has guaranteed the movement will be in a position to pressure a potential Biden administration.
The attention and money lavished on the presidential race, first during the primary and now ahead of the general election, opened up a lane for progressives to assert their influence — and direct their energy — toward federal and state legislative races. Morse now has the backing of a coalition of progressive groups, which have rallied around his campaign and helped him compete against one of the best-funded incumbents in the House.
“When it became obvious that Biden was going to be the nominee, we saw a lot of energy and momentum shift to down-ballot progressive campaigns, and our campaign in particular,” Morse said. “With a Biden administration, it’s more important now than ever before that we have more progressive members of Congress to hold his administration accountable, to make progress on health care and climate change and expand the progressive caucus.”
Neal opens up his war chest
The battle with Morse is Neal’s toughest race in years. In the 2018 primary, he fended off another progressive, Springfield-area lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who finished with 30% of the vote — well off the pace, but enough to put keep Neal and the district on the radar two years later.
In a sign of how seriously Neal is taking the challenge this year, his campaign has plowed nearly $800,000 into broadcast advertising alone through Tuesday — four times what he spent at this point in the 2018 cycle, according to Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Candy Glazer, the former chair of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee and a Neal supporter, said the progressive wave that has swept longtime Democrats out of office is unlikely to topple Neal.
Neal, who served as mayor of Springfield in the 1980s, is well-known and liked in the district, said Glazer, a party stalwart in western Massachusetts.
“He’s still the local guy,” she said. “You’ll get a call if someone in your family dies. He’ll be at the wake. It’s still the old grassroots politics.”
“It might be trendy to think that if you have gray hair, that’s a strike against you,” she added. “But in these uncertain times, the need for leadership and experience is even more important.”
Although Neal has served in the US House more than three decades, he represents a sprawling district reshaped after the last US Census. It now encompasses 87 towns, Glazer noted. And it includes all of Berkshire County, which stretches from the Connecticut border north to Vermont.
Morse has worked to make inroads into the Berkshires, a mix of bucolic landscapes, storied arts institutions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and a smattering of former industrial towns.
On an afternoon in early August, just hours before the allegations about his personal life became public, he stumped in Pittsfield, the county’s largest city. He denounced the 2014 closure of an in-patient hospital in North Adams, a former mill town in the northwest corner of the state, and shortages of treatment beds to help communities grappling with opioid addiction.
Morse bristled at the suggestion, and during a news conference in Pittsfield, shot back, saying “no one is going to tell me or my father or my brother when we can talk about my brother Doug or invoke my brother Doug’s story.”
“This is personal to us,” Morse said. “And it makes it political to us.”
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to correct the timing of the Victory Fund’s endorsement of Alex Morse. The fund endorsed Morse in July.