The Slatest

Another Democratic Insurgent Pulls Off a Stunner, Pointing to Where the Party Is Heading

Ayanna Pressley surrounded by balloons and cheering supporters
Ayanna Pressley gives her victory speech Tuesday night in Boston after defeating incumbent Rep. Mike Capuano.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Insurgent challenger Ayanna Pressley pulled off a stunning primary upset on Tuesday, knocking off Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District. Capuano becomes the second House Democrat to lose his nomination for re-election this year, after fellow 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley was bested by political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York earlier this summer.

Capuano conceded the race a little more than an hour after the polls closed but well before the Associated Press was ready to make a call in the race. With about half of the vote counted, Pressley led Capuano by about 8 points, 54 percent to 46 percent.

“Obviously, this is not the side we wanted to be on,” Capuano told supporters. “Clearly, the district wanted a lot of change … apparently the district is just very upset with lots of things that are going on. I don’t blame them. I’m just as upset as they are, but so be it. This is the way life goes.” He then added: “Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I can tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”

Pressley has been seen as a rising star within her party since she became the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council in 2009, but she entered this race a long shot against Capuano, who hadn’t faced a competitive primary challenge since he was elected in 1998. The 7th is the most liberal district in the state, and Republicans haven’t bothered to contest it this century, so Pressley is now all but assured of becoming the first black woman elected to Congress in Massachusetts.

As I explained in the lead-up to the primary, this high-profile matchup stood out for both what was unusual and what was familiar. Both Capuano and Pressley are proud progressives, and there was never much daylight between the two on policy. And without a GOP opponent looming on the other side of the primary, the question of how best to win a general election was moot. With those usual fault lines absent, the contest became the most isolated test this year of a question being asked increasingly on the left in the age of Trump: What counts more to Democrats, political experience or lived experience?

In this Boston-area district, Democrats went with the 44-year-old Pressley, who put a premium on her personal experience—not only as a person of color, but also as a woman, as a survivor of sexual assault, and as a daughter of a single mother and of a father who battled drug addiction and spent time in prison—to argue she was better suited to represent the only district in the state where most constituents are people of color. “Representation does matter,” Pressley told the Washington Post during the final days of the primary. “Many would just say: Your job is the vote. I’m saying that your vote is just one part of the job.”

Making Pressley’s victory all the more stunning was that Capuano was taking her challenge seriously well before Ocasio-Cortez shocked Crowley, who seemed to think he could coast to another term on name recognition and seniority alone. Capuano also had the support of the Democratic establishment, including civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis and the Congressional Black Caucus, and he raised about twice the campaign cash that Pressley did. Yes, a handful of establishment-backed candidates have lost nominations this year, but Crowley had been the only sitting House Democrat on that list before Tuesday night. Vulnerable incumbents simply survive far more often than they fall—just ask seven-term Rep. Dan Lipinski, the Blue Dog Democrat who won his March primary despite a prolonged pile-on from the left and center of his party.

After Ocasio-Cortez’s became an overnight folk hero on the left in June, many politicos and political journalists pointed to Pressley as someone who could make lightning strike twice. But while Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley both relied on their identities, plural, to connect with voters, the political and policy differences between the democratic socialist Ocasio-Cortez and the establishment Crowley were far more obvious that those between Pressley and Capuano, who is one of the most reliably liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Pressley’s performance is the latest evidence that the left has a growing desire to see people in power who know firsthand what it is like to live in this country as someone other than a white man. That’s a sentiment that will get less attention after everyone catches their breath from this one, since primary season is just about over. But it’s a theme we’re now sure to see resurface after the midterms, once Democrats shift their attention to who, exactly, is the best candidate to challenge Donald Trump in 2020.

This post has been updated to include video of Pressley learning she won the Democratic nomination.