What’s the matter with Blackstone?

The steady move to the right of Worcester County’s small working-class towns

Ten years ago, journalist and historian Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter With Kansas? The book was an exploration of the political transformation of his home state, which had gone from hotbed of left-wing populism in the late 1800s to heartland of rock-ribbed conservative Republicanism. The title refers to the argument put forward by Frank, an unreconstructed liberal, that Kansans are now often voting against their own economic interests.

As committed Democrats, we find ourselves asking a similar question with a local twist. The Massachusetts version might be, “What’s the matter with Blackstone?” And Millville, too, for that matter.

Blackstone and Millville are two small towns — geographically and population wise — in the Blackstone Valley of southern Worcester County, far closer to economically depressed Rhode Island than prospering Greater Boston. The two towns, like many similar communities across the state, have moved over the years from reliably Democratic to more often Republican-leaning.

While there are lots of Massachusetts communities where this pattern has played out, Blackstone and Millville stand as the forerunners of this trend, at least based on one nugget of obscure Massachusetts electoral history.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson carried the state, as he did the whole country, in a landslide win for president. Ted Kennedy was reelected to the Senate by a margin of 1 million votes, despite lying flat on his back in a hospital for most of the campaign, following an airplane crash that killed an aide and the pilot. Despite this Democratic romp, the election was tough going for the party’s nominee for attorney general, Jim Hennigan, a Boston state senator whose family has been involved in local politics for almost a century. He distributed photographs of the recently assassinated President Kennedy during his campaign, but no amount of pulling at the Democratic heartstrings of Massachusetts voters seemed to matter. Hennigan was steamrolled in the general election by the incumbent Republican attorney general, Ed Brooke, carrying only two communities in the entire state: Blackstone and Millville. One might argue from that election that these were the most reliably Democratic places in Massachusetts, even more so than heavily Democratic Boston, which Brooke carried, even if by a smaller margin than he accumulated in the rest of the state.

We started with that 1964 race for attorney general, and examined six subsequent elections, in both presidential and non-presidential election years. Here are the statewide results in our seven index elections.

What has happened to Blackstone and Millville? Not unlike other blue-collar towns which had been reliably Democratic, they are no longer in that category. The two towns, along with many other communities in the Blackstone Valley and the southern reaches of Worcester County, are now reliably Republican. This transformation is so strong that longtime state Sen. Richard Moore, a moderate Democrat and fixture in local politics, whose district includes Blackstone and Millville, lost his seat this month to a 30-year-old conservative Republican state representative, Ryan Fattman. Below are the results from our seven races for Blackstone and Millville.

Similar trends exist elsewhere. Woburn has traditionally sent Democrats to the State House. During Ed Markey’s 2013 special election race for the US Senate, however, Woburn did not vote for him, even though he had represented Woburn in Congress since 1976. It wasn’t about Markey, it was about Woburn. Ronald Reagan would often say he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him, or words something along those lines. Perhaps some of these “Reagan Democrats” in Blackstone and Millville and Woburn are the people who vote Republican, even if they may not be registered that way, and do so regularly.

In 1948, when Tip O’Neill and his Democratic colleagues recruited candidates to run for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, they looked for candidates who were veterans — usually church-going, family men, often from large Catholic families. They were classic middle-American community leaders, in towns like Blackstone and Millville, and small cities such as Woburn.

Across Massachusetts, Democrats who fit that profile defeated Republicans, resulting in O’Neill being elected the first Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts House (previewing the same role he would later play in the US House). Many of them were elected for many terms and their districts became reliably Democratic.

These towns were the building blocks of what some would call the Kennedy machine, which designated a campaign secretary in every community. This organizational structure dominated Massachusetts politics for decades after WWII, until the move in more recent years of Blackstone and other communities toward the Republican column.

Similarly, a swath of affluent communities that were once regularly Republican now have flipped in the opposite direction and vote Democratic more often than not. That is certainly the case for the affluent suburbs west of Boston, such as Brookline, Newton, Lexington, and Concord. These communities have more recently voted based upon social issues rather than voting in their economic self-interest. These voters are slightly warmer to moderate Republicans in the mold of Ivy League-educated Bill Weld and Charlie Baker, who didn’t necessarily win these liberal-leaning suburbs but were able to narrow the usual Democratic margins there.

This pattern of lower-middle income people voting Republican and upper-middle income people voting Democratic is national in nature. This trend is in part because evangelical Christians have embedded themselves in the Republican Party and scared away those who don’t buy their agenda. Higher-income voters with higher educational attainment also tend to be more welcoming on issues of gay rights, abortion rights, and other social issues that the Democratic Party has embraced and the Republican Party has not.

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In the elections for much of the 20th century, there was almost a direct relationship between socioeconomic status and how one voted. That pattern has now reversed itself and done so with a vengeance. Those of us who are active Democrats now need to answer this question: How can we get back Blackstone and Millville and all those communities where those folks who always voted Democratic still live and now vote the other way?

Lawrence S. DiCara, a former president of the Boston City Council, is a partner at Nixon Peabody and the author of Turmoil and Transition in Boston. Samuel True Adams, a 2014 graduate of Boston University, is interning at the office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts.