What a difference two weeks make.
Alex Morse’s primary campaign for Congress in Massachusetts was gaining serious momentum, with his progressive bonafides and policy priorities providing an undeniable contrast to the long-unchallenged, remarkably corrupt Rep. Richard Neal (MA-1). By early August, it was alarming enough to entrenched interests that Neal’s allies began playing dirty.
On August 7th, a letter from the College Democrats at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that contained vague, anonymous accusations about the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor’s dating life was published in the Daily Collegian, the student-run newspaper. To outside observers, it seemed like a potential bombshell, dropped out of the blue.
Morse and his team, though, were as ready as they could be without any sort of smoking gun to hide.
“They had been shopping a story around for a couple of months, so we had some indication that something was up,” Morse told Progressives Everywhere this week. “But there was nothing specific and we didn’t know exactly what was going on.”
Almost immediately after the initial letter was published, the truth began to emerge. Long story short, it turns out that it was a total hit job — and a sloppy one at that. Reporting shows that the allegations were manufactured by students looking to gain favor with 16-term incumbent Rep. Neal, and the state party actively helped and encouraged it.
“It was designed to be as vague as possible, but also as salacious as possible,” Morse says. “They knew exactly what they were doing three weeks before the primary election.”
Neal has denied any involvement, but reporting suggests otherwise. Facing one of the first serious challenges in his 32-year congressional career, the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and top recipient of corporate cash in Congress is pulling out all the stops. He just received another $100,000 from the right-wing group that funneled cash to Eliot Engel before he fell to Jamaal Bowman in June. That Neal helped block investigations of President Trump until they were largely facile makes him popular with big donors, though not so much with constituents.
The primary takes place on September 1st, giving Morse a week to close what is now just a five-point gap on Neal. The stakes are extremely high — Morse, the progressive young mayor who supports Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, could be the latest challenger to unseat a long-serving, centrist incumbent and strike a major blow to the party’s status quo. We reconnected this week so he could tell Progressives Everywhere members about the state of the campaign and how he plans on winning it all.
After 32 years, Richard Neal knows how Washington works. But I want to change how Washington works.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) August 25, 2020
It’s been a crazy few weeks — how are you?
We’re in a much better place today than we were a week and a half ago, when things were pretty intense. It seems like things are really turning a corner and we have a lot of momentum right now. We’re having our best fundraising period of the entire campaign. We had a poll out on Monday that had us within five points. We had a really great debate on Monday night and have another one tomorrow night [Ed note: read the recap here] and a lot of local endorsements from local elected officials keep rolling in.
I think the events of the last week and a half, the political attack has really backfired in the district and people are getting more and more inspired to come off the sidelines and get involved in the campaign.
I’ve noticed more donations coming in through my newsletter and ActBlue page.
Last Wednesday alone we raised $130,000 in one day. Our previous high day was $27,000. I think in that one day alone, something like 3900 people donated. It helps close the gap between the congressman and I, given all the corporate money that he has. There are more people paying attention now than ever before. We’re taking advantage of that attention, people are taking a closer look at the race and our differences.
Most donations have been from donors elsewhere, at least from what I’ve seen. How has it been locally?
Local media is not as in-depth or comprehensive, so it’s been a little challenging with the local media. It’s really hard to get fair coverage, but that’s been the case the entire race. The congressman has relationships with a lot of the [media] folks here. But I think voters overall see this for what it is.
There have been some big wins for progressive challengers in similar races — since we last spoke, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush both won their primary challenges and Mondaire Jones won his district in New York. Do you see a similar kind of generational energy there?
The district is different here, but our message is resonating with progressives as well as with just plain Democrats that just want a member of Congress that is actually just there to represent them and not corporate interests. A lot of younger voters don’t register as Democrats here. It’s a very progressive district, and they’ve never really had a choice for 30 years.
So what are you doing to get them activated, given the limitations produced by COVID-19, and to counter any negative message from the last few weeks?
