Like Carrie’s hand thrusting out of the grave to grab Amy Irving’s arm in the 1976 horror movie, the corpse that is the state GOP signaled a pulse last week with a decisive win in the traditionally-Democratic central Massachusetts Senate seat left open by Anne Gobi’s resignation. It’s the first sign of life since the Trumpist takeover of the party strangled it to death, and it wasn’t close – Peter Durant smoked fellow state Rep. Jonathan Zlotnick, 55-45%.
Rumor has it all politics is local. So was this rare Republican success – in a mostly-rural district far more conservative than most – anything more than a blind squirrel finding an acorn?
“The first thing that came up was the gun bill,” says Durant, referring to the wide-ranging tightening of state gun laws passed by the House last month. At a September rally against it, Durant cast the bill as an attack on the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners by a Democratic majority eager to paper over its own public-safety failures: “They’re coming after us for a very simple reason, because crime is on the rise,” he said. “They need somebody to blame.”
That message seemed to resonate with the district’s estimated 25,000 sportsmen, says Durant. And while Zlotnick was one of a dozen Democrats to join the Republicans in voting no, Durant was able to exploit deep-rooted gun-owner distrust of Democratic intentions. “They will not be happy until they have disarmed or attempted to disarm each and every one of us,” he said at the rally, echoing a mantra conservatives have been chanting for decades. “That’s all anybody wanted to talk about.”
Until the wave of migrants began to flood local shelters. “That just took over the conversation from there,” says Durant, who made a point of making it a financial issue rather than blow Trump-era anti-immigrant dog whistles.
“When the governor said it’s costing us $45 million a month, we said that’s a lot but it’s more than that,” says Durant. Factoring in all the services and benefits migrants might draw on, Durant pegs the bill closer to $5 billion a year – roughly 10% of the total state budget. “We’re most likely heading into a recession, state revenue is falling off, where’s the money gonna come from? I told people, that’s gonna put pressure on your property taxes.”
Pressure on your property taxes. History tells us that’s an issue Republicans can capitalize on here. A promise – later broken – to lower those taxes helped elect Deval Patrick governor in 2006, and Healey’s much-touted tax-cut package doesn’t help.
Meanwhile, from passage of the “Millionaire’s Tax” to the governor’s call for a local option transfer tax to public speculation about raising the Proposition 2 ½ property-tax cap, the tax-hiking nose is under the tent. Scary times for homeowners without unlimited resources. And while Zlotnick seemed about as moderate as a Massachusetts Democrat gets, Durant was able to persuade voters that “if you elect a Democrat to this seat then the message to Beacon Hill is everything’s fine.”
Was this a fluke? Or can that spin help exhume the state GOP elsewhere down the road? Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Steve Kerrigan, whose hometown borders the district, was talking tough to Politico afterwards, vowing to take back the seat next year.
But if forecasts of economic decline come true that might be a tough boast to deliver on.
In “Carrie,” Amy Irving woke up screaming – it had all been a nightmare.
Local Democrats better hope life imitates art.