The Slatest

Tuesday’s Big Democratic Primary Is Unlike the Party’s Other High-Profile Clashes

Ayanna Pressley attends an EMILY's List gala in 2015.
Ayanna Pressley attends an EMILY’s List gala in 2015.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

At least one high-profile House primary remains on the Democrats’ 2018 calendar: Tuesday’s contest in Massachusetts between Rep. Mike Capuano and Boston city Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley. This intra-party fight, though, does not mimic the same narrative we’ve seen elsewhere.

Capuano and Pressley are both proud progressives with the track records to prove it. As a result, their primary is lacking the ideological fights over policy that have animated other closely watched Democratic primaries in places such as New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Nebraska. Meanwhile, the 7th District, is so liberal that Republicans haven’t bothered to contest it this century. And so with the nomination doubling as a free ticket to Washington, there’s been none of the usual messaging fights that tend to break out ahead of competitive general elections, where one candidate talks about turning out a disaffected base and the other plots a path to the middle.

Even the outsider-versus-insider trope is an imperfect fit in this one. As a 10-term incumbent, Capuano is the one carrying the insider baggage, but Pressley is an outsider only in comparison. She served on the city council for the past eight years and previously worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer for former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II and later Sen. John Kerry. She may be looking to shake up the status quo, but she has plenty of experience working within the current system, far more than political newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Kara Eastman.

With those traditional fault lines absent, this Boston-area primary has become the most explicit test yet of a question being asked increasingly on the left in the age of Trump: What counts more to Democratic voters, political experience or lived experience?

Capuano, a 66-year-old white man, has been coasting to re-election on the former for the better part of two decades, before which he was the mayor of Somerville, a residential suburb of Boston. He’s one of the most reliably liberal members of Congress, and his progressive policy bona fides are well established. He was an early backer of sanctuary cities, a vocal opponent of both the invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act, and a supporter of single-payer health care well before Bernie Sanders and co. turned it into a litmus test on the left. Capuano’s backers—like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the state’s first black chief executive, and Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis—cite that progressive track record to argue he deserves another term.

Pressley, a 44-year-old black woman, says it’s time for a change. “We will vote the same way,” she said during a debate earlier this month, “but I will lead differently.” She was the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, and she’d be the first elected to Congress in Massachusetts if she can take down Capuano, who hasn’t faced a serious primary challenge since he was first elected in 1998. She’s 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’s better suited to represent a district, the only one in the state, where most constituents are people of color. As she has put it: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Such a pitch is not unique to Pressley. Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Pressley and is the candidate to whom she is most often compared, also used her identities—as a Latina, as a middle-class American, as a former restaurant worker—to connect with voters in her diverse district on the way to shocking Rep. Joe Crowley in New York this summer. Likewise, gubernatorial candidates such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida spoke openly about their lived experiences on the way to winning their respective nominations.

But in those races, the representation argument—in short, that those long ignored or sidelined from the political process deserve to be given a voice—was a secondary storyline, one that ran parallel to fights over policy or politics. In Queens, for instance, the major fault line was ideological, between Ocasio-Cortez’s democratic socialism and Crowley’s relatively centrist worldview. In Georgia, it was political, between Abram’s belief she could turn out the Democratic base and her opponent’s plan to focus on moderates and independents in November. In Florida, where Gillum ran as an unapologetic progressive and bested both an establishment-favored moderate and a self-funding, self-proclaimed “radical centrist,” it was both.

Claiming that Tuesday’s primary is only about identity politics would be an oversimplification, of course. Pressley and Capuano overwhelmingly agree on matters of policy, but their rare points of disagreement are illustrative. Earlier this year, for example, Capuano voted for a “Blue Lives Matter” bill to make assaulting a police officer a federal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Capuano has defended that vote by downplaying the legislation as a “statement bill,” since similar laws were already in the books in all 50 states. But Pressley counters such statements are exactly the problem. As she said at a recent debate: “We are holding up the dignity and life of police officers, and, meanwhile, we are not getting justice for the black men in this country who are being murdered every day.”

Capuano has led by double-digits in limited polling this year and enters Tuesday as the clear favorite, though the outcome remains in doubt. An added wrinkle: The primary is the day after Labor Day, when many would-be voters will be busy returning to work and getting their kids back to school. Another factor is that while the district is majority-minority, the electorate is not. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 41.5 percent of its residents are non-Hispanic white, but a local political data firm estimates about 55 percent of registered voters are white. Primary turnout in the district in the last midterms in 2014 skewed even whiter: 65 percent.

The demographic breakdown of Tuesday’s vote will be parsed by Democrats trying to gauge just how effective Pressley’s pitch worked across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. With so many of the usual policy or political variables either eliminated or muted, this primary may be the closest thing to a control group they’ll find. The results will come far too late to inform how the party thinks about what makes a good candidate for this November. What it means for 2020, though, is a different story.