Ayanna Pressley’s Upset Win in the Massachusetts 7th

Ayanna Pressley, then a member of the Boston City Council, speaking at an event in 2014 ( source )

Ayanna Pressley, then a member of the Boston City Council, speaking at an event in 2014 (source)


As the primaries press on across the country, the United States has witnessed several upsets, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June to Ayanna Pressley mere weeks ago. The Boston City Council member's win over longtime incumbent Mike Capuano in the Democratic Primary for a House seat in Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District on September 4th could be indicative of a younger, sleeker Democratic Party this November. Whether that’s what the party needs is yet to be known, but the trend is nonetheless indicative of a shift in constituents’ wishes across the country.

Mike Capuano, who served as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th District from 1998 until losing the seat in September ( source )

Mike Capuano, who served as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th District from 1998 until losing the seat in September (source)

Democratic incumbent Mike Capuano has held his seat in the House of Representatives since 1998. After first being elected two decades ago, Capuano has run without a challenger from either major party - that is, until Pressley emerged as a contender. The overwhelmingly liberal 7th district of Massachusetts has generally approved of Capuano’s performance throughout his congressional tenure. His votes on the floor earned him the title of a “rank-and-file Democrat,” according to GovTrack’s Political Spectrum & Legislative Leadership ranking. In fact, Capuano’s stances are consistently progressive; he has championed public education, environmental action against climate change, and robust civil liberties and human rights. A questionnaire completed by the Capuano and Pressley campaigns and assessing policy positions revealed that the opponents differed on only five issues. Most of these differences of opinion might be explained by minor variations in specific approaches to solving political problems rather than polarized disagreements about fundamental political beliefs. Additionally, the Federal Elections Commission reports that Capuano outspent Pressley by almost $1,000,000 in campaign expenditures.

Leading up to the primary race on September 4th, it seemed a safe bet that Capuano would retain his House seat. Projection polls prior to the day indicated that Capuano was favored by a margin of 13%. With an advantage in virtually every aspect of a typical election - experience, name recognition, funding, and steadily high approval ratings - many were left wondering how Capuano lost by a margin of more than 17%. The answer could lie in recent trends of identity politics and representation.

The concept of descriptive representation, as outlined by Michele Swers and Stella Rouse, refers to delegation based on representatives’ visible demographic similarities to their constituents. In  a descriptive representation model, constituents choose candidates that most accurately reflect their own race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. With the typical low voter turnout among American citizens, descriptive representation is a sort of political heuristic. In other words, instead of expending the time and energy required to become informed on a candidate’s specific ideological stances, voters may simply observe which candidates look the most similar to themselves. In this way, constituents may assume that a candidate with descriptive similarities to themselves might more accurately understand their own personal adversities.

Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional district is unique in that it is the only majority-minority district in the state. 57% of the area’s population identify as Black, Asian, or Hispanic, compared to the mere 22% in the 5th district and 15% in the 6th district, both of which neighbor the 7th. Thus, it is plausible that Ayanna Pressley’s defeat of Mike Capuano can be attributed to the use of descriptive representation as a political shortcut, as she more closely identifies with the racial demographic of the district. As she stated multiple times on the campaign trail, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Many claim that Pressley was a dark horse candidate whose win eclipsed all the odds stacked against her. After all, Capuano had the upper hand in fundraising, experience, approval, and recognition. While her win was no small feat, however, it was not mere luck. Her connection to the 7th district, especially through her own life experiences and identity, played an important role in this primary. As a result, she will run unopposed in the district’s general election and will take her place in January as the first Black woman to represent the state of Massachusetts in the US House.