CHELSEA, Mass. — It was the day after a Latina community activist in New York toppled an entrenched congressman of her own party in one of the biggest political upsets of the decade. And the shock waves reverberated 200 miles away in Boston, where another woman of color who is challenging an entrenched incumbent was clearly buoyed by the surprising turn of events.
Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city councilwoman, appearing at a candidate forum at a senior center Wednesday night, gave a brief, impassioned speech about economic inequality and concluded that she — “this woman!” — could be a disruptive force for change. The audience whooped and hollered in support.
In an interview afterward, Ms. Pressley, her voice raspy from pollen in the air, said she was inspired by the stunning success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday in a New York Democratic House primary.
“What her victory has done is reaffirmed for us that there’s a path to victory, that this is winnable and that it’s going to come down to the field,” Ms. Pressley said, referring to how campaign workers get out the vote.
Since Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over longtime Queens Democrat Joseph Crowley, several other insurgent candidates have drawn inspiration from the success of her unapologetically progressive campaign — providing hope that they, too, could upend the Democratic establishment against all odds.
This is especially true among women, who are running for Congress in record numbers this year. In Massachusetts, three women who are challenging longtime male House members said the results in New York have provided a jolt of confidence.
Every race has its own dynamics, and two of the three women running in Massachusetts remain long shots to win their primaries on Sept. 4. But each also received an uptick in fund-raising and social media interest after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez scored her victory, their campaigns said — a testament to just how many progressive voters see 2018 as an opportunity to upend the party’s male stalwarts.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory instantly raised Ms. Pressley’s national profile in her race against Representative Michael E. Capuano, increasing media attention, visits to her website (pageviews are up 57 percent since Monday, with 43 percent more people signing up to volunteer or donate) and donations to her campaign. She received 205 contributions from Tuesday night through Thursday morning, most of them under $100, for a total of $18,000; that’s three times the number of contributions she received in the same period last week.
Brianna Wu, a software engineer running against Representative Stephen Lynch in a district largely comprising communities south of Boston, said her campaign had one of its best fund-raising days in weeks on Wednesday — all thanks to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.
“Seeing someone in a similar position, and with your positions on the issues, take on the system and win — it makes your whole team feel unbelievably energized,”Ms. Wu said in a telephone interview.
She said both she and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez were focused on energizing new voters who are historically less likely to turn out in midterm elections.
“What really excites me is her energy, that you’re going out and you’re talking to constituents who don’t feel represented,” Ms. Wu said. “It lights your soul on fire, it makes you want to get out there and knock on twice as many doors.”
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a lawyer from Springfield, Mass., who is challenging 15-term incumbent Richard Neal in Massachusetts’s 1st district, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was particularly inspiring to her as a fellow minority woman.
“We don’t have millions of dollars to buy visibility,” Ms. Amatul-Wadud said. “We have to go door to door. We have to talk to the grass roots. We have to talk to the masses, not just the elite.”
Neither Ms. Amatul-Wadud’s opponent nor Ms. Wu’s responded to requests for comment.
Although the insurgent candidates said the intangible benefits of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory were immense, national political analysts warned against drawing too many parallels between her triumph and other races.
The overwhelming majority of Democratic incumbents have been successful in defending their seats this election cycle, and while the party frequently has clashes of ideas and strategy, grass-roots activism traditionally has to be coupled with significant monetary investment to be successful, said Anna Sampaio, who specializes in race, gender and politics at Santa Clara University.
“I wouldn’t say this is a tidal wave,” Ms. Sampaio said. “The animosity against Trump alone won’t make the difference. You have to invest in registering, connecting and mobilizing voters. And without that investment, that tidal wave? I don’t see it coming.”
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory required “the right time, right place, right message and right candidate.” She said this alignment, though inspiring, would be difficult to replicate.
“At most, it’s a wake-up call to Democrats, and it’s a wake-up call for incumbents of either party,” Ms. Walsh said of Tuesday’s results. “Never take a re-election for granted.”
But if there is an analogous situation in the Bay State to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, it may be the campaign of Ms. Pressley, who similarly combines grass-roots support with institutional credibility. Ms. Pressley has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the progressive organization that was among the first to encourage Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to run.
In the interview, Ms. Pressley sought to align herself closely with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.
“Neither of us are accepting corporate PAC money,” Ms. Pressley said. “We both have taken a position to defund and to abolish ICE. We both support health care and Medicare for all. So there are many similarities — our convictions, our values, our positions, and the kind of campaigns we’re running and how we hope to govern.”
As the primary approaches, Ms. Pressley has mobilized a sizable grass-roots engagement team and hopes to execute the same field strategy that proved so successful for her New York counterpart.
“Ayanna’s got an opportunity now, she’s got a chance,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “There’s national attention on her because someone like Ocasio-Cortez — who was outspent, worked like crazy, organized like crazy and has a great message — won. The question is, can Ayanna make good on this opportunity?”
Doug Rubin, another Democratic consultant in Boston, said he believed the environment was so ripe for change that Ms. Pressley had the potential to win. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, he said, would help Ms. Pressley with raising money and her profile — “and giving more credibility to her victory scenario.”
But for all their similarities, Ms. Pressley lacks an advantage that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had — she is not catching her opponent off guard.
“Capuano was initially in a state of denial, but then he kicked into gear, and he’s putting together a real campaign now,” said Ms. Marsh, the strategist. “He had a good visit to the border, he’s picking up endorsements left and right, and if he can’t win them, he’s trying to deny them from her.”
Mr. Capuano has been endorsed by minority establishment figures such as Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, and organizations like the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. He also has the crucial backing of Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh.
Mr. Capuano was not available for comment Thursday, but his spokeswoman said in a statement: “Because of Donald Trump, we’re in the fight of our lives, and we believe people here will recognize that we need to keep Mike’s experience, proven skill and strength in that fight.”
Money remains a challenge for Ms. Pressley. Mr. Capuano raised $838,000 in the first three months of the year, the most recent figures available, compared with $364,000 for Ms. Pressley. He had more than $1.1 million in cash on hand, while she had $260,000. Another challenge for Ms. Pressley is creating ideological separation, because Mr. Capuano has an established progressive voting record in Congress.
Ms. Pressley said she knows she’s the underdog, but she still sees Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as a tipping point.
“At the women’s march, we held signs that said, ‘Today we march, tomorrow we run,’” Ms. Pressley said. “They didn’t believe us, but it’s coming to pass. Buckle up.”
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