In an insurgent victory Tuesday night, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley beat out veteran Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) to become the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts’s 7th District. Now she’s set to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, as Republicans are running no candidate in the district.

Ayanna Pressley delivers her victory speech. (AFP/Getty)
Ayanna Pressley delivers her victory speech. (AFP/Getty)

Capuano, 66, first won the seat in 1998 but struggled to keep up with Pressley as she argued that a young and majority-nonwhite district needed a fresh voice in Washington. He became the second Democrat, and the fourth member of Congress overall, to lose a renomination battle in 2018; his loss mirrors the surprise defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“You saw what I saw: That these times demanded more from our leaders and our party,” Pressley told cheering supporters in Boston Tuesday night. “It’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power. It matters who those Democrats are.”

Capuano acknowledged the district’s desires in remarks after early returns showed him losing his old political base to the challenger.

“Clearly, the district wanted a lot of change,” Capuano said. “Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman.”

Rep. Michael Capuano, as his wife Barbara listens at left, concedes defeat to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Rep. Michael Capuano, as his wife Barbara listens at left, concedes defeat to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. (Elise Amendola/AP)

New England has never previously elected black women to Congress; Pressley and Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes are both favored to win in November.

Two other Massachusetts Democrats, Reps. Stephen F. Lynch and Richard E. Neal, easily defeated female challengers who ran to their left, and a close race was underway in the 3rd Congressional District, where the seat is being vacated by Rep. Niki Tsongas. But in Pressley’s words, she “did what Massachusetts Democrats aren’t supposed to do” — unseat an incumbent who had much of the political establishment behind him, on a slogan of “change can’t wait.”

An uncertain path to victory

The Capuano-Pressley race, which split Massachusetts Democrats and national liberals alike, drew significant national attention. Capuano has been one of the House’s most reliably left-wing votes, especially on issues of war and defense funding. Pressley, a former Capitol Hill staffer long seen as a political star, had argued that she could lead “a movement” from the seat while Capuano was content to simply vote the right way.

Polling found a consistent lead for Capuano, who locked up endorsements from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and most local labor unions. But Warren and some other Democratic leaders stayed neutral in the race, while the Boston Globe and a number of local liberal groups backed Pressley. The challenger got a burst of attention after Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley with a similar message.

“Representation does matter,” Pressley said in an interview while campaigning last week. “Many would just say: Your job is the vote. I’m saying that your vote is just one part of the job.”

Ayanna Pressley delivers her victory speech. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty)
Ayanna Pressley delivers her victory speech. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty)

In a separate interview, Capuano said that he’d built “a very progressive record” in Congress, despite frequent opposition and that a freshman arriving in 2019 would not be able to deliver as much for the district.

“All politics is built on relationships, and Congress is no different,” he said.

Veering left on the issues

The primary flummoxed national Democrats, who saw a rising star in Pressley but a reliable and scandal-free congressman in Capuano. The congressman, who had run as an insurgent candidate himself when first winning the seat, had opposed the Iraq War, backed the Affordable Care Act and opposed efforts to deregulate banks.

But Pressley ran to Capuano’s left on a few key issues, calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and for restoring voting rights to prisoners. She also gained an advantage over Capuano when the congressman groused that Democrats were becoming “balkanized” by racial identity.

“This is not just a blue wave; this is a movement that’s coming to Congress,” Ocasio-Cortez said in June at an appearance with Pressley, before either had won her race.

“When we had the Women’s March, they thought that was a moment,” Pressley said at the event.

“We had signs that said: ‘Today we march, tomorrow we run.’ And they didn’t believe it!”

Republicans never intended to contest the 7th District, which gave Hillary Clinton 84.1 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential race and was previously represented by Democratic Party legends Tip O’Neill and John F. Kennedy.

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