Democratic Power Struggle Puts Heat on Older White Incumbents
Mike Capuano, 66. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Democratic Power Struggle Puts Heat on Older White Incumbents


(Bloomberg) -- He’s a white, 10-term incumbent in a majority-minority district. She’s two decades younger and wants to be the state’s first black woman elected to Congress.

The Democrats vying in a Tuesday primary for a Boston area U.S. House seat -- incumbent Mike Capuano, 66, and Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley, 44 -- highlight a choice the party has been confronting around the country: stick with more experienced and older white men or field younger, more diverse candidates.

Democratic Power Struggle Puts Heat on Older White Incumbents

The power struggle in the party was vividly illustrated in a June primary in a predominantly minority district in New York, where political novice Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, defeated Representative Joe Crowley, 56, who also has served 10 terms and is a member of the party’s House leadership team.

The outcome of races like the ones in Boston and New York, which are safe Democratic seats, will determine how effectively the party can turn out voters in November in their bid to win control of the House or Senate. Polls show Democrats hold significant advantages with registered millennials, women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and progressives say nominating candidates who more closely reflect the voters in their districts could help win elections.

Democratic Power Struggle Puts Heat on Older White Incumbents

To gain a House majority, Democrats need to gain a net 23 seats, a prospect that independent analysts say is within reach. The party will have a tougher time gaining two seats to control the Senate, where Democrats have 26 seats to defend, compared with just eight for Republicans.

There are key differences between the Democratic primary in Boston and the June primary that put Ocasio-Cortez on the November ballot -- among them, both Massachusetts candidates share similar policy positions. Ocasio-Cortez is a self-described Democratic socialist who faced a more moderate incumbent.

Face of the Party

In Boston, a Pressley upset would underscore a desire by Democrats to change the face of their party while a Capuano win would show a desire to stay the course. Voters in the district appear poised to do the latter. A WBUR radio poll released Aug. 2 found Capuano leading 48 percent to 35 percent, echoing the results of a poll in February.

The candidate who wins the primary will run unopposed in the November general election.

Efforts by Democrats to present a new face have been evident in a record number of women running for office and winning primaries, and with a growing number of the party’s candidates calling for single-payer health care. Liberals have won a handful of surprise victories, most recently Andrew Gillum’s victory in last week’s Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Another test for party voters will be on Sept. 6, when three-term Senator Tom Carper of Delaware faces Air Force veteran and organizer Kerri Evelyn Harris in a Democratic primary where she’s running on a more progressive agenda than Carper.

‘New Blood’

"Now is the time for us to think about who we’re sending to Washington and to bring new blood and fresh faces here," said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super-political action committee Priorities USA. He said he’s backing Pressley in the Boston contest. "If we can’t make those kind of changes in wave elections in safe seats, then we can never make those types of changes."

Pressley has gained the endorsements of Boston’s two major newspapers and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Capuano still has plenty of support among establishment Democrats, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

“It’s about who’s best positioned to change the world for people in that district,” said Yvette Simpson, a former Cincinnati city councilwoman working on federal elections for Democracy for America, which seeks to elect people of color and white progressives and endorsed Pressley. “We believe that the individuals who represent those individuals, whose life experiences model and mirror their experiences, are the best people to do that.”

Former Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Pressley has offered no contrast on the issues and that the district would "lose something" without Capuano’s experience.

"It diverts money and energy from what people like Pressley ought to be focusing on, which is having Democrats win the House back in November," Frank said of her campaign.

Progressive Caucus

While Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley ran similar campaigns, there were some differences in the dynamics of their races.

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory is often credited to the campaign’s efforts to engage voters with a liberal platform while Crowley wasn’t seen much in the district.

Capuano is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has taken his primary challenge from Pressley seriously. He’s used his fundraising advantage to get on TV early and campaigned aggressively. Pressley has stressed vision while Capuano has pointed to his experience. Pressley also has political experience, having served on the city council and worked in the offices of former Representative Joe Kennedy II and Senator John Kerry.

The difference between them is "more style than substance,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. "It’s more about how you go about change.”

Capuano has raised $1.7 million to Pressley’s $900,000 as of Aug. 15, and has run two TV ads touting his progressive credentials and his willingness to fight President Donald Trump.

All-White Delegation

While Capuano has focused on his experience and opposition to Trump, Pressley has focused on the perspective she would bring to the district. The district is 42 percent non-Hispanic white -- with large black, Hispanic and Asian populations -- making it the only majority-minority district in a state with an all-white congressional delegation.

During an Aug. 7 debate, Pressley criticized Capuano’s dismissal of "identity politics" in the primary, arguing for the importance of having leaders who reflect the diversity of a district. "It matters because it influences the issues that are spotlighted and emphasized," she said.

Capuano has won the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee and Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon from Georgia who campaigned with him earlier this year. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the state’s first black chief executive, also endorsed Capuano.

"At a time when Donald Trump continues to spew hateful rhetoric and policies, we need a leader like Representative Capuano in Congress," Representative Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat and chairman of the CBC’s political arm, said in a statement.

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