Republican challenger struggles for foothold in ‘purple’ Andover-based rep district
Democrat who ousted GOP state leader Lyons two years ago enjoys big cash advantage
AGAINST A GENERALLY bleak landscape for Massachusetts Republicans in state legislative races next month, the contest for an Andover-based state representative seat seems like it ought to offer some hope to the state’s beleaguered GOP. It’s a rare swing district, where a Democrat was ousted 10 years ago by a conservative Republican who held the seat for four terms before it flipped back into Democratic hands two years ago. First-term Democratic rep Tram Nguyen is now facing her first reelection contest — often thought to be an incumbent’s most vulnerable race — and is one of only 19 Democratic state reps to draw a Republican challenger.
But local Democrats say Nguyen has worked hard at the basics of delivering constituent services, and she holds an enormous fundraising advantage over her Republican challenger, Jeff Dufour, a first-time candidate new to politics who is running with a president at the top of his party’s ticket who is deeply unpopular in the state.
A victory by Nguyen would not only solidify Democrats’ hold on what the freshman rep calls a “purple district,” it would be a blow to the Massachusetts Republican Party chairman, Jim Lyons, who held the seat for eight years before Nguyen ousted him two years ago and who has been helping Dufour campaign to reclaim the seat.
Nguyen came to the US at age 5 with her parents, who were desperate to flee their native Vietnam. Her father served in the South Vietnamese army and was held prisoner for eight years in a “re-education” camp following the communist victory there. Now 34, Nguyen became an immigrant success story, eventually graduating from Northeastern University School of Law and going on to work as a legal services attorney.
But Nguyen’s first term in office has been marked more by attention to the everyday local concerns of a state rep than big social issues and partisan warfare.
She took office just after the natural gas explosions rocked several Merrimack Valley communities. “My focus was diving into constituent services to