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Today’s Elections In Massachusetts Are Another Big Test For The Progressive Movement

In 45 states, the advent of September means it’s time to focus on the general election. But there are still a few primaries left to be resolved — most notably in Massachusetts, where progressives and the Democratic Party establishment are waging their final war of 2020. And because the Bay State — and all nine of its congressional districts — are solidly blue, today’s elections will essentially decide its next members of Congress.

Like many Democratic primaries this year, the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race pits an incumbent who has served in Congress for decades against an insurgent arguing it’s time for a new generation of leadership. But that’s about where the comparison ends. The young upstart is Rep. Joe Kennedy III, scion of perhaps the most establishment family in politics. (Among his great-uncles were President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009.) And incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, despite his 44-year tenure in Congress, is a steadfast progressive who co-wrote the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As such, Markey has successfully claimed the left lane of the contest for himself: Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Our Revolution and the Sunrise Movement have all endorsed him. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s endorsers include establishment heavyweights such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But in reality, the two candidates largely share the same progressive policy views and have voted similarly in Congress.

So without a clear ideological contrast, Kennedy has arguably struggled to articulate why he feels that Markey doesn’t deserve another term. Long-standing grumblings that Markey doesn’t spend enough time in Massachusetts have failed to stick to the incumbent, leaving Kennedy open to attacks that he is running only because of his family’s privilege, which Markey has contrasted with his own working-class upbringing.

However, despite the vitriol that has come to characterize the campaign, most Bay Staters see the race as a choice between two good Democrats. According to a Suffolk University poll from last week, 71 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had a favorable opinion of Markey, and 63 percent had a favorable opinion of Kennedy. That said, the last four head-to-head polls of the race show Markey with an average lead of 10 percentage points. That’s a pretty big shift from earlier this year, when Kennedy was leading in most polls.

Markey has taken the lead

Polls of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts conducted so far in 2020

Dates Pollster Markey Kennedy Margin
8/25-27 Emerson College 56% 44% +12
8/24-25 Data for Progress 50 43 +7
8/23-25 Suffolk University 51 41 +10
8/13-21 UMass Lowell 52 40 +12
8/12-16 SurveyUSA 44 42 +2
7/31-8/7 UMass Amherst 51 36 +15
7/29-30 JMC Analytics 44 41 +3
5/5-6 Emerson College 42 58 +16
4/27-5/1 UMass Lowell 42 44 +2
2/26-28 Suffolk University 36 42 +6
2/18-24 UMass Amherst 43 40 +3
2/12-19 UMass Lowell 34 35 +1

Includes respondents who leaned toward one candidate or the other.

Source: Polls

A lot of that early lead was probably name recognition, though, as Markey was not terribly well known for an incumbent — and Kennedy had already aired millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads before Markey first went on the air in late July. But Markey’s recent spending blitz appears to have shored up his support, especially among younger and more college-educated voters. However, Kennedy has still outspent Markey $10.2 million to $7.1 million since Oct. 1, 2019 (about a week after he entered the race),1 although the two candidates have received roughly the same amount of help (around $4 million) from outside groups.

But no matter what happens today, history will be made. It will be the first time either a sitting U.S. senator or a Kennedy has lost a contested primary in Massachusetts.

Turning to the House races, the Democratic primary in Western Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District started out as another establishment-versus-insurgent fight between Rep. Richard Neal, a 16-term incumbent who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, a 31-year-old progressive. But the race took a dramatic turn when Morse, who is gay, was accused of sexual misconduct — even more scandalous given the allegations appeared to be part of a political hit job.

On Aug. 7, the College Democrats of Massachusetts alleged that Morse had inappropriate sexual relations with students as a candidate and, before that, as an adjunct instructor at UMass Amherst. Morse denied ever having a “non-consensual sexual encounter” or violating UMass policies, but admitted that he’d had consensual relationships with students at area universities and apologized for making some students feel uncomfortable. But things took a turn on Aug. 12 when left-leaning outlet The Intercept reported that leaders of the College Democrats had conspired to create a sex scandal and sink Morse’s campaign to win favor with Neal. For his part, Neal’s campaign denied any involvement, and the College Democrats’ president claimed they had acted in good faith. The revelations, however, cast serious doubts on the allegations against Morse. Further reporting from The Intercept also suggests that the state Democratic Party may have been involved in the effort to spread the allegations, and that the party’s executive director told leaders of the College Democrats to delete communication records.

