×

It all came down to message, money

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, speaks to supporters after winning Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District Democratic primary against newcomer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in Springfield, Mass. (Frederick Gore/The Republican via AP) Frederick Gore

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, gives his victory speech after defeating opponent Tahirah Amatul-Wadud in the Democratic primary race on Tuesday. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Thursday, September 06, 2018

Thirty-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal breezed to his 15th consecutive re-election victory in the 1st Congressional District on Tuesday.

But in Franklin and Hampshire counties, his opponent — Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud — came a lot closer than elsewhere in the district.

In Franklin County, Amatul-Wadud appears to have won with 1,631 votes to Neal’s 1,396. Preliminary numbers had Amatul-Wadud with 4,532 votes in Hampshire County compared with Neal’s 6,031. Those results account for around 45 percent of the total vote in the two counties, but weren’t nearly enough to prevent an eventual landslide; Neal won the district with close to 71 percent of the vote.

“In a year of change, Congressman Neal took this race really seriously,” political consultant Anthony Cignoli of Springfield said. “He was out there really pressing the flesh.”

Neal’s campaign declined to speak on the record about its overall strategy. In a statement, campaign manager Peter Panos said Neal was thankful to voters for the large victory.

“He was committed to running a positive, issues-based and grassroots campaign that brought the conversation directly to people’s doorsteps focusing on issues they care about most — fairer taxes, universal health care, defending Social Security and Medicare, good-paying jobs, combating the opioid epidemic and reuniting families separated at the border,” Panos said.

Amatul-Wadud’s campaign was one of several across the state that saw insurgent candidates take on members of the political establishment. In the biggest story on election night, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano in the 7th Congressional District, putting her in line to become the state’s first woman of color to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Unlike Pressley, however, Amatul-Wadud may not have had the name recognition needed to win, Cignoli said.

“She had huge name recognition as a Boston city councilor,” Cignoli said of Pressley. “She had a track record of some really big fights for the people of her district.”

Money advantage

Neal’s path to victory in the 1st Congressional District included massive wins in the district’s big cities. Neal beat Amatul-Wadud 9,065 to 2,816 in Springfield, 4,803 to 1,603 in Pittsfield and 3,358 to 743 in Chicopee, for example. Neal also won 13,645 to 5,643 across Berkshire County.

“If I had to do it over again, I would spend way more time doing intense community building in Springfield,” Amatul-Wadud said.

Cignoli said an advantage that Neal had over Amatul-Wadud was money, allowing him to pay for advertising to remind voters what he has done for the district over his decades-long career.

“He certainly had the superior war chest. The money was there to get his message out,” Cignoli said. “She didn’t have the benefit of that war chest.”

Neal’s committees spent around $2.5 million from the beginning of 2017 through Aug. 15, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. That’s compared to the $92,714 Amatul-Wadud’s committees spent from October 2017 through Aug. 15.

“Money is wildly important,” said Amatul-Wadud, whose campaign only accepted money from individual donors. Neal’s campaign accepted money from not only individual donors, but also political action committees, including from many large corporations.

Amatul-Wadud said she doesn’t at all regret her strategy, but that raising more money would have helped her campaign. “It gives you what you need in order to run your program the way you want to,” she said.

If she were to do it again, Amatul-Wadud said she would hope to have a larger campaign team to boost voter turnout and engage in “intense community building” in the district’s larger communities. Amatul-Wadud also would probably have started her campaign earlier.

Amatul-Wadud’s campaign kept things close in Hampshire County, and won in Franklin County — areas where Amatul-Wadud said she spent a lot of her time early in the race. But the population density in those areas wasn’t enough to make much of a difference in the overall picture.

“That has always been the problem,” said David Greenberg, a member of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, a group that emerged out of the Bernie Sanders campaign and was an early backer of Amatul-Wadud. “There’s just not that many of us … Springfield really rules in this thing, and that’s (Neal’s) base.”

Greenberg agreed that with more time and money, Amatul-Wadud’s campaign could have had more success. He and Amatul-Wadud said that while canvassing, whether in the rural parts of the district or in Springfield, the issues her campaign raised resonated with voters.

One of those issues was universal, single-payer health care. Greenberg said the momentum from Amatul-Wadud’s campaign will now be channeled into passing non-binding resolutions in many Franklin County communities in November that will ask the region’s elected officials to support efforts to pass single-payer health care.

Greenberg said organizers from Amatul-Wadud’s campaign will also push for the passage of three ballot questions voters will face in November’s statewide elections: one that would limit patient-to-nurse ratios in hospitals, one that would create a commission on limiting corporate rights and election spending, and another that would keep in place a transgender anti-discrimination law.

“We clearly have started to build a movement of progressive people in CD1 who want more out of their congressional representative than we’re getting,” Greenberg said.

As for Neal, he will be using his own campaign momentum in the nationwide push for Democrats to take back the House from Republicans in November.

“We’re onto that challenge,” he said at his victory party Tuesday night. He said he has already been helping candidates with messaging and fundraising, and will hit the campaign trail in the coming months.

“I hope and I expect that we’re going to prevail and win the House of Representatives come November,” Neal said.