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Analysis: COVID Could Shift 1st Congressional Calculus…

This post is the first of two assessing how the outbreak has altered top-ticket Bay State races. 

Will COVID’s rise upend not only campaign mechanics, but their dynamics as well? (created via wikipedia images)

Last Thursday on the floor of the House of Representatives, US Representative Richard Neal was managing a pending bill. It was not the first time he managed, but it was different. A mask clung to his neck, pushed aside so he could speak into the microphone. The bill was the latest blast of aid to battle the economy-consuming outbreak of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.

Well over 300 miles away in Holyoke, Mayor Alex Morse, Neal’s challenger for the Democratic primary in 1st Massachusetts Congressional district, announced an order requiring face coverings at businesses in the city. It was only the latest such order or updates that the mayor had issued since the outbreak took center stage. As with Neal, Morse had ended in-person campaigning and began directing his time toward managing the outbreak in Holyoke.

But has the outbreak changed the race?

It is practically cliched now to say COVID-19 has massively changed campaigning. Traditional campaign activities are essentially impossible now. How the outbreak has changed individual races is peculiar to the nature of the contest, though. In some races, it effectively freezes the action and in others it can alter, if not flip the script.

Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional district includes virtually all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties, and southwestern Worcester County.

Mass Congressional Districts

Current Massachusetts’s Districts. The 1st is in brown/red. (via wikipedia)

In the race are two candidates whose day jobs put them in a position to both affirmatively act and receive press coverage for it, even incidental to simply informing their respective constituencies.

For Morse, the outbreak presents a situation that could elevate him locally. While the mayor’s congressional campaign has attracted national political attention, the broader Valley press has not covered his campaign or the application of his platform to the same extent.

Even if the press had, not much may have changed. It is far from apparent that an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-esque primary challenge can move enough of the electorate, especially in vote-rich Hampden County, least of all to boot the chair of Ways & Means.

Morse’s coronavirus response is different. Steering Holyoke’s ship now is not only what he should be doing, but it also features him in his current role. The near-decade he has been mayor has not been without its tempests. As with all elected officials, his COVID-19 response may be picked over one day, too. For now, he can stage-mange almost unencumbered. State law and emergency powers give him—often via his Board of Health—authority to order substantial changes.

The City Council, historically a font of political nemeses for Morse, cannot easily stymie these actions, if at all. Moreover, like many municipal boards, the body has heavily curtailed its activities to maintain social distancing.

Could COVID prompt voters to dial “M” for Morse after seeing a new side to him? (via Twitter/@AlexBMorse)

One such action, taken in apparent tandem with Chicopee and Springfield, closed hair salons and other person service businesses days before the state did. This undoubtedly saved lives.

In addition, Morse has played something of a whistleblower role in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home disaster. On March 29, Morse alerted the governor’s office about dangerous conditions at the facility related to COVID-19. Dozens of veterans residing there have died from the disease. While it is unclear whether suspended Superintendent Bennett Walsh’s caused the crisis or his superiors’ failure to provide did, Morse’s call clearly spurred Governor Charlie Baker to act. The mayor can wear the white hat in that ongoing tragedy.

Still, these developments, may have limited impact on the congressional race for several reasons.

Firstly, aside from the Soldiers’ Home, few of Morse’s actions have been widely disseminated outside of the social media channels he controls and local public access like Holyoke Media.

Even before COVID-19 took a bat to what advertising streams media still hold, coverage was spread thin across the multiple communities in Greater Springfield media market. The Republican  has lacked the same volume of Holyoke government coverage since its beat reporter took a buy-out. The newsroom of the paper’s online alter-ego, Masslive, has not dedicated a reporter to Holyoke either.

Some actions like the face covering requirement got attention, but Morse has cranked out many more updates than that. Some simply get lost in waves of news and the haze of everyday life going on ice. A noted exception has been The Daily Hampshire Gazette, which despite its own outbreak-related troubles, has maintained its recent commitment to covering Holyoke. Yet, the Gazette’s readership is based to Holyoke’s north, where far less of the district’s population is based.

Rep Neal in November 2018, socially distant before it was cool. That and his key role in Congress during the crisis may keep him strong him back home. (WMassP&I)

Another problem is that Morse is not the only person in the race with a direct role in the response. Neal chairs a committee key to the COVID-19 response. While neither his committee—nor others—have met to review the relief bills, he and his staff have been central to almost all of them for a simple reason: every COVID-19 bill has touched the jurisdiction of Ways & Means from healthcare to unemployment. He and other Democrats are at work on the next bill, which aim to bring relief to state and local budgets.

With the House largely out of session during the outbreak, Neal has also been back in the district, making appearances with health officials or manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE). His office also interceded when Baystate Health Systems’ own PPE shipment was nearly upended by the FBI.

Sheer incumbency brings the special advantage of already representing the people needed on primary day on September 1. Neal can and has held teleconferences with health officials in the Berkshires and in the Pioneer Valley.

While Morse has held plenty of Zoom meetings and Facebook Live events, but most that relate to his COVID-19 and actions as an elected official, while accessible to anybody, naturally, have a Holyoke focus.

However suspicious of Neal the national left is, in his district, his COVID-19 efforts could easily fortify his position among the district’s electorate.

In short, the crisis has helped Morse feature his capacity to govern without resorting to political stunts. The question is whether voters would elect Morse on that basis when Neal is also playing a prominent role from a much higher perch.

Perhaps more importantly no one knows what the landscape will look like when the primary finally arrives. Ultimately, voters could simultaneously grade Morse well and refuse to quit Neal.