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Democratic ‘Machines’ Are Grinding to a Halt

Surprise victories of insurgent progressives like Ayanna Pressley show Democrats’ appetite for change

Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Steven Senne/AP/REX Shutterstock, Eugene Garcia/EPA-EFE/REX Shutterstock

In the final days leading up to his eleventh election for Congress, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) was confident in his chances. As Capuano told a reporter over the weekend, “I fully admitted in the first couple of months… there was some rust on the machinery. We’ve gotten rid of that rust. We’ve greased it up pretty good. And I think the machine’s running very well.”

But the machine — Boston’s Democratic Party — was not running well, and on Tuesday, charismatic City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated Capuano, a 10-term incumbent. This November, Pressley — who does not have a Republican challenger in the general election for Massachusetts’ 7th district — will become the first black woman to represent the state in Congress.

Capuano held a double-digit lead over Pressley going into Tuesday’s election. He had outraised her more than two-to-one, outspent her by $1 million and easily secured the endorsements of almost every major Democratic official, including Boston’s mayor and supposed kingmaker, Marty Walsh. Even the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee threw their support behind Capuano, who is white, in his bid to continue representing Massachusetts’ only majority-minority congressional district.  

Pressley’s win is emblematic of a dynamic playing out around the country. Incumbents and establishment picks still enjoy the heavy advantage they’ve always had, but, in more and more 2018 races, the conventional political wisdom that dictates who can or can’t win has been turned on its head. Insurgent progressives — in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, North Carolina and elsewhere — have defeated centrists and incumbents with party support.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Queens party boss Rep. Joseph Crowley (also a 10-term incumbent) in June, recently told Rolling Stone the fear of party’s power was so potent that elected officials were afraid to be seen with her, even accidentally.

“There were times when we would hop into a parade with a banner and an elected official would just start running away, so they weren’t even in the camera frame,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “It was pretty funny to see — I would move somewhere and someone would literally run down the block because they couldn’t be seen with me.”

Those petty insults would be comical if there was not so much at stake.

Political machines’ purpose, Ocasio-Cortez says, has always been to “prop up” existing power structures. “Machines historically support overwhelmingly male candidates, they overwhelmingly support white candidates, they overwhelmingly support wealthy candidates. If you’re not any one of those things, you’re facing an uphill battle.”

After Pressley’s win, some sitting politicians are finally starting to take note. On the same morning the Boston Globe published a blistering op-ed excoriating Walsh’s short-sighted support Capuano, New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer rescinded his endorsement of Tish James backing progressive Zephyr Teachout for attorney general a little more than a week before the election. (James enjoys the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.)

“I believe that her independence from all of the power brokers, including the governor, is something that we should all want in an attorney general,” Van Bramer told the New York Daily News of Teachout. “People are saying no more, we don’t want to do this anymore, we don’t want party machines, we don’t want party bosses.”

The dynamic, this year, has been contained to Democratic races. The Republican machine is firing on all cylinders in Wisconsin, where it recently helped defeat veteran Kevin Nicholson, whose candidacy had gained traction with conservatives nationwide. As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman recently pointed out, the share of House Republicans who are white men is at 86 percent and rising, the share of House Democrats who are white men is 41 percent and falling.

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