Another major upset of a Democratic congressman took place in Massachusetts on Tuesday night. And it wasn't even close.
Ayanna Pressley, the 44-year-old Boston City Councilor, triumphed over 20-year incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) by a double-digit margin. It was the primary season’s second stunning ousting of a long-term lawmaker by a female progressive challenger and another indicator that the liberal base is hungering for something new in their representation.
Massachusetts’ 7th District, the only majority-minority district in the liberal state, once sent President John F. Kennedy to Congress and was viewed prior to Tuesday’s contest as the kind of area that was ripe for a shakeup. Coupled with Pressley’s compelling candidacy, a late primary the day after Labor Day, and district lines that were redrawn in 2011, Capuano was clearly vulnerable.
Just over an hour after polls closed at 8, there was chatter among those at Capuano’s victory party that the congressman was preparing to concede. Minutes later he did so, long before the race had been officially called.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but this is life, and this is OK,” Capuano said around 9:15. “America’s going to be OK. Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”
Pressley, and at least one aide, erupted into tears upon learning that she had pulled off the upset.
Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the city council, who often shared stories of her difficult upbringing on the trail, became the perfect avatar for change in the district, which includes most of Boston and parts of Cambridge and Somerville.
Her campaign was defined in part by a slogan that appeared on the walls of the operation’s headquarters: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policy making.”
While Pressley and Capuano did not disagree on much substantive policy—the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts is one of the House’s most staunch progressives—she characterized herself as someone who would be more of an activist leader, extending her work on behalf of the district beyond just supporting liberal legislation.
“There’s the vote on the floor of Congress, but then there’s the work and the impact here,” Pressley told The Daily Beast in July.
Where they did disagree, however, was on funding President Donald Trump’s long-promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Capuano said he could support if it was tucked into a broader immigration reform package. Pressley claimed she wouldn’t compromise on the issue. She also challenged Capuano on his vote for a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill which would impose harsher penalties for crimes against members of law enforcement. Additionally, in a recent debate, Capuano said that he supported the message of NFL players who have chosen to kneel in protest against police brutality but questioned the tactics. Pressley has said that she supports both the action and the message.
Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated entrenched incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District in June, Pressley advocated for Medicare for All and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs and Enforcement Agency and refused any corporate PAC money. But unlike Ocasio-Cortez, whose rise from bartender to Democratic nominee and near-certain member of Congress was swift, Pressley had been viewed as a future political star in Massachusetts for quite some time. And while Crowley was viewed as absent and not sufficiently progressive enough for the district's changing demographics, there was little policy daylight between Pressley and Capuano.
Originally from Chicago, Pressley worked for former Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-MA) and former Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) before being elected to the City Council in 2009. In 2015, she was awarded the Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award from EMILY's List, a group that is devoted to electing progressive women to Congress. The group stayed neutral in this year's race, as they don't endorse against pro-choice Democrats.
While Capuano had the backing of Democratic superstars like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and local heavyweights like former Governor Deval Patrick, notably neither of the state’s U.S. senators weighed in on the contest.
Pressley, who is now likely to be the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the state, earned the support of Maura Healey, the state’s Attorney General, the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, the insurgent group behind Ocasio-Cortez’s successful bid.
The major newspapers in Boston, the Globe and Herald, also endorsed her in editorials.
“Voters might be hesitant to move on from Capuano after his years of experience and the seniority he has accumulated in Congress,” the Globe editorial read. “But Pressley is a proven advocate with an understanding of the needs of the district, and she would be a fresh voice in Congress. Pressley represents the present of the Seventh District and the future of the Democratic Party. She will serve the district well in Congress.”
In two other districts in the state, challengers to male incumbents fell short. Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) easily dispatched attorney and activist Tahirah Amatul-Wadud in Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District. And Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) beat back a challenge from video game developer Brianna Wu, who came to prominence during Gamergate. An extremely crowded primary with 10 Democrats vying to fill the safe seat in Massachusetts’ 3rd District, where Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) retired, was undecided as of 11:10 P.M.
Speaking at her own victory event on Tuesday night, Pressley praised Capuano and thanked him for his 20 years of service. With no Republican opposition on the ballot in November in the deeply blue district, Pressley had her eyes trained on Washington D.C.
“It’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power, but it matters who those Democrats are,” she said, summing up her own bid.
“Are you ready to come to Congress with me?”
The crowd roared.