It’s the home stretch for the 2018 primary season. Only five states1 have yet to choose their nominees for November, and all five will hold their primaries on different days. This week, Massachusetts and Delaware head to the polls — the Bay State on Tuesday, the First State on Thursday.2 But the two dark-blue states have something in common other than the week of their primaries: Both are home to progressive challengers — mostly women of color — waging long-shot primary battles against white, male veterans of Capitol Hill.3
But if any of them is going to shock the world and become the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the Democratic socialist who upset No. 4-ranked House Democrat Joe Crowley in New York City in June — they are going to need even more things to go right.
Races to watch: 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th congressional districts
Polls close: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern
Ayanna Pressley announced her candidacy for Massachusetts’s 7th District back in January, but her campaign flew under the radar until Ocasio-Cortez tweeted an endorsement of Pressley within hours of scoring her unexpected win. The parallels did not escape the national media’s notice: Ocasio-Cortez was a young woman of color; the 44-year-old Pressley is the first African-American woman elected to the Boston City Council. Crowley was a white incumbent first elected in 1998; the 7th District is currently represented by Michael Capuano, who is white and was first elected in … 1998. And like New York’s 14th District, Massachusetts’s 7th is majority-minority, has a large millennial population and is extremely liberal (it has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean4 of D+74).
But it’s not a perfect comparison. First, Capuano is — and has been for a long time — an outspoken progressive who supports Medicare for all and impeaching President Trump. Even Pressley admits they would vote the same way in Congress. With a DW-Nominate score of -.580 (-1 is most liberal; 1 is most conservative), Capuano seems less vulnerable than Crowley (-.411) to a primary challenge from the left. Second, Pressley is no political newcomer (although according to the data, that’s actually an advantage over Ocasio-Cortez); she’s been an at-large city councilor for nine years and was a congressional aide for 16 years before that.
Third, demographics are much less favorable to Pressley than they were to Ocasio-Cortez. New York’s 14th is just 23 percent non-Hispanic white, while Massachusetts’s 7th is 42 percent non-Hispanic white — and 55 percent of actual registered voters in Massachusetts’s 7th are white. Plus, even though the primary carries the undeniable subtext of identity politics, it’s not at all clear that the results will break down along racial lines. Attorney General Maura Healey, a white progressive, has endorsed Pressley, while Capuano enjoys the support of former Gov. Deval Patrick and the Congressional Black Caucus. Civil-rights legend Rep. John Lewis even campaigned with Capuano in the heavily African-American neighborhood of Roxbury.
Perhaps the most important difference is that this primary isn’t sneaking up on anyone. Unlike in New York, there have been several polls of the race, and all of them give Capuano a healthy but not quite safe lead.
For a true shocker, you might have to look elsewhere in the state. In Western Mass’s 1st District (D+27), progressive Tahirah Amatul-Wadud is trying to become one of the first Muslim women in Congress by defeating 15-term Rep. Richard Neal in the Democratic primary. Based on spending figures, Neal is taking the challenge seriously, which could be either a good or bad sign for Amatul-Wadud. However, while Crowley vastly outspent Ocasio-Cortez even in defeat, Ocasio-Cortez raised much more than Amatul-Wadud’s meager $113,000. The district is also 74 percent non-Hispanic white, and voters may be reluctant to throw out a representative in line to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee if Democrats retake the House.
There’s also the 8th District (D+26), where the spending disparity between Rep. Stephen Lynch ($383,000) and challenger Brianna Wu ($102,000) is merely wide rather than astronomical. Wu, a video-game developer who was a high-profile victim of the Gamergate movement, has taken Lynch to task for being one of the most conservative Democrats in the Massachusetts delegation.
Probably the best bet to produce the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Massachusetts’s 3rd District (D+24). That’s despite — but, really, because of — a key difference from the New York race: It’s an open seat. Broadly speaking, the Democratic primary is a contest between two well-heeled transplants and three experienced pols with strong local networks. Former Boston City Hall staffer Dan Koh and former Ambassador to Denmark (and Netflix documentary star) Rufus Gifford both moved to the district last year (although Koh at least grew up there; Gifford appeared to be shopping for a district to run in). They’ve raised a combined $5.3 million (much of Gifford’s total was self-funded) and have been spending it furiously on ads blanketing the district. That’s left state Sen. Barbara L’Italien, state Rep. Juana Matias and Lori Trahan, the former chief of staff to longtime former Rep. Marty Meehan, to fall back on their regional bases. L’Italien represents Andover, Dracut and Lawrence, which together comprised 17 percent of the district’s Democratic votes5 in 2016; Trahan has deep roots in Lowell, which comprised 12 percent; and Matias shares Hispanic origin with 18 percent of the district’s total population.6 In a 10-way primary, a vote share that low may be enough to win. Either the 33-year-old Koh (who has Korean and Lebanese heritage) or the 31-year-old Matias would give the district a millennial, nonwhite representative, and almost all the contenders are Medicare-for-all-style progressives. A mid-August poll gave Koh a small lead among a tightly packed field, but a plurality of voters remained undecided.
Races to watch: U.S. Senate
Polls close: Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern
If these progressive disrupters are giant slayers, then there’s no giant bigger than Tom Carper. Across 42 years in office — including 10 years as Delaware’s sole congressman, eight years as governor and now closing out his 18th year in the U.S. Senate — Carper has never lost an election. Gay, black Air Force veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris, who wasn’t even born yet when Carper was first elected to statewide office, may be the one to break the streak. Harris has found plenty of ground to stake out to Carper’s left on issues like judicial nominees and the elimination of college debt. Going by DW-Nominate, Carper is the sixth-most conservative Democrat in the Senate, behind Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill and Doug Jones — five senators in deep-red states. Delaware, by contrast, has a partisan lean of D+14. The primary has become a proxy fight between the two faces of the modern Democratic Party: The campaign team that engineered Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has now moved south to help Harris, while Joe Biden has recorded a robocall for his home-state senator.
But again, Harris must clear two huge hurdles, one of which Ocasio-Cortez faced, the other she did not. The first, money: Carper has taken no chances, spending $3.3 million on his campaign through Aug. 17, while Harris has spent $69,000, the least of any of the insurgent challengers mentioned above. The second: Delaware is not Queens or the Bronx. The state is 64 percent non-Hispanic white, like Carper, and just 21 percent black, like Harris. (Although African-Americans surely represent a higher proportion of Democratic primary voters, they’re probably still short of a majority.) Ultimately, the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th will likely be the only race discussed herein where nonwhite voters cast a majority of the ballots.