Massachusetts Primary Pits pro-Israel Incumbent Against Progressive Challenger – but This One Could Have a Twist

Alex Morse is hoping to unseat Rep. Richard Neal Tuesday and emulate recent progressive triumphs over long-standing Democratic lawmakers Eliot Engel and William Lacy Clay Jr.

Alexander Griffing
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Rep. Richard Neal with Rep. Terri Sewell, left, and Rep. Stacey Plaskett, talking prior to the start of a ceremony for the late Rep. John Lewis, July 27, 2020 at the Capitol in Washington.
Rep. Richard Neal with Rep. Terri Sewell, left, and Rep. Stacey Plaskett, talking prior to the start of a ceremony for the late Rep. John Lewis, July 27, 2020 at the Capitol in Washington.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite,AP
Alexander Griffing

Update: Pro-Israel groups celebrate victory in crucial Massachusetts primary

Alex Morse was born in 1989, the same year Rep. Richard Neal became a congressman. Neal has represented Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District (and 2nd district before that) for more than three decades, and is currently chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. On Tuesday, in a primary race that has drawn national attention and includes sharp differences on Israel policy, Morse is trying to end Neal’s time in Washington.

The challenge from Morse – mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, since 2012 – comes after several progressive challengers with positions similar to his succeeded over recent months in defeating long-serving members of Congress. In New York, educator Jamaal Bowman defeated 16-term Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And in Missouri, activist Cori Bush defeated veteran Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr.

Morse, 31, is hoping to join that list while Neal, 71, is fighting to win another term representing this solidly blue district, which encompasses the western part of Massachusetts.

One of Morse’s first major backers was the political action committee Justice Democrats, which also supported Bowman and Bush. The PAC first made an impact on Democratic politics two years ago when it backed the upstart candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who challenged and defeated then-Congressman Joe Crowley.

Justice Democrats and other progressive groups see the Morse-Neal contest as another chance to replace what they consider an “establishment Democrat” with a progressive candidate who is affiliated with the party’s left wing. Polling in the district has so far shown Neal leading Morse: an internal poll distributed by the Morse campaign in mid-August showed Neal leading by 5 percentage points,with 13 percent of voters still undecided.

The race is representative of the broader tensions between centrist and left-wing Democrats, and, like many other primary races this year, also shows a clear divide between the candidates with regard to Israel.

Morse, who is Jewish, has been endorsed by IfNotNow – an organization of young American Jews that’s trying to push the Democratic Party more to the left and to adopt more critical views toward Israeli policies. The group’s political director, Emily Mayer, told Haaretz in a statement: “Alex is like us: a young progressive American Jew who wants a government that will combat the climate crisis, make health care affordable for all Americans, defund the police, and work to end the Israeli occupation.”

Neal, meanwhile, has benefited from a six-figure ad buy put in place by Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization that’s trying to strengthen support for Israel within the party. The pro-Israel PAC also spent heavily in an unsuccessful bid to salvage Engel’s campaign against Bowman. A Neal victory in Massachusetts would be a nice consolation prize for the group after several disappointing losses.

Pro-Israel America, another political action committee that supports Neal’s candidacy, raised $25,000 for the incumbent congressman. The PAC’s executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn, told Haaretz in a statement that Neal “has consistently taken policy positions that help advance our strategic relationship with Israel, including renewing aid for Israel and standing up to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

A poll commissioned this week by Jewish Insider and bipartisan polling firm RABA Research found that 56 percent of voters in the district “said a candidate’s support for Israel greatly or somewhat impacts their vote on Election Day.” 

While both candidates support a two-state solution, Morse embraces the Bernie Sanders-led proposal to condition U.S. military aid to Israel based on its treatment of the Palestinians. Morse also frames his support for Israel around his experience as a Jewish American: “I won’t let my Jewish identity be used to silence Palestinians’ cries for freedom and dignity,” he said recently. “I firmly believe that Israel will never fully live up to my Jewish values until the occupation ends and Palestinians are allowed the full freedom of self-determination.”

Neal’s positions on Israel are more reflective of the traditional Democratic Party definition of being “pro-Israel” – in favor of two states, but against any active measures meant to increase pressure on Israel. In 2017, Neal co-sponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would make it a felony offense to support an international boycott movement against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. The bill was a top priority for AIPAC and its allies in Congress. He also later co-sponsored the 2019 anti-BDS resolution that passed the House of Representatives with a large bipartisan majority.

IfNotNow’s Mayer blasted Neal’s support of the anti-BDS legislation, saying he “was one of the few members of Congress from Massachusetts to co-sponsor unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation.” She added that Morse – who doesn’t support BDS but is opposed to legal limits on boycotts – “has been clear that he will not just defend activists’ freedom of speech, but he will take real action to hold the Israeli government accountable for violating Palestinian rights, including by conditioning” aid to Israel.

While Morse has run an impressive campaign, backed by over a dozen progressive groups, his chances of pulling off an AOC-type upset seem unlikely.

Democratic Rep. Richard Neal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference in Washington, July 2020.
Democratic Rep. Richard Neal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference in Washington, July 2020.Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

According to Federal Election Commission reports filed in mid-August, Neal had raised some $3.7 million – significantly more than Morse, who has raised approximately $2 million. The incumbent had reportedly spent even more than that, having tapped into cash from previous campaigns.

What’s giving Morse and his backers some hope, however, is the uncertainty caused by another high-profile primary taking place in Massachusetts on Tuesday: the contest between incumbent Sen. Ed Markey and his challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy III. This could have a big impact on turnout. Despite Kennedy being the challenger, Markey has managed to flip the script and cast himself as the progressive warrior, while Kennedy received a precedent-breaking endorsement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

A victory for Markey, who has been endorsed by AOC, will make progressive groups happy. But an upset victory for Morse would be more of a political shock, and would further strengthen the wing of the party affiliated with Sanders and “the Squad.”

A previous version of this article included an incorrect description of Democratic Majority for Israel's involvement in Democratic primaries in Michigan and Minnesota.

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