Gay candidate Alex Morse has lost the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s First Congressional District to incumbent Richard Neal, and some of Morse’s supporters are blaming allegations that painted Morse’s sexuality in a negative light.
The Associated Press called the race for Neal at 9:42 p.m. Eastern. Neal, who has represented the district in the U.S. House since 1989 and is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, received about 60 percent of the vote, Morse 40 percent. There is no Republican running, so Neal is assured of election in November.
Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, had positioned himself as a progressive alternative to Neal, saying Neal had ignored the district’s needs and was beholden to his corporate contributors. Morse received support from several progressive groups, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, and of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which seeks to elect out candidates. Neal, who has a good record on LGBTQ+ issues and is father to a gay son, was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign and Equality PAC (the political action arm of the Congressional LGBTQ Caucus).
In early August, the College Democrats of Massachusetts and its chapters at Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst barred Morse from their events and said he had used his position as a mayor and as a part-time lecturer at UMass-Amherst to have romantic and sexual relationships with college students. Their letter to Morse was publicized in the university’s student newspaper and elsewhere.
Morse said he had indeed had relationships with college students he had met on dating apps, but that none of them were in his classes and all the relationships were consensual. He apologized to anyone who had been uncomfortable in their interactions with him.
The publicity led to some homophobic dog whistles, with one Holyoke City Council member saying Morse had been having sex with teenagers (implying pedophilia), and the super PAC American Working Families releasing an ad — mistakenly, it said — referring to Morse’s sex life and criticizing his judgment.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund blamed his defeat on homophobic attacks. “The efforts to sensationalize and weaponize Alex’s sexual orientation certainly influenced the outcome of this race, but the backlash it engendered should give pause to those considering similar tactics in the future,” Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker said in a press release. “We are grateful Alex stayed in the race and took the body blows necessary to expose the double standards too often placed on LGBTQ candidates. His campaign contributed to a larger conversation about how candidates of color, women candidates and LGBTQ candidates face a level of scrutiny and sensationalism that straight white cisgender men simply do not.
“LGBTQ candidates are facing a growing number of homophobic and transphobic attacks this year and whether they succeed or fail will set an important precedent for the future. While Alex’s loss is disappointing, it proved our community and our allies can respond forcefully in exposing the dog whistles and stereotypes that too often haunt LGBTQ candidates. We will not allow attacks on LGBTQ candidates to go unanswered during the final two months of this election cycle.
“We endorsed Alex for the U.S. Congress because diverse representation in elected office is essential to inclusive policies and legislation. When LGBTQ people are in the halls of power, it influences the debates, changes hearts and minds, and advances equality for our community. We still have an opportunity to double the number of LGBTQ members of the U.S. House this year — and we are ready to help make that happen.”
After the College Democrats’ letter became public, some of Morse’s supporters charged that there was an orchestrated campaign against him and that at least one College Democrats official was seeking to find favor and possibly a job with Neal. Neal has denounced homophobia and said he had no connection to the allegations. The statewide College Democrats condemned homophobia too, the UMass-Amherst chapter has issued an apology to Morse, the university is investigating Morse’s conduct there, and the Massachusetts Democratic Party has pledged to investigate the whole matter now that the primary is over.
In another closely watched race in Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey turned back a primary challenge from Joseph P. Kennedy III, currently a U.S. House member. Both are allies of the LGBTQ+ community, and Kennedy has been particularly outspoken on transgender rights. Kennedy is a grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. This marked the first time a member of the Kennedy family has lost a primary in Massachusetts.