Democrat Ayanna Pressley scored a huge upset win in Massachusetts, becoming the latest progressive insurgent to topple the establishment

Ayanna Pressley delivers her victory speech after winning a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts. Scott Eisen/Getty Images
  • Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city councilwoman, scored a landslide victory over 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, a progressive mainstay with deep establishment support.
  • The 44-year-old is set to become the state’s first black congresswoman.
  • Running on the slogan “change can’t wait,” Pressley framed herself as fresh, bold leadership for a deep-blue district in a moment when, she argued, voting the right way isn’t enough.

Democratic voters are ready for new leadership – at least in Massachusetts, where Ayanna Pressley scored a landslide victory over 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, a progressive mainstay with deep establishment support.

In a state where the primary is also effectively the general election, Pressley, 44, is set to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.

Political observers in Massachusetts say Pressley’s 17-point victory is a testament to voters’ hunger for a new generation of Democrats, particularly in a state where leadership has remained much whiter and more male than the base.

“It’s hard to overestimate what a big deal her win is,” said Erin O’Brien, a political-science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. “[Pressley]’s ability to run against a popular, incumbent progressive and to crush him is huge because it changes candidate selection and it should shake up the Democratic party is Massachusetts dramatically.”

Not an ideological fight

The battle in Massachusetts was more about what kind of candidates were on the ballot in the deeply blue district than about the policy platforms they ran on.

Both Pressley and Capuano agreed that the two have very similar policy positions on most issues, and Pressley had little room to run to the left of Capuano’s deeply progressive record. (Capuano is a longtime supporter of Medicare-for-All, opposed the Iraq War, and voted against the Patriot Act).

“If you’re a progressive Democrat, it was sort of an embarassment of riches,” O’Brien said. “Rarely do you get to choose between two quality candidates.”

So Pressley framed her candidacy as one about change – her campaign slogan was “change can’t wait” – and argued that her district, the only majority minority in the state, is in need of a leader on the forefront of the progressive movement and the anti-Trump “resistance.” That her life experience – as a black woman, a survivor of sexual assault, with a father who was incarcerated and struggled with addiction – would help make her a better, more empathetic politician.

“Voting right is a good place to start, but it’s not enough,” John Walsh, a former Democratic Party chairman and operative, told New York Magazine in August. “In the room where the decisions are being made, is the congressperson from this district pushing the party to the left?”

Pressley emphasised that point during her victory speech on Tuesday night.

“With our rights under assault, with our freedoms under siege, it’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power, but it matters who those Democrats are,” Pressley told supporters.

Pressley will also be one of just two women in the state’s nine-person congressional delegation.

“It’s been the same old guys for so long,” O’Brien said of the state’s Democratic party. “I think she has real coattails to shake up the Democratic party in terms of who it looks like and who it best represents.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose victory against Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary many say helped fuel Pressley’s win, pointed to the Massachusetts candidate, who she’s called her “sister in service,” shortly after her own win.

In a tweet encouraging her supporters to get behind Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez cited one of the councilwoman’s most popular stump speech lines: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez’s Queens-Bronx district, Massachusetts’ 7th district is one of the country’s most liberal. Pressley calls the district, which includes Boston, the most diverse and the most unequal in the state.

Taking on the establishment

Pressley shocked the Democratic Party establishment when she announced in January that she would primary the 20-year incumbent.

While Pressley found support in the state’s celebrated attorney general, Maura Healey, Capuano was backed by nearly all of the state’s establishment, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, former Gov. Deval Patrick, and the Congressional Black Caucus. (But Pressley was likely aided by the state’s two senators, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, remaining neutral in the race.)

But this the not the first time Pressley has beaten the odds – and the establishment. In 2009, she became the first woman of colour elected to Boston’s City Council, despite party operatives telling her she wasn’t ready for prime time. In the subsequent years, she became one of the top vote-getters on an increasingly diverse council.

She’s also not new to the national spotlight. In 2015, EMILY’s List, a powerful Democratic group that supports pro-choice women in politics, gave Pressley its rising star award – and her rousing acceptance speech made waves among Democrats across the country.

Capuano conceded early in the night, with less than 20% of the votes counted.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but this is life, and this is OK. America’s going to be OK,” he told his supporters on Tuesday evening. “Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”

Pressley was filmed by an aide breaking down in tears when she learned the news of her upset win.

In another victory for a black woman on Tuesday night, Rachael Rollins defeated four other Democrats in the primary for Suffolk County district attorney.

But two other insurgent female House challengers in the state, including video game developer Brianna Wu and civil rights lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, both failed to beat incumbent congressmen.