hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2020


For Neal, a spirited challenge from the left




The November election may be shaping up as a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, but some hotly contested primary contests now under way in Massachusetts and Vermont are focusing on the message and priorities of the Democratic Party.

In primaries scheduled for Aug. 11 in Vermont and Sept. 1 in Massachusetts, voters will choose Democratic and Republican candidates for the full slate of state and federal offices on the November ballot. Mail-in voting for the primaries began June 27 in Vermont and Aug. 1 in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, one of the most closely watched races is in the 1st Congressional District, where longtime U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, faces a spirited challenge from Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke. The district covers 87 towns and cities across western Massachusetts and accounts for nearly one-quarter of the state’s land area, including all of Berkshire County.

Morse, 31, is trying to follow a trail blazed by young, progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who stunned the political world in 2018 by toppling entrenched Democratic congressmen in New York City and Boston. Since then, left-leaning insurgents have defeated several other long-serving Democratic incumbents in House primaries around the country, including in June in New York, where Jamaal Bowman ousted 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel in New York City. (Morse campaigned for Bowman in that race and has now been endorsed by him.)

In a story published in early July, Politico called the Massachusetts 1st District primary “the last, best chance for the left to take down a Democratic incumbent this year.”

Neal, 71, has maintained that his experience and seniority make him better equipped to achieve liberal Democratic legislative goals. He was first elected in 1988 and now serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax law.

Neal has easily fended off primary challengers over the years, including in 2018, when he won 71 percent of the vote against Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud. But Morse has more experience in politics than the previous challengers: He was the youngest mayor in Holyoke’s history when he first won election in 2011 and has since been re-elected three times.

According to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Neal had raised $3.3 million and spent $2.4 million on his re-election bid as of June 30, while Morse had raised $840,000 and spent nearly $525,000.

In campaign ads and messaging, Neal has focused on such issues as his support for the Social Security system and his success in steering Covid-19 relief and other funding to the district. Morse casts Neal as part of a Democratic establishment that isn’t moving forcefully enough to support universal health care, renewable energy and other progressive priorities.

Morse has lined up the support of an array of national progressive organizations, including Justice Democrats, Indivisible, and Our Revolution, a group spun off from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Neal’s endorsements include more traditional pillars of the Democratic coalition, such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The district’s population is generally older, more rural and much less diverse than the urban districts that have backed insurgents like Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman. But the 1st District is also politically liberal: Although Joe Biden carried the district in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, two candidates who ran to his left, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, together captured a larger share of the vote.

Democratic voters in the Berkshires also will help to settle a statewide intraparty fight between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, who’s challenging Markey’s bid for a second full term in the Senate. Kennedy, 39, has a family name beloved by many Democrats and has led in most public polls. But Markey, 74, has long and deep ties to party’s activist base: He served in the House for 37 years before winning his Senate seat and has been an outspoken champion of many liberal causes.

In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott is widely considered the favorite for a third term in November, which polls showing broad support for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But he still faces four challengers in the Republican primary – Douglas Cavett, John Klar, Bernard Peters and Emily Peyton -- who have criticized his handling of virus-related shutdowns and his support for new gun-control laws.

Four Democrats are competing for their party’s gubernatorial nomination: David Zuckerman, the current lieutenant governor; Rebecca Holcombe, a former state education secretary; Patrick Winburn, a Bennington lawyer; and activist Ralph Corbo.

With Zuckerman stepping down to run for governor, four Democrats are competing for the lieutenant governor’s seat: Tim Ashe, the state Senate president; Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray; state Sen. Debbie Ingram of Williston; and progressive activist Brenda Siegel.
Five Republicans are competing for the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. The best known is Scott Milne, who narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2014; the others are Dana Colson Jr., Meg Hansen, Jim Hogue and Dwayne Tucker.

Four Republicans are competing for the right to challenge the state’s lone U.S. House member, Democrat Peter Welch, who’s seeking an eighth term. The GOP contenders are Miriam Berry, Jimmy Rodriguez, Justin Tuthill and Anya Tynio.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer is facing a primary challenge from fellow Democrat Linda Joy Sullivan, a state representative from Dorset who is also seeking re-election to her House seat. There is no Republican candidate for state auditor.