We actually have been canvassing since early July, in a safe way. Given that the transmission rate is so low here in Massachusetts, we have volunteers with gloves and masks on, they knock on a door and back up 10 feet. And those voters that feel comfortable opening the door, do so. We haven’t had any negative feedback.
We’ve made 700,000 phone calls to voters in the district and voters. We’re text banking and we’ve gotten thousands of supporters confirmed through our texting program. We also have hundreds of volunteers that are doing 100 or 200 handwritten postcards each to voters in the district. We’re working with local city and town clerks and getting the data of people that have already requested mail-in ballots; we’re doing targeted outreach, phone calls and texts, to those people who have requested ballots and talking to them about the campaign.
What was really encouraging was that in the poll we released, with people that have already voted, we were up 61% to 39% when typically for folks that vote early or by mail, it usually leans towards the incumbent. The sample also assumed that only 7% of the voters would be young people. And so our goal is obviously to make that 7% much higher, double that or up to even 20%. it would make a huge difference in our race.
Essentially every day is Election Day right now. Early voting starts on Saturday for a week in person. We’re going to be doing a tour throughout the district, early voting events, encouraging people to vote early, going to public housing and urging people to vote early. The money raised is important right now because it helps us get out the vote, our paid media program, and have a closing TV ad.
You’ve also been a mayor of a small city in the middle of a crisis while running for office. How are things going in Holyoke?
It’s a challenge to balance both. I have a great team at City Hall. The transmission rate in the state is stable. We have a lot of long-term care facilities in Holyoke, which are leading to a higher rate in Holyoke and some of the surrounding communities. But overall, it’s under control. We decided to go remote start to the school year, at least through the first grading period. This is a challenge not just here but nationally, parents having to balance work with raising a kid at home. There’s been disinvestment in our schools for a long time and so they have ventilation issues and changes that public schools needed to make according to public health officials, it was hard to do them all.
In the first debate, Neal spoke a lot about his power and crafting the CARES Act. He mentioned the $1200 check a number of times, touting that as a fix for families.
Like I pointed out at the debate, this is a guy that was proud to say that his first call was to Bob Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, to help craft the CARES Act. He’s opposing $2,000-a-month monthly payments, he is opposed to the Paycheck Guarantee Act. He still doesn’t believe health care should be a fundamental human right. And he’s openly talking about the deficit. He just is unable to grasp the urgency of the moment here.
He thinks that his one-time payment is enough for people and all of these corporations should be bailed out. And he doesn’t talk about food insecurity and jobs and rent, issues that people are actually struggling and experiencing within the district. Because he doesn’t do town halls, it makes it almost impossible for him to actually understand what real people are going through.
Even his TV ads — he’s got an ad campaign now with a business shooting an ad for him saying “Thanks to Richie Neal, I got money from the Paycheck Protection Program.” Essentially his ads are saying, “I’m a small business owner, I couldn’t get access to the money and Richie Neal helped me.” That’s not how government should work. It should work for everybody. You shouldn’t need to know somebody in the office, you shouldn’t have to have access to your congressman to get a loan from the federal government.
He also has a country club where it costs $40-50,000 a year to be a member featured in an ad as getting money from the Paycheck Protection Program.
So as you come down the stretch, what will new donations go toward? How are you planning on closing?
It’s essentially upping our ad buy, to have more ads on TV, digital ads, and we want to do a couple more mail pieces to particular universities as well. We need to do really well in Holyoke, Springfield, and Pittsfield, some of the bigger cities in the district.
Today, for example, we rolled out the support of eight city councilors in Pittsfield, the third-largest city in the district. That was awesome because it’s eight out of 11 counselors there. They have one of the highest voter turnouts of the district and we want to do a mail piece specifically to Pittsfield voters about their city councilors and local leaders, why they’re supporting this campaign.
We started talking last night about a 60-second closing spot contesting this power argument that Neal makes, that we’d somehow lose all the power he has if he’s defeated. We’re reframing it, saying that he’s not using his power for us and showing what would it look like if I get elected, how power will be used to help people.