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Analysis: A Congressional Race Shaken, but Has It Stirred?…

Seriously. Where the hell are we? (via YouTube/NEPM)

When Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse launched his bid for Congress, he had high ambitions for fundraising: $3 million. For months that effort fell flat. Challenging an incumbent with seniority—and popularity—like Richard Neal did not open a lot of big wallets. The only option was to nationalize the race and pry cash, especially small donations, from across the country. For the most part he could not. That is, until the race took a weird turn.

Anybody who claims to know what happened these last several weeks with complete certainty is either a partisan or a fool. What is clear is College Democrats of Massachusetts and two chapters sent a letter banning Morse from their events claiming some members felt uncomfortable with him. The letter’s artless language and the questionability of one known claim led to counterclaims of homophobia and conspiracy. Whether these events will change the result of the election or not, they have undoubtedly shaken the race.

Three weeks out from the primary, the timing of the letter, reasonably, elevated eyebrows. What followed only clouded the COVID-induced opacity of the race further. Morse has released polling showing him within several points of Neal, but political watchers take internals with at least a shaker-full of salt. There are no public events to judge strength.

The situation with the College Dems zigzags between the intriguing and the banal. For those new to the College Democrats, the group has had troubles well before they wandered into the Intercept’s crosshairs. Former members have described a tug-of-war between its east and west chapters hampering its function. In 2019, the group almost forgot to invite the state rep for the school where the College Dems were holding their convention.

Enter the group’s letter condemning Morse for having relationships with students. Ostensibly this includes students from UMass-Amherst where he had taught a class, though not explicitly students from his class. Morse, who is openly gay, has not denied this objective claim, except to assure none of his students were involved. This is the subject of UMass’s investigation.

UMass-Amherst only prohibits relationships between professors and their actual students, but it strongly discourages faculty-student liaisons generally. Whether a hard blanket ban should exist is the subject of debate.

A College Dems event last October. (WMP&I)

Other parts of the letter are, at least, compromised. The Intercept obtained messages that appear to question the genesis of claims that Morse contacted attendees of College Dems events in an overly solicitous manner via social media. After seeing such Morse missives, one UMass Dem began blabbing that these would end his campaign. This same member was a big fan of Neal and hoped to work for him. Fat chance that happens now.

College Dems have insisted their concerns transcend this compromised assertion and anybody connected to it. Nonetheless, the state College Dems president apologized for how the letter may have played into homophobic stereotypes. Morse, in turn, reiterated his earlier contrition for making anybody uncomfortable and promised to be more mindful of power dynamics.

In public, Morse insisted the letter and subsequent reaction sprung from homophobia or Victorian views about sexuality, namely his. New allegations that the state Democratic Party played a hand in the letter—state Democrats referred College Dems to the party’s lawyer—have fanned the flames further. The full extent of any alleged conspiracy is hard to judge as the reports of proof quote no evidence directly.

State Democrats are investigating College Democrats’ actions and any role the state party itself played.

While Morse would probably have preferred the money spigot opened without microscopes aimed at his personal life, amid all the attention, it has indeed opened. Morse claimed to have raised nearly half a million dollars between July 1 and the close of the pre-primary period on August 12. Half of that came after the letter’s publication in The Daily Collegian.

Rolling in it at last. (WMP&I)

The pending pre-primary filing will have more details. Other records show Morse has raised at least another $25,000 from national high-dollar donors  since the reporting period closed last week. He seems certain to at least reach $1.5 million by primary day on September 1.

With this money coming so close to the primary and early and mail-in voting underway (or will be soon), the full impact is hard to gauge. North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp famously saw a deluge of cash after opposing the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She still lost.

To a certain extent, Morse’s recent actions suggests he knows that money can only do so much. His desire to bury the hatchet with College Dems—to whatever extent—has a tactical reality. It helped settle the nerves of endorsers, especially those with younger membership, some of whom recoiled at Morse’s earlier response to the letter.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-based climate advocacy group, resumed its support although its Western Mass chapter has yet to reinstate its endorsement. That local Sunrise chapter was providing boots on the ground and its full return could be critical.

But will any of these events actually change the race?

One of Morse’s biggest problems, compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, is that he is known in much of the district. After nearly a decade in office, Morse is a fixture Pioneer Valley television and with that comes familiarity with his contested record. Moreover, this time his opponent is not a next-in-line single-term mayor, a random nudnik, a ruthless health care mogul or a one-term ex-councilor.

Morse’s base in this election is the further-flung parts of the district nostalgic for John Oliver-style ubiquity. The former congressman could be everywhere, in part, because his massive district had no center of gravity. In 2012, Olver’s district was split up. Berkshire County and Western Franklin & Hampshire counties joined up with Greater Springfield. That metro area’s much larger population anchors the current 1st Congressional district.

The old 1st District. (via wikipedia)

Although Neal is less reviled in the Berkshires compared to the upper Valley, Morse could easily make headway there. However, Hampden County has consistently been harder to crack for him. Some chin-scratchers doubt he will carry Holyoke. The only way to win may be to swamp Neal’s expected Springfield-Chicopee vote bonanza with higher turnout everywhere.

Mass Congressional Districts

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

Still, there is no guarantee higher turnout automatically benefits Morse. The 2018 primary saw above average turnout, too—if lower than what 2020 could be. Neal still dominated. Plus, the trend toward higher turnout began well before the events of the last two weeks.  The US Senate race, wider mail-in voting and a general urge to participate—to ultimately defeat Donald Trump—made it inevitable.

What could happen is Springfield suburbs turn against Neal if voters adopt Morse’s assertions that homophobia and party conspiracies are afoot. For his part, Neal has vehemently denied any part of these events or connection to the parties involved. He and his campaign condemned any encroachment of homophobia into the race.

Like the surge in turnout benefiting Morse, any such shift in voters could be impossible to see until the polls close.

The behavior of other actors offers little illumination. Some have commented that the stepped up spending from political action committees favoring Neal suggests Morse’s polling is correct. Perhaps, but the arms race was underway well before now. One pro-Neal group, American Working Families promised to match pro-Morse PACs’ pending. Is their continued investment a sign of fear or are they just keeping up with the Justice Dem Jones’s et al?

If Neal is worried, he is not being unusually obvious either. The congressman has fired up his campaign operation against virtually every opponent he faced over the last decade. He has done this whether it was Republican Tom Wesley trying to ride the Tea Party wave or Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a fellow Springfield resident who had the profile of successful challengers elsewhere. Obviously, Neal spent less in raw dollars in those races, but his opponents had less money as did outside groups.

In the end, the race is probably not much different today—aside from the cash in Morse’s kitty—than it was before the letter dropped. The sides have hardened for sure and there is trepidation about falling shoes of whatever quality, but are voters moving?

At the risk of echoing one of history’s villains, turnout could still surprise, but that has long been a known unknown. A shift among voters themselves could be the unknown unknown of this race.