BOSTON — The progressive left crowned its latest star Tuesday, as Ayanna Pressley upended Massachusetts politics and toppled 10-term Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano in a primary.
Pressley, the first woman of color to win a seat on Boston’s city council, is now set to reprise the same feat in Massachusetts’ congressional delegation — part of a wave of young, female and non-white Democrats reshaping their party in the era of President Donald Trump.
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Capuano conceded about 90 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday night, with early results showing him trailing Pressley.
“This is a fight for the soul of our party, and the future of our democracy, at a time when our country is at a crossroads, the Massachusetts 7th is at a crossroads,” Pressley told reporters after voting on Tuesday.
Pressley acknowledged there was little daylight between her and Capuano on policy, though she differentiated herself on the fate of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and by not accepting corporate PAC money. But most of all, Pressley offered voters a different style of leadership, leaning heavily on her experiences as a black woman, casting her candidacy as a vote for change in a “fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.”
“These times require bold, activist leadership. Someone that will coalition build and movement build,” Pressley told volunteers at an election night-eve rally at her campaign headquarters in Jamaica Plain.
Pressley’s profile was tailor-made for a moment that has rocketed diverse candidates through Democratic primaries, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York upset over Rep. Joe Crowley to Andrew Gillum’s electrifying underdog victory in Florida’s gubernatorial primaries last week.
A 44-year-old black woman, Pressley was seeking to unseat an older, white congressman in Massachusetts’ lone majority-minority district, a Democratic stronghold.
Pressley could not claim the same outsider status that Ocasio-Cortez did. A Boston city councilor since 2008, the former aide for then-Sen. John Kerry and Joseph P. Kennedy II, is a veritable Massachusetts political insider. Unlike Crowley, Capuano campaigned aggressively in his district, touting his experience and his own progressive credentials. Since Pressley’s campaign kickoff this winter, Capuano took the challenge seriously — returning early from a vacation to ensure his campaign was properly built and spending every weekend in the district.
As of mid-August, Capuano had spent $1.75 million on the race, more than twice Pressley’s outlays. Capuano ran two TV ads, both about his efforts to oppose Trump, while Pressley paid for one TV ad that ran on Spanish-language television in Boston.
Yet for all their differences, Pressley capitalized on Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative, turning her early-summer endorsement into a surge in donors, online traffic and broader interest in her candidacy.
“I didn’t feel [national media attention] until the New York race,” Capuano said after a door-knocking rally in the Boston section of Roslindale on Sunday, which included a cameraman from a national television news outlet. “I don’t know, but I would presume people in the media were probably disappointed that they missed that, and trying to make up for it now … My expectation is come Wednesday, there won’t be a whole lot of national attention anymore because we will have proved that the case here is there will be no surprises.”
Capuano, who was previously mayor of Somerville, had not faced a serious primary challenge since he won his seat in a 10-way primary for in 1998. He and his supporters argued that voters would win a heavier hand in Congress by reelecting him than throwing in their lot with a newcomer. Capuano would have been in the running for a House leadership position if Democrats take the majority in November, and he frequently cited top marks given to him from such national groups as the NAACP, AFL-CIO and NARAL.
Despite Pressley’s history-making potential, prominent African-American figures stood behind the incumbent. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick endorsed Capuano, as did Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon.
While state Attorney General Maura Healey endorsed Pressley, other established party figures either stayed neutral or went with Capuano. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh enthusiastically endorsed him, while Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and several other members of the congressional delegation stayed neutral.
“I’m not engaged in the primaries,” Warren told a reporter in Boston on Monday. “Not taking sides in the primaries.”
Kerry, Pressley’s former boss, said he did not engage on either side in the campaign. But in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday night, he said, “I’m excited for her … I have huge respect for what she has achieved.”