Neal leading Morse 49-40 in Massachusetts 1st

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) leads his progressive challenger, Alex Morse, by nine points ahead of the heavily contested September 1 Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district, according to a new Jewish Insider poll.

The poll, based on 518 voter surveys conducted by RABA Research on August 23 and 24, puts Neal on relatively comfortable footing with 49% of the vote, placing him outside the ±4.3% margin of error. Morse pulled in 40% of the vote among those surveyed, with 12% of likely voters reporting that they were “not sure” who they would choose.

At the same time, Neal’s failure to clear the 50% threshold could be a sign of trouble for him, as incumbents polling below 50% are often considered at risk of defeat.

In recent weeks, the contentious race has gained national attention as Morse, who is gay, became embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal that nearly ended his run. But he was vindicated after the allegations put forth in a letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts appeared to have been part of a scheme to derail Morse’s campaign in coordination with the state’s Democratic Party. Neal has denied any knowledge of such plans.

The controversy seems to have given Morse a boost, said Robert Boatright, a professor in the department of political science at Clark University in Worcester. “A lot of people outside Massachusetts rallied to his side on that, so the story got him more visibility, and my guess would be it helped him more than it hurt him,” he told JI. 

“But at the same time, the district is not really favorable to him,” Boatright added, predicting that Neal’s blue-collar base would likely give him an edge next week.

Still, Boatright speculated that left-leaning enthusiasm for another candidate in Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — who is running against a younger challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), but has been backed by progressives in and outside of the district — could perhaps buoy Morse in his own race. 

According to the JI poll, Kennedy leads Markey 44% to 37% among Democratic and independent voters in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district. Nineteen percent of respondents said they were undecided.

Morse, the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor, entered the race to unseat Neal last summer, riding a progressive grassroots wave that, this election season, has swept away a number of long-serving legislators including Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and William Lacy Clay (D-MO). 

Among the many issues demonstrating the political divide in the race, Neal and Morse have divergent views on aid to Israel. Morse, who is Jewish, believes the U.S. should condition aid to Israel in order to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies towards the Palestinians. Neal opposes conditioning security assistance to Israel.

According to the poll, a plurality of voters in the district — 48% — think aid to Israel should be conditioned, while 34% want assistance to continue without conditions. Eighteen percent — including 29% of voters who identified as “very liberal” — were not sure or expressed no opinion on the matter.

Morse said he does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but opposes efforts to legislate against BDS.

Neal is backed by a number of pro-Israel groups including Pro-Israel America and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which last week poured more than $100,000 into anti-Morse advertising.

Over the past year, Morse has built a formidable campaign operation, raising more than $1.3 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. 

While the polling indicates Morse has been gaining momentum, he’ll still have to overcome the gap if he wants to pull off an upset in the district, which includes a large swath of western and central Massachusetts. 

Morse, who is backed by Justice Democrats, picked up another key endorsement on Tuesday from Courage to Change, the political action committee founded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The endorsement was not reflected in the poll because it occurred after the surveys were conducted.

Neal, who entered Congress in 1989 and serves as the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has vastly outraised his opponent, raking in nearly $3.8 million in his reelection effort. 

Neal, 71, has also benefited from considerable outside spending. In addition to the money spent by DMFI, the American Working Families super PAC poured more than $500,000 in advertising into the race in an effort to boost Neal.

Even if Neal manages to defend his seat, his falling short of 50% in the poll signals a tough political environment for established longtime members of Congress.

“If this were an isolated phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but there have been a bunch of these races,” Howard J. Gold, a professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, told JI. “This fits into a really well established and growing pattern, and the old guard, the Democratic establishment, has to be really, really, careful. They can’t rely on politics as it used to be.”

Jacob Kornbluh and Marc Rod contributed to this report.

Barry Shrage dishes on two key Massachusetts Democratic primaries

The Senate primary matchup in Massachusetts between Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has made for some curious dynamics. While progressive Democrats are throwing their support behind the 74-year-old Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal who has held elected office for nearly 50 years, the local pro-Israel community has largely rallied behind Kennedy, the 39-year-old political scion who gave up his seat in the state’s 4th congressional district to run against a member of his own party.

In a recent letter, more than 75 Jewish community leaders in Massachusetts endorsed the young congressman over Markey, though the two elected officials seem to share similar views. “At a time when some work overtime to delegitimize Israel, Joe has been unyielding in making Israel’s case to those who may be reluctant to listen to it,” read the letter, which was published earlier this month. “He has never ducked and run when it comes to support for Israel.”

Barry Shrage, a professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and the former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was one of those who signed onto the letter, and in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, he explained his reasons for backing Kennedy.

“I support him because I think that, at the end of this particular era of politics, after the next election, we’re going to be trying to figure out who’s going to lead the Democratic Party into the future,” Shrage said. “I’m 73 myself. I’m not against older people. They’re all great. We’re all great. Baby boomers are my favorite. But on the other hand, the future of the Democratic Party, as everyone knows, is not Joe Biden, it’s not [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. These are all fine people, but they’re not going to be in a position to actually lead the party. So the question is going to be, ‘Who is going to lead the party?’”

Shrage is worried that the answer to that question could be such left-wing Democrats as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a rising star who has endorsed Markey and whose political views are inhospitable to Israel. “It troubles me,” Shrage said, pointing out that Markey has also been endorsed by a local nonprofit organization, Massachusetts Peace Action, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Not that Shrage is implying Markey necessarily holds the same views of those who have backed him. “I’m not saying that’s Ed Markey. I’m not,” said Shrage, who added that Markey has a solid record when it comes to Israel. “But I’m saying that all that support from those places makes me concerned.”

“Whether Markey will feel beholden to them or not, I do not know,” Shrage added. “I assume that he will continue to be a supporter of Israel as he has been in the past. But I still worry about the future of the party and maintaining a bipartisan sense of support for Israel.”

“It’s a big deal for me as a Jewish person,” Shrage concluded.

Though Shrage publicly supports Kennedy, he declined to reveal who he would be voting for in the district Kennedy is leaving behind to run for Senate. (He has donated $350 to local legislator Becky Grossman, according to the Federal Election Commission.) The crowded Democratic primary contest includes nine candidates who are vying to represent a portion of southeastern Massachusetts in Congress. 

Shrage believes that most of the candidates would do a fine job representing the 4th district, reserving criticism for Ihssane Leckey, a young progressive who has been endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now Boston. Leckey, Shrage said, “really doesn’t understand the nature of Israel, its political systems, its strengths.”

A recent poll released by Leckey’s campaign put her in third with 11% of the vote, behind Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss at 16% and Grossman at 19%. The numbers suggest that some of the contenders could split the vote, giving Leckey the edge in a packed race.  

“There’s no way to know how the vote is going to split,” Shrage said. “The best thing we can do is to make sure that people do come out for the candidate of their choice.”

With that in mind, Shrage said he has been doing his part to educate Jewish voters in the district about their options. He has helped distribute letters to synagogues and Jewish organizations exhorting Jewish community members to participate in online forums so they can decide for themselves who they like. 

The hope, he explained, is that even if the vote splits, Leckey will fail to garner enough support to advance to the primary. 

“What I want the Jewish community to know is that this is an extremely important race that deserves their time, attention and their engagement in order to make the best possible choice and avoid a situation where a district that’s always been balanced, liberal, progressive and also pro-Israel goes in a totally different direction,” Shrage averred. “It would be, what we used to say in Yiddish, a shanda.”