We think of our corner of Massachusetts as culturally more conservative than the state’s big cities or college towns. But we also think of it as overwhelmingly Democratic.
Conservative Democrats, that’s what we are. And that’s true.
But a glance at the numbers in recent presidential elections, as well as from the few times our long-standing incumbent state legislators have had challengers, tells a somewhat different story. Particularly in the South Coast’s blue-collar suburbs and more rural environs.
Did you know that Acushnet, Freetown and Rochester all voted for Donald Trump over both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden? And that in the case of Acushnet and Freetown, they voted for Trump by significant margins both times?
And did you know that Westport voted for the twice-impeached former president the second time around, and almost chose him in the first? And that the former guy received almost 31% of the vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of New Bedford in 2020, and almost 37% in 2016. That’s thousands and thousands of votes in a city where more than 33,000 people voted both times.
It’s not that often that Republicans run against our suburban incumbents on the South Coast these days. That could be because the incumbent Democrats, with an eye on their ’burbs, are moderates. It could also be because the local legislators are responsible and are doing a good job. And yet, it could be because Massachusetts Republicans simply don’t believe they have a chance against Democrats.
The exception to the no-Republican-opposition rule on the South Coast is Bill Straus of Mattapoisett.
This year, the 30-year incumbent once again has an opponent, chiropractor Jeffrey Swift, in his 10th Bristol District, which is centered around Fairhaven but also includes all of the tri-towns, and as a result of last year’s redistricting a bit of New Bedford and a lot of Acushnet.
Straus represents the most suburban and rural of the area districts, and he’s been opposed seven of the 16 times that he’s run for re-election. And what few may know is that Straus actually lost, by 19 percentage points, to a Republican the first time he ran for state rep, way back in 1988. That was three-term incumbent John Bradford, who represented a 10th District that was significantly different from the present one. Its boundaries have changed several times since those days.
Still, a gentleman named Peter Winters, when he ran against Straus for the second time in 2010, garnered 43% of the district’s vote. Not close, but not an overwhelming margin either. Straus won 9,579 votes to Winter’s 7,154, according to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office.
Over in the 8th District, which is centered around the mid-sized suburban town of Westport, 12-year incumbent Paul Schmid has only had Republican opponents three times. His district includes a significant chunk of Fall River and a small part of New Bedford, so it’s not as Republican as some suburban districts.
But the Massachusetts Legislature this year, in the course of a redistricting process that should have been called the incumbent-protection process, gave the least of its love to Schmid. His district already included two-thirds of Freetown and now it includes two-thirds of Acushnet. Welcome to Trump world, Paul, although to be fair the rural, farming nature of north Acushnet is a lot like south Westport.
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Here’s the meaningful numbers on this: Acushnet gave Trump 49.9% of the vote in 2016, when both a well-known Libertarian and Green Party candidate were on the ballot; it gave Trump almost 54% in more of a two-way race in 2020. Freetown is even more conservative. It gave Trump 52% in 2016 and almost 53% in 2020.
The Legislature didn’t tuck it to Schmid because he isn’t doing a good job — he pretty much does. He’s a moderate who represents a district that is a challenge — mostly suburban but a good chunk urban, too.
Schmid lost out on the redistricting lottery because of a couple of reasons. First, the threat of a lawsuit if the Democratic Legislature didn’t create a majority-minority district inside the city of New Bedford; and second because two Fall River incumbent House members needed to be protected. So there was nowhere for him to go to get the numbers needed for a district other than the New Bedford suburbs.
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Schmid in his little over a decade in office has had little opposition in this sprawling district that reaches from Westport Point to the Acushnet Long Plain. But he had a wake-up call two years ago, when Republican Evan Gendreau, then a 21-year-old UMass Dartmouth political science grad, came out of nowhere to garner 43% of the vote to Schmid’s 57%. That’s about the same margin that Bill Straus beat Peter Winters by, way back in 2010.
It’s certainly a healthy win for Schmid, but winning by 14 points is not a landslide either. Consider that the actual vote count was 11,751 votes for Schmid to 8,853 for Gendreau. That’s a difference of a little less than 3,000 votes, and the district did not yet include the Trump-leaning Acushnet.
I’ve interviewed all the candidates for these competitive districts except Straus (normally available, he said he has been busy with the birth of a grandchild and wrapping up the Legislative session). They are all moderate, responsible candidates.
The Democrats definitely seem like they see government as having more of a role than the Republicans, although the GOPers are not above seeing a role for government if it means bringing back state aid to the communities that make up their own districts.
It’s difficult to know exactly where Jeffrey Swift or Evan Gendreau stand on some of the hot-button national issues because no one is talking about them. Though it’s fair to say that both refused to be specific about their personal views on abortion; to be fair, however, neither is emphasizing it in their campaign or looking like they would go on a quest to change Massachusetts law, which was updated to protect the women’s health care right after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
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Both Republicans talk a lot about taxes and inflation being too high, and their desire to increase local aid to their district’s communities and their happiness that many residents will receive a tax rebate due to this year’s income tax surplus.
The voters of the 10th and 8th Districts have four good choices. Depending on their political philosophies, they can go either way. It’s good for Massachusetts — which suffers from machine politics with the Democratic Party’s ironclad control of the state Legislature — to have races between Democrats and Republicans, as well as between conservative and progressive Democrats in the primary elections.
No one with knowledge of the South Coast’s current political landscape is really expecting either Swift or Gendreau to be a giant killer next Tuesday. Both Straus and Schmid have been effective, and neither is particularly controversial. But given the climate against Democrats in recent polls, it may be not completely out of the realm of possibility for an upset in these particular districts.
One of the Republicans’ challenges is that both Straus and Schmid have been in office a long time. They have had years, if not decades in Straus’ case, to get to know the people of their districts, work with them, and raise money from them. Straus had a little over $39,000 in the bank at the beginning of the campaign season, and Schmid had a breathtaking $125,000.
These two competitive legislative races are good for the area. It would be even better if the other lawmakers who have long represented the area — state senators Mark Montigny and Mike Rodrigues; and state reps. Tony Cabral, Chris Markey and Chris Hendricks — more frequently had competition. Even if it’s just a quality challenge in the Democratic primaries.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.