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Why Ayanna Pressley’s Upset Win In Massachusetts Isn’t Really Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s

When Michael Capuano became mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts (my hometown), in 1990, the post-industrial streetcar suburb a few miles north of Boston was still known by the nickname “Slummerville.” Over the next nine years, and then for 20 more from the U.S. House of Representatives, Capuano helped transform Somerville into a hipster haven — one of the most desirable places in Massachusetts for young professionals to live — by rezoning, expanding public transportation and investing in education. Ironically, on Tuesday, the new, progressive voter base that has flooded Somerville as a result played a key role in denying Capuano an 11th term in Congress.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s 59-41 percent victory over Capuano in the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District will surely get the easy comparisons to Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District back in June. And there are some parallels. Both were liberal women of color running against older, white, male incumbents in majority-minority districts. But as I wrote in my preview of the race, Capuano-Pressley had many important nuances that are worth keeping in mind:

  • It didn’t come out of nowhere. Everyone knew this would be a competitive race. The district was publicly polled at least three times (i.e., pollsters thought it worth surveying). Capuano spent more than $1.7 million on his defense, spurred in part by the knowledge that Pressley was deploying $767,000 of her own. Both sides aired television ads. An “upset” it may have been, but it should not have “stunned” anyone who was paying attention.
  • It wasn’t progressive vs. moderate. Pressley herself said that there was little daylight between her and Capuano on the issues. Capuano has a -.580 DW-Nominate score,1 making him the most liberal Democrat in the Massachusetts delegation and well to the left of Crowley. Meanwhile, more moderate Democrats like Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts’s 1st District and Rep. Stephen Lynch in the 8th District won their primaries by 40 and 47 percentage points, respectively. Ideology doesn’t explain Capuano’s loss.
  • It wasn’t insider vs. outsider. Pressley has been an at-large city councilor in Boston for nine years. Before that, she worked for 16 years as a congressional aide to the most establishment Democrats imaginable, Joe Kennedy II and John Kerry. She won a rising star award from Emily’s List in 2015. She was no political newbie like Ocasio-Cortez and in fact was a well-credentialed political insider.
  • It (probably) wasn’t just white vs. nonwhite. Because of the 7th District’s dark-blue hue, Pressley is extremely likely to become the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in Congress. People will be quick to connect that to the fact that non-Hispanic whites are a minority (42 percent) of the 7th District’s total population. However, non-Hispanic whites make up 55 percent of registered voters in the district, so it probably wasn’t just that nonwhites voted for Pressley and whites voted for Capuano. (This was also probably true of Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley, by the way.) This is apparent from the town-by-town results: Chelsea, which is just 23 percent non-Hispanic white, voted 54-46 for Capuano, while the aforementioned Somerville — 70 percent non-Hispanic white, 58 percent under the age of 35 — voted for Capuano just 50.4-49.6. We’ll have to wait for precinct-level results to know for sure, but it looks like Pressley cinched her victory by winning young, college-educated white voters.

So if none of these things explain the change on the Charles, what does?

Maybe voters agreed with Pressley’s argument that Congress needs politicians with different “lived experiences” — in her case, surviving sexual assault or being raised by a single mother. Maybe identity politics did play a role, just in an unexpected way. Maybe it was “woke” white voters who preferred to see an African-American represent a majority-minority district and voted accordingly. Maybe voters agreed with the assertion that top House Democrats should yield to the next generation of leaders and, unable to vote Nancy Pelosi out of office directly, opted for Pressley (age 44) over Capuano (66). Maybe Pressley’s gender was actually the No. 1 factor; there is clear evidence that women have outperformed men in Democratic primaries this year.

Personally, I think the simplest explanation is the best one: Voters just wanted new blood. Even in the absence of an ideological, qualificational or racial divide, “incumbent” vs. “non-incumbent” alone may be all the contrast you need. That’s backed up by the fact that Capuano wasn’t the only incumbent toppled on Tuesday — far from it. Two members of the Democratic leadership in the Massachusetts state House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez and Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, also lost their primaries. They were, respectively, the highest-ranking Latino and black lawmakers in the legislature, suggesting it was the “highest-ranking” part and not the race part that led to their and Capuano’s defeats. What’s more, both Sánchez’s and Rushing’s districts overlap with the 7th Congressional District, so it was the same voters who engineered all three upsets.2 That said, the anti-incumbent wave was confined to that corner of the state. Neal and Lynch won their primaries, as did Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin over a voguish liberal challenger, 68-32. So there was clearly an energy around the 7th District that did not exist elsewhere — perhaps created by Pressley, perhaps merely harnessed.

Or maybe not. It will be hard to ever know for sure what happened in Massachusetts’s 7th District on Tuesday. There were probably many reasons for Pressley’s win. With so many primaries all over the country, you could connect the dots in just about any way you want.

At the least, I recommend fighting the urge to oversimplify it into a “progressive vs. establishment” proxy war. If any primary demonstrates the shortcomings of that frame, it’s this one.

FiveThirtyEight House forecast update for Sept 5, 2018

CORRECTION (Sept. 5, 2018, 9:48 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Capuano’s tenure as Somerville mayor. He served in that office for nine years, not eight.


  1. DW-Nominate pinpoints politicians on the traditional left-to-right spectrum, assigning them grades from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal) based on their congressional voting records.

  2. Sánchez represents Mission Hill, while Rushing represents the Back Bay, Fenway, Roxbury and the South End; all are neighborhoods of Boston. Pressley won the Boston portion of the 7th District 64 percent to 36 percent.

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