Democratic rifts rattle Massachusetts primary

Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano, 66, faces his toughest primary competitor since winning his seat 20 years ago. His fellow Democrat, Rep. Richard Neal, 69, is getting an energetic challenge for the first time in years. Secretary of State Bill Galvin, another sexagenarian who’s been in elected office since the Gerald Ford presidency, lost the state Democratic Party endorsement for reelection to someone half his age.

With 34 days left to go before the Sept. 4 primary, a generational rift is rattling the dominant party in one of the nation’s bluest states, providing a revealing local look at a divide that’s also beginning to reorder national Democratic politics.

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“People are tired of this sort of ‘I have to wait my turn,’” said political consultant Scott Ferson. “I think the rules have completely changed after 2016, and I credit President Trump for the renewed activism.”

Capuano’s predicament has captured national attention, in part because of the racial dimension to the challenge from Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. There isn’t much daylight between the two progressives on the issues, but she has said “my lens is different,” a reference to her background as a woman of color, her experience with sexual trauma, and the fact she is the child and spouse of previously incarcerated individuals.

In a majority-minority congressional district, that argument is getting some traction against an incumbent who is a white male nearly a quarter-century older than the 44-year-old Pressley.

“He’s not a woman in a year where the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump are having a great effect on races” and “women are winning when they’re on the ballot. He’s a congressman in the majority-minority district in Massachusetts, and his opponent is a very, very strong minority candidate,” Ferson said. “The race may come down to, if Capuano loses, there’s not anything he could have done about it.”

Pressley has benefited from a surge of media interest following a stunning June primary upset in New York, where Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who bills herself as a democratic socialist, defeated longtime Rep. Joe Crowley under similar conditions. Immediately afterward, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Pressley.

In a sign of Pressley’s viability, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, delivered a blow to Capuano earlier this week by announcing she’s backing Pressley.

“I think the endorsement by Maura Healey is the best news she’s had in a long time,” said political consultant Mary Ann Marsh, who added that Pressley has more work to do. “It means certainly more as one of the most popular political figures in Massachusetts, bar none. … But Ayanna needs to do more than that” to close the gap with Capuano.

Unlike Crowley, Capuano has shown every indication he views his opponent as a threat to his reelection. The veteran incumbent is digging in, running television ads and raising money. He’s also piling up top endorsements, including from the state’s other big-name Democrats — former Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh among them.

“She’s up against Capuano, who is running probably the best campaign he’s ever run in his life,” Marsh said. “I’ve never seen him campaign like this. She needs to really, substantially change the dynamic in this race with some big endorsements, some big ads, some big money and some big news.”

Healey’s endorsement suggests the attorney general is reading the tea leaves on the future of the party, said MassINC pollster Steve Koczela.

“She’s looking to the eventual generational change. Whether or not that change starts now, there’s no question that in future years and future election cycles the body of Democratic elected officials is going to become younger and more diverse,” Koczela said. “I think some of what she’s doing is seeing that coming.”

The first rumblings of this shift appeared in 2014, when Seth Moulton, then 36, beat nine-term Rep. John Tierney in a Democratic primary. In a state where five of the nine members of the current congressional delegation have held office for more than a decade, Moulton’s talk about fresh ideas resonated.

“We won’t get fresh thinking and new leadership by sending someone to Washington who was first elected to office when I was 6 years old,” he said after his upset victory.

The ambitious Iraq War veteran went on to become a critic of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and trips to states like New Hampshire and Iowa have led to speculation about him as a 2020 Democratic presidential prospect.

“I think he’s kind of shown people that it’s OK to take on incumbents and have this competition in the party,” said Doug Rubin, who served as a strategist for Patrick in his 2006 and ’10 campaigns. “He’s kind of helped spur some of this in Massachusetts.”

In a state with a considerable amount of pent-up Democratic ambition, another underdog candidate is putting up a spirited fight in Western Massachusetts: Tahirah Amatul-Wadud.

The hijab-clad Springfield lawyer is another woman of color taking on a longtime white incumbent, Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, though she hasn’t generated as much heat to date as Pressley.

Still, she’s made her mark. Neal agreed this week to face Amatul-Wadud on the debate stage — the last time he debated an opponent was six years ago, because he’s so seldom challenged.

Amatul-Wadud is running to the left of Neal, who was first elected to Congress in 1988 and serves as the top Democrat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee. A newcomer who denounces PAC donations, Amatul-Wadud lines up more closely with Sen. Bernie Sanders — Neal, meanwhile, stumped for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries.

In his Democratic primary race for secretary of state against Bill Galvin, the 67-year-old incumbent who’s held the post for more than two decades, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim said the surge of new candidates in Massachusetts can be attributed to what’s going on in Washington.

“I really do think every race is different and there are different dynamics at play. We’ve seen what’s happening nationally, people feel our values in Massachusetts are under attack from this White House,” Zakim said. “We’ve got Sen. Warren, Congressman Moulton and Maura Healey — leaders in the country on the issues of the day. People want to make sure, at least in our race, there’s a partner there.”

Zakim’s fate is already being closely watched, along with the two other high-profile House primaries, in both Boston and Washington.

“I think a lot will depend on how successful these candidates are. If at the end of the day, Bill Galvin, Richie Neal and Mike Capuano win and these other candidates are not successful, it may stunt this trend,” Rubin said. “If a couple of these candidates are successful and go on to do really good things, then I think it could really kind of generate excitement and get other people to run. I think a lot of it will be determined on Sept. 4 here in Massachusetts.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article miscounted how many days until the primary.

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