U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield turned back a stern challenge from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse to capture the Democratic Primary in Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District on Tuesday. With 88% of precincts reporting, Neal held an 18 percentage point lead.
With no challenger on the ballot in November, it appears the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee is on his way to a 17th term in office.
Before the pandemic, the victorious Neal likely would have entered a large banquet room to the thunderous applause of hundreds of supporters. Instead, on Tuesday night, the clapping and cheers came from a few dozen, wearing masks, at Springfield's Union Station, who came to watch the congressman address the media.
‘He’ll probably win anyway’
This primary was also a lot different for voters, with many casting ballots by mail before the election day. But some did come to the polls on Tuesday.
Morse won some small, rural towns across the far-flung district, including Williamsburg. At the town's polling place, Amanda Emerson said she voted for the challenger.
"Well, I don't know, I think we've had enough of Richie Neal," Emerson said.
Emerson’s partner, Rick Lipschutz, also voted for Morse, but worried about criticizing Neal too much.
"I'd rather not be on his bad side since he'll probably win anyway," Lipshutz said with a laugh.
Emerson chimed in, "I think competition is good."
‘He's been responsive to his district’
But Neal racked up big wins in the bigger cities of the first district, including Pittsfield, Westfield and his hometown of Springfield. The veteran congressman earned the vote of Juan Rivera.
"I live in the North End of Springfield and he's been very responsive to us," Rivera said. "Also, he's the chairman of the House Ways and Means, and I think that he's been responsive to his district."
Neal, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1988, offered one key for his success.
"I won tonight, again, with working-class Democrats," Neal said to his supporters.
Neal also ticked off a number of priorities for his next term, from expanding the Affordable Care Act, to delivering funding for much-talked-about passenger rail service between western Massachusetts and Boston.
"We must bring this pandemic under control and pass legislation that rescues the health and prosperity of this country," Neal said. "We will put legislative action behind the powerful words of the recognition of racial and economic disparities that still confront America."
During his 10-minute speech, Neal never mentioned Morse by name, perhaps owing to a race that grew increasingly testy over the last month. But he made sure to throw one last jab.
“Let me thank the people of the 1st Congressional District again tonight, and I want to thank the people of Holyoke, Massachusetts, tonight for giving me a victory," Neal said to more applause.
The incumbent carried Holyoke, Morse's hometown, by about five percentage points.
‘A coordinated political attack’
As for Morse, his words to supporters a short time later had upbeat moments, but it wasn’t the usual concession speech. He continued to hammer Neal for his acceptance of donations from corporate political action committees.
"You would never know we have one of the most powerful members of Congress representing us," Morse said. "Time and time again, we have a member of Congress that is using his power to benefit the corporations and special interests that invest vast amounts of money in his campaign."
Morse said his campaign did pretty well financially as well, raising about $2 million from what he termed "grassroots" supporters and not from PACs. Morse's campaign said a million of that came in the last month, and attributed the increase, in part, to what it called a “failed smear campaign.”
In early August, Morse was accused by the College Democrats of Massachusetts of engaging in inappropriate behavior with college students. Shortly after, The Intercept reported the claims were brought forward by a student trying to curry favor with Neal, and involved state Democratic officials.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund has called the allegations against Morse, who is gay, a homophobic attack.
On Tuesday night, Morse said the situation made a difference in the result of the primary.
"We say a coordinated political attack that goes all the way up to Washington, D.C., Congressman Neal, the people around him, the Massachusetts Democratic Party," Morse said."
Neal has denied any involvement, and with this campaign now in the books, he’s headed back to Washington, and Morse to the mayor's office in Holyoke. And now, congressman and mayor could be in a position to have to work together — if even begrudgingly.
This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media on Sept. 2, 2020.
This segment aired on September 2, 2020.