On the march toward full equality for the LGBTQ community, the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg was a landmark moment. The openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana’s connection with Democratic primary voters brought him a win in the Iowa caucuses, a second-place finish in New Hampshire, and enough cache that his surprise departure and endorsement of Joe Biden helped put the primary to bed.
But to make that connection, Buttigieg made compromises with heteronormativity that left some advocates of equality uncomfortable. His just-like-you stump speech was replete with references to Bible verses, his father-in-law’s hunting blind, and his monogamous marriage. He famously canceled an event at a gay bar when he learned it had a dancer’s pole. For the Buttigieg campaign, being gay was more about the essence than the being, more about identity than sexuality — and certainly not about sex.
For most of the campaign for Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District, the race between incumbent Richie Neal and challenger Alex Morse played out along similar lines. The Holyoke mayor was proud of his identity as the first openly gay man to govern the postindustrial town, but the race was more of a referendum on Neal and his approach to politics. With his voracious appetite for fundraising — he’s the No. 1 collector of corporate PAC money among House Democrats — Neal summits the Ways and Means panel, grabbing the most powerful committee gavel in the House.
But accusations about Morse’s lifestyle, which was not quite as heteronormative as Buttigieg’s, distracted from Morse’s challenge to the corporate Democrat and eventually sunk his campaign. On Wednesday morning, with most townships counted, Neal led Morse by 18 points — 59 percent to 41 percent. The president of LGBTQ Victory Fund, a PAC supporting LGBTQ candidates, released a statement shortly after the race was called for Neal on Tuesday night: “The efforts to sensationalize and weaponize Alex’s sexual orientation certainly influenced the outcome of this race, but the backlash it engendered should give pause to those considering similar tactics in the future.”
At first, thanks in part to a $300,000 ad campaign run by the group Fight Corporate Monopolies, which hammered Neal for corruption, the race turned on the question of whether Neal was using that power for the benefit of the district, or leaving the struggling district behind in favor of the multinational corporations that funded him. “I’ve delivered,” Neal said repeatedly, referencing projects, tax breaks, and other government help he’d sent home. “After 32 years, Richard Neal knows how Washington works,” went Morse’s rebuttal. “But I want to change how Washington works.”
Tossing out Neal, Morse argued, would not diminish the district’s power, but increase it, as he would use his people-powered campaign to push for a bold agenda that would reshape both the country and the district. Where Neal had used his power to protect the ability of private equity barons to profit from surprise medical billing, Morse, rejecting corporate PAC money, said he would push for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Along the way, progressive groups hoped to prove that their message could resonate outside major metropolitan areas and take on a skilled, well-funded politician who was paying attention to the challenge.
Major damage had been done, as the race turned into a conversation not about corruption, but about gay sex.
They never got the chance. On August 7, three weeks before the election, a week before the first debate, and just ahead of early voting, all hell broke loose. The College Democrats of University of Massachusetts Amherst sent Morse a letter, which was quickly leaked and published by the college paper, disinviting him from future events, alleging that he had made students uncomfortable by making advances on them, along with other vague accusations.
On August 12, The Intercept began publishing the first of four exposés that reported, in order: One of the students who orchestrated the scheme was motivated by a desire to launch his political career through Neal; that the students had sought to entrap Morse and, having failed, went ahead anyway with vague allegations; that the state party had offered legal advice and media training in preparation for the letter being leaked; and finally, that the state party, once the scheme was exposed, publicly ordered an investigation into the students’ conduct while at the same time privately urging the students to delete messages that showed collusion with the state party.
The New York Times called the reporting “a cascade of head-spinning revelations,” but in the district, voters who relied on the local news were still treated with he-said, he-said coverage that made room for Morse’s denial but gave little oxygen to the reality that it had been an orchestrated smear. Major damage had been done, as the race turned into a conversation not about corruption, but about gay sex. Morse’s internal polling showed that even when told that the smear had been trumped up and orchestrated by allies of Neal, the scandal still made 1 in 5 voters more likely to support Neal. The week of unmitigated bad press had driven up the number of voters who had a negative opinion of him, and without the local media covering the second phase of the story — and with early voting locking in tens of thousands of votes — Morse was in a deep hole.
Neal’s backers never backed off the smear, even after it was exposed as a plot, and made sure the conversation remained about Morse and his sex life, fueled by TV ads and robocalls. A Super PAC backing Neal spent roughly $1 million on attack ads, including one that hit him for having sex with college students. The PAC apologized for the ad, claiming that it had been sent to stations by mistake, but in one of the more brazenly cynical exploitations of bigotry in recent Democratic primary, the group continued airing the “accidental” ad right through Election Day.
