UPDATED: September 4, 11:49 p.m.
Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna S. Pressley defeated incumbent congressman Michael E. Capuano in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District Democratic primary — a significant upset in a race closely watched nationwide as a bellwether of the direction of the Democratic Party.
Running unopposed in November, Pressley, 44, will become the first African-American to represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district she will soon represent comprises a wide swath of Boston and its suburbs, including Harvard’s Allston and Longwood campuses.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday evening, Capuano conceded the race to Pressley at his campaign headquarters in Somerville.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but this is life, and this is O.K.,” he said. “America’s going to be O.K. Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”
Around 10 pm, the Associated Press called the race for Pressley. At 11:30 pm, with nearly 100 percent of precincts reporting, Pressley had garnered 58.9 percent of the vote to Capuano’s 41.1 percent. She dominated in Boston, nearly doubling Capuano’s vote total. Capuano garnered slightly more votes in Somerville, where he was mayor in the 1990s, but could not overcome Pressley’s advantage margin in Boston.
Pressley’s victory represents another major defeat for the Democratic establishment this primary cycle, coming less than three months after New York representative Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House, fell to 28-year-old activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez exchanged endorsements earlier this year.
Pressley addressed supporters after her victory at a union hall in Dorchester, telling the crowd that “change is on the way,” echoing an apparent hunger for new representation that motivated multiple Pressley voters interviewed outside a polling station in Allston Tuesday afternoon to cast their votes for the Councilwoman.
“People who feel seen and heard for the first time in their lives, a stakehold in democracy and a promise for our future,” Pressley said. “That is the real victory, that is bigger than any electoral victory.”
Government Professor Daniel Carpenter said in an interview Tuesday evening that Pressley had significant momentum heading into election night, benefiting from a “remarkably” well-organized campaign.
“It’s a historic night,” he said. “It’s historic not just because it will be the first woman of color from the Massachusetts delegation, but I also think she’s bringing a more assertive agenda of progressivism.”
Capuano, 66, has served in Congress since 1999, but until this year, he had not faced a serious challenge. In polling over the summer, Capuano had held a lead in the high single-digits to low double-digits.
Pressley herself is not new to the political scene; in 2009, she became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council in its 108-year existence. She has become a familiar face around the region, gaining national recognition for her advocacy on behalf of marginalized residents.
Still, Pressley’s campaign was an uphill battle from the beginning, given Capuano’s significant financial advantage and name recognition in the district. In February, soon after Pressley announced her candidacy for Congress, nearly one-third of voters said they had not heard of her. Her relative anonymity at the start of her campaign made her victory Tuesday night all the more striking.
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics, wrote in an email Tuesday evening that the results signalled the motivating effects of the Trump presidency on the Democratic base — and the effects of the district’s changing demographics.
“Pressley’s victory is further evidence that President Trump has reawakened the Obama coalition that has been dormant for many years,” he wrote. “Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she empowered new voters and owes this victory to an electorate that is likely younger, more female and diverse than the one that elected Capuano 10 times.”
Many prominent Democratic figures in Massachusetts, including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, did not endorse in the primary.
Since Capuano first assumed his seat, the district has become significantly more diverse. It is now the only district in the state that is majority-minority, though white residents still make up a majority of registered voters.
Pressley and Capuano both ran on progressive platforms, in contrast to the candidates in the New York primary, where Ocasio-Cortez staked out policy positions significantly to the left of her opponent. The Massachusetts race focused more on identity, as Pressley argued she would better represent the needs of the changing district as a young woman of color and survivor of sexual assault.
Harvard College Democrats president Devontae A. Freeland ’19 described the win by a person of color as long-awaited, given the evolution of the city and its suburbs since Capuano first took office.
“Massachusetts, despite being a pretty progressive state, had actually lagged behind in responsiveness to its electorate and the demographic changes that have happened in its electorate,” he said. “I think what we saw is just a manifestation of demographic changes that had long been underway in the Commonwealth and had not been reflected in its leadership.”
—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98