Overall, the race appears to be quite close. In the aftermath of The Intercept’s initial story, Morse’s campaign enjoyed a surge in fundraising, and a mid-August internal poll from Morse’s campaign found Neal ahead by only 5 points, 46 percent to 41 percent. Still, a late-August survey from RABA Research/Jewish Insider found Neal up 49 percent to 40 percent, and the longtime incumbent holds a huge edge in fundraising. As of Aug. 12, Neal had already spent more than four times as much as Morse ($4.3 million versus $1.0 million) and had nine times as much in the bank for the final weeks of the primary (nearly $2.8 million to nearly $297,000). Outside groups have also spent almost $1.9 million supporting Neal or attacking Morse, more than the $1.5 million boosting Morse or slamming Neal. Neal also got an unusual endorsement from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. In most states, such cross-party support might well hurt Neal, but an August survey of the Democratic primary electorate from UMass Lowell found that 89 percent (!) approved of Baker’s performance as governor.

Another wide-open race can be found in Kennedy’s old 4th Congressional District, which stretches from wealthy Boston suburbs to working-class cities along the Rhode Island border. Seven Democrats are running here, five of whom have raised more than $1 million.

Alan Khazei, the co-founder of City Year, probably entered the campaign as the best-known candidate thanks to two past U.S. Senate runs (he lost but captured a lot of grassroots energy). And he remains the race’s top fundraiser ($1.8 million). But early polls more consistently showed Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman, the daughter-in-law of former Democratic National Committee Chair Steve Grossman, with the most support. Fellow Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss, a Marine veteran endorsed by The Boston Globe, has also emerged as a front-runner: He has spent more than any candidate ($1.4 million), and a super PAC partially funded by his parents has chipped in another $532,620. But he has also had to apologize for some offensive comments he has made over the years. A super PAC affiliated with Emily’s List has also spent $652,846 to attack Auchincloss and Khazei, although the women’s group has not chosen a favorite among the four women in the race.

In addition, former Wall Street regulator Ihssane Leckey has also parlayed her personal fortune (she has loaned $1 million to her own campaign) to become a factor in the race: According to her campaign’s internal polling, she gained 8 points in the race from June to August. But now the momentum might be with former Brookline Select Board member Jesse Mermell. In August, 4th District candidates Dave Cavell and Chris Zannetos both dropped out2 and endorsed Mermell — Cavell doing so with the explicit goal of consolidating the progressive vote against Auchincloss. The most recent poll of the race, from RABA Research/Jewish Insider, showed Auchincloss and Mermell as the two leading candidates.

Rounding out the field, epidemiologist Natalia Linos significantly trails the others in fundraising but was part of a six-way virtual tie for first place in a mid-August Data for Progress poll. Only a win by attorney Ben Sigel, who is last among the remaining candidates in both polls and fundraising, would be a true upset.

The last primary we’re watching is the 8th Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch faces a progressive challenge from physician Robbie Goldstein. Lynch has long had a reputation for being a moderate, especially because of his more conservative stance on abortion rights. And with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Goldstein’s background as an infectious-disease expert could attract support, too. Understandably, Goldstein has focused on health care, backing a single-payer system and trying to contrast himself with Lynch, who actually voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. However, the reason Lynch voted against the ACA is because he said the legislation didn’t go far enough to rein in insurance companies.

So far, though, Goldstein has outraised Lynch in the past two filing periods, bringing in about $340,000 to Lynch’s $52,000 in that time. Although Lynch has a much larger war chest because of previous fundraising — he had about $1.5 million cash on hand compared with Goldstein’s $225,000 as of Aug. 12 — he may not be using that much of it. Politico reported last week that Lynch had made only very small television and digital ad buys, and Goldstein has spent more on advertising than Lynch so far this year. A poll released in early August by Goldstein’s campaign found Lynch ahead by only 7 points, 39 percent to 32 percent, so the challenger might have a shot at an upset.

Nonetheless, one of Lynch’s online ads says he “has never forgotten where he came from,” and given his background as an ironworker-turned-lawyer and Irish Catholic, if he wins handily today that might help explain why. Lynch’s profile fits the traditional culture of the area he represents, and in his nearly two decades in the House, he’s seen off every primary challenge with ease. The 8th District takes in South Boston, a historically working-class and Irish American community. Although the area has been changing in recent years, 29 percent of the district’s population still claims Irish ancestry, more than any other district in the country.

There’s certainly plenty of electoral excitement in Massachusetts today, and as we’ve discussed, some surprises could be in store. We’ll be following the ins and outs of each contest tonight on Twitter, so please follow along!


  1. As of Aug. 12, the most recent Federal Election Commission reporting date.

  2. Although their names will still appear on the ballot.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.