Richard Neal, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, fends off primary challenge

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) has fended off a high-profile primary challenge in Massachusetts.

Neal, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and represents Massachusetts’ First Congressional District, faced a tight race with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse heading into Massachusetts’ primary on Tuesday. Morse, who is gay, was backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group that recruits and supports progressive candidates to primary incumbents. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman in New York and Cori Bush in Missouri in unseating an entrenched Democratic member of Congress.

Ultimately, Neal, who was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and had much of the Democratic establishment behind him, held out.

The 71-year-old Neal has been in Congress since 1989 and has one of the most powerful positions in Congress — should he choose to use it. The Ways and Means Committee he heads is the House’s main tax-writing committee and has jurisdiction over taxes and other revenue-raising measures. The committee and, more specifically, Neal, also has the ability to try to go after President Donald Trump’s tax returns, and critics have accused the Congress member of moving too slowly. Neal’s office has said he has moved prudently in order to improve Democrats’ chances of success in the courts.

According to the Washington Post, at one debate between the pair, Morse accused Neal of prioritizing working with the Trump administration over holding them accountable. Neal insisted he was really focused on just using the best approach. “This is a case that is going to reverberate throughout American history. I am not going to screw this case up,” he said.

Neal has also been criticized for his reticence around Medicare-for-all and has been accused of being too cozy with the health care industry. In 2019, he tanked a bill seeking to clamp down on surprise medical billing that had received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Morse tried to paint Neal as a figure too entrenched in Washington politics and influenced by special interests. In an interview with Vox last year, he pointed to Neal’s support for legislation that would bar the IRS from building an online tax filing system, a bill supported by TurboTax maker Intuit and H&R Block. “There’s a narrative of Congressman Neal having so much power and influence … he’s used that power and influence for corporate influence and wealthy donors,” he said at the time.

Neal defended his record as an institutionalist who knows how to navigate the system. This year, he was one of the drafters of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill the president signed in March. “The great things that have happened in American history have come from legislation,” he said while speaking at an event in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in July, according to the Berkshire Eagle. “That’s where the power of the idea plays out.”

Neal vs. Morse garnered a lot of national attention

The primary between Neal and Morse garnered quite a bit of national attention — and also had some twists and turns.

One of the most covered moments of the race came in August, after the College Democrats of Massachusetts put out a letter alleging Morse, 31, had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” and had inappropriate contacts with students on multiple occasions in his time as a university lecturer.

Morse issued a statement denying he had ever had a nonconsensual encounter with anyone or used his position of power to try to manipulate anyone for romantic or sexual ends. He acknowledged he had consensual relationships with other men, “including students enrolled at local universities I’ve met using dating apps.” The accusations caused ripples, and progressive group the Sunrise Movement temporarily paused campaigning for Morse.

However, the allegations were later revealed by the Intercept to be part of a plot to try to manufacture and leak accusations of inappropriate behavior by Morse.

Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke in 2011 at the age of 22, becoming the city’s youngest and first openly gay mayor. He is also single, and as Jeremy Peters outlined at the New York Times, this incident is likely only the beginning or the types of attacks LGBTQ politicians will face “as more people who are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity run for office.”

“The expectation shouldn’t be that we have to be in monogamous, heteronormative relationships before we enter public life,” Morse told Peters.

Beyond the story around the Morse allegations, the contest between Neal and Morse garnered national attention for other reasons as well. It was another iteration of the establishment incumbent versus young, progressive up-and-comer story we’ve seen since Ocasio-Cortez, who backed Morse, defeated Joe Crowley in 2018.

“This is definitely a national race in lots of ways,” Massachusetts state Rep. Aaron Vega told the Daily Hampshire Gazette ahead of the election. “What does progressiveness mean and what does incumbency and power bring to the table?”

In 2020, Massachusetts’ First District chose incumbency and power that Democrats hope Neal will wield.

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