‘I Think It’s A Candidacy-Killer’ — Political Experts Weigh In On Alex Morse’s Sex Scandal

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/08/12/i-think-its-a-candidacy-killer-political-experts-weigh-in-on-alex-morses-sex-scandal/

There’s a continuing scandal in a U.S. House race in Massachusetts’s First Congressional District. 

Will voters care?

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has been under fire since the College Democrats of Massachusetts produced a letter last week alleging he had sexual relations with college students and used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain.”

Morse had also served as a political science lecturer at UMass Amherst, until the school ended the relationship this past weekend, after the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student daily newspaper at the school, published a story Friday, August 7 about the allegations.

The College Democrats allege that Morse, who is open about his homosexuality, matched with students on sexual hookup apps Grindr and Tinder regularly, sometimes as young as 18 years old; that he used College Democrats events to meet students; and that he had sexual contact with college students in the area–including at UMass Amherst, where he was teaching at the time.

Morse has acknowledged pursuing sexual relationships with students, but said he has never used his position as mayor or as a lecturer to enable his activities.

Morse is primarying incumbent U.S. Representative Richard Neal, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. It is, “the chief tax-writing committee of the United States House of Representatives”, according to House.gov.

Holyoke first elected Morse, 31, as its mayor in 2011 when he was 22 years old. He’s an experienced politician and a progressive who supports Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal. He’s running to the left of Neal, a more moderate liberal who is also the top corporate political action committee recipient in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Political experts tell New Boston Post that Morse has the makings of a serious primary challenger, but that this scandal may sink him.

Boston College political scientist Dave Hopkins says he sees plenty of downside for Morse and no upside.

I assume this story has the potential to be quite damaging,” Hopkins told New Boston Post by email. “Voters don’t usually have much information about challengers in congressional primaries, so any single bout of negative publicity can be enough to turn them against a candidate.”

Bridgewater State political scientist Michael Kryzanek agreed, saying this will be a tough obstacle for Morse to overcome. He noted that what Morse has admitted to doing violates UMass’s policy when it comes to student-faculty relations.  

“Morse put students into a difficult power dynamic as he made it problematic for students to reject his advances since he was a well known state leader and a rising star in politics. Many students did not know how to handle his advances for fear of the outcome on their reputations,” Kryzanek said.

“Already he has lost support in his home base of Holyoke and will not be permitted to teach as an adjunct professor at UMASS,” he added. “Politically he is in deep trouble and his campaign to unseat Congressman Neal is likely over. Morse may seek to remain in campaign mode but it will be difficult to avoid the controversy, raise money and develop voter support.”

New Boston Post also contacted Matt L. Barron, a Democratic consultant based in the western Massachusetts town of Chesterfield. Barron said he saw a lot of Morse lawn signs over the summer, but he noticed people have taken them down — including himself.

“I think it’s a candidacy killer,” Barron said in a telephone interview, “although I think Neal’s involvement is there.”

He tied the western Massachusetts tilt to a Democratic primary in Missouri, where a left-wing Democratic challenger took out a less-left-wing incumbent in the primary earlier this week.

“I just think the timing of it is very interesting, especially coming after the race where Cori Bush beat 20-year incumbent Lacy Clay — which was the third Democratic incumbent to go down,” Barron added. “I think that’s really freaked Neal out. There’s no public polling out here. In the Capuano-Pressley race, there were polls and tons of coverage. Out here, there’s been very little coverage by the three television stations.”

Barron noted that Neal has given the College Democrats of Massachusetts $2,000 during this election cycle, as Federal Election Commission filings confirm.

But there’s no connection between Neal’s donation and the anti-Morse letter, College Democrats of Massachusetts said in a statement on Twitter.

“To suggest that our decision to send the letter to Mayor Morse was a quid pro quo with Rep. Neal, his campaign, or anyone else is untrue, disingenuous, and harmful,” College Democrats of Massachusetts said.

A spokesman for College Democrats could not be reached for comment.

Neal’s campaign could not be reached for comment to confirm or deny the allegation.

As Barron mentioned, the Seventh Congressional District Democratic primary in 2018 between then-incumbent Michael Capuano and Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley had at least three public polls, as FiveThirtyEight confirms.

Barron said that he’s seen anecdotal evidence that Morse might have been doing well in the race. Neal seems to have thought so. Barron said Neal has released 10 separate ads during this election cycle, whereas he had only three in 2018. Neal’s campaign has also sent out attack ad mailers, as a couple of Twitter users confirm.

“To me that showed he was really freaked,” Barron said.

In 2018, Barron served as a consultant for Neal’s then-primary challenger, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a black hijab-wearing Muslim who had never held elected office. She  got about 28 percent of the vote. Barron noted that she didn’t have Morse’s name recognition and said that she faced racism and xenophobia from Democratic voters.

Even with Morse scandal, Barron acknowledged that Morse still has supporters, but he said the mayor made a mistake.

“He wasn’t thinking,” Barron said. “I don’t want to get into the whole debate of if you’re a gay guy, who you can date, but if you’re 31 and they’re 18, 19, that raises a lot of eyebrows from people. These are students. You’re a mayor. You’re not using your head here in setting a good example. What’s the presumption gonna be?”

A spokesman for Morse could not be reached for this story.