In a major upset, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated ten-term Congressman Michael Capuano in a Massachusetts House primary on Tuesday night. With no Republican running in the general election, Pressley is expected to become the first black woman to represent the state in Congress.
Capuano is the second veteran Democrat to lose a primary battle in 2018, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated New York congressman Joe Crowley in June. Pressley challenged Capuano from the left, and the race attracted national attention from journalists seeking out the next potential Ocasio-Cortez — particularly after the Queens politician endorsed Pressley hours after her own upset victory. The two women shared campaign staff and appeared together at a campaign fundraiser.
However, there were significant differences between the two races. While in both primaries a woman of color defeated an older white man who had been in Congress for decades, the Massachusetts race does not fit the narrative of progressive-political-newcomer-versus-Establishment-Democrat. As FiveThirtyEight notes, Capuano is a longtime progressive who backs Medicare for All, voted against the Iraq War, and refused to attend President Trump’s inauguration. Pressley does not identify as a Democratic Socialist, and she was a congressional aide for 16 years, first to Representative Joe P. Kennedy II and then to Senator John Kerry, before becoming the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council.
Capuano and Pressley agreed that it’s likely they would vote the same way on most issues, but she argued that she was better positioned to represent the Seventh Congressional District — the only one in the state in which minorities make up a majority of the population — on matters that go beyond voting.
“Representation does matter,” Pressley said in an interview last week. “Many would just say: Your job is the vote. I’m saying that your vote is just one part of the job.”
While Capuano had not faced a serious primary or general election challenge since 1998, when he won a 10-way race with 23 percent of the vote, he took the challenge from Pressley seriously (unlike Representative Crowley vis-à-vis Ocasio-Cortez). He built up a robust campaign operation, pointing to his history of fighting for progressive causes, and arguing that a freshman wouldn’t be able to deliver as much for the district.
“All politics is built on relationships, and Congress is no different,” he said in a recent interview.
But Pressley was able to stake out a more progressive stance on a few key issues, calling for restoring voting rights to prisoners and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Capuano voted against the creation of ICE in 2002, but said the best way to reform immigration now is to get President Trump out of office). Pressley also scored points against Capuano when he said the Democratic Party was being “balkanized” by racial identity.
Capuano conceded 80 minutes after the polls closed, before the AP had even called the race. Pressley received 59 percent of the vote to Capuano’s 41 percent, with 99 percent reporting.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but this is life, and this is okay. America’s going to be okay,” Capuano said. “Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”
Pressley’s friend Jesse Mermell posted video of Pressley’s shocked reaction when she learned that she had won.
While addressing her supporters on Tuesday night, Pressley called out Trump and said her victory is part of a larger change taking place in the Democratic Party.
“You saw what I saw: that these times demanded more from our leaders and our party,” Pressley said. “It’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power. It matters who those Democrats are.”
This post was updated throughout.