In 2018, Neal had faced Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who had raised barely any money, finishing with 29 percent of the vote to Neal’s 71. In February 2019, Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas met with Morse, after being tipped off by local resident Sara Seinberg. The group contemplated what it would mean to take on the chair of the Ways and Means Committee. Knocking off Rep. Joe Crowley, who was in line to be speaker of the House, had been no small feat. And their more recent conquests — Reps. Eliot Engel and Lacy Clay — were the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, respectively. But neither incumbent compared to Neal, and Morse’s district did not include the number of urban voters that had enabled them to knock off Crowley, Engel, and Clay. In western Massachusetts, the group would have to win largely among the type of white working-class voters that had previously stymied its growth. And Neal was a canny politician, taking nothing for granted, and would have endless money.
If a Justice Democrat could win in western Massachusetts, it would mean that no incumbent was safe.
But the upsides were obvious: For one, if a Justice Democrat could win in western Massachusetts, it would mean that no incumbent was safe. And the implications for people’s lives would be immediate. Neal’s jurisdiction gives him a hand in nearly every piece of legislation moving through the House, and he always used it to provide a helping hand to corporate interests. A more progressive chair of the panel — perhaps Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, the No. 2 in line — would mean that every major piece of legislation moving through Congress in 2021, potentially headed for the desk of Joe Biden, would be more progressive.
So they went for it. In July, Morse announced his candidacy, and Justice Democrats endorsed him in August. A year later, a Morse internal poll had Neal hovering at 45 percent, well into the danger zone for an incumbent, especially one like Neal who was getting battered for corruption and failing to stand up to President Donald Trump.
Most of the organizations backing Morse — with the exception of Fight Corporate Monopolies — took steps of varying distances away from him as the fallout from the College Dems letter threatened to end not just his campaign, but his career in public life. In the wake of The Intercept’s reporting, those groups redoubled their support, including Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party, Indivisible, and others. By the end, activists with the Sunrise Movement, in coordination with the campaign, had made more than 350,000 phone calls and mailed more than 7,000 postcards. Justice Democrats had also mobilized its supporters, spent $600,000 in outside money, and helped raise $140,000 in small contributions for Morse.
In 2018, despite winning by a landslide, Neal collected just 49,696 votes. As of Wednesday, with ballots still to be counted, Morse had already notched more than 56,000 votes and Neal more than 81,000. Overall turnout, driven by the competitive Senate race and the ease of mail-in voting, nearly doubled. While turnout was up, it wasn’t the kind Morse needed. The more the electorate expands to voters paying less attention to politics, the harder it becomes to unseat an incumbent with the kind of name recognition and popularity Neal has in the area. Ocasio-Cortez, whose PAC endorsed Morse, knocked off Crowley in 2018 with fewer than 16,000 votes.
In his mayoral runs, Morse relied heavily on strong support from the Puerto Rican community in Holyoke, enough to override opposition from the Irish Catholic sections of the town, who tend to favor the establishment he took on. In the primary on Tuesday, Morse lost his own town. “Paper City is very racially divided and Morse is despised by the Irish old guard. They came out in droves for Neal while the Latino vote must have stayed home,” said Matt Barron, a former consultant to Amatul-Wadud.
Progressive Sen. Ed Markey, meanwhile, who faced a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, carried Holyoke. Baron described the complex political alliances of Massachusetts that resulted in Markey, the Sunrise Movement-backed Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal, failing to endorse against Neal, the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that doesn’t support it.
“Obviously [Markey] wasn’t going to cross the most powerful representative in Congress out there. They also go way back. They work on cross-state transportation initiatives, and of course they have both been congressmen from Massachusetts for decades, so that allegiance is hard to break up,” he said.
Morse’s campaign raised more than $2 million, a massive sum for an insurgent candidate, but it paled against the haul of Neal, who spent $4.3 million of his own campaign funds, buttressed by another $1 million-plus in Super PAC spending from the outside. “This election was really about the future of the Democratic Party, the future of this region, and what kind of party and country we want to be,” said Morse on election night. “And too often as Democrats, we point fingers at Republicans and think that they’re the only party guilty of being bought and paid for by corporations.”
“At the end of the day, they did what they needed to do to hold on, not something they should be proud of,” Morse told The Intercept. “I’m glad we fought back.”
Correction: September 2, 2020, 3:43 p.m.
This article originally misspelled Matt Barron’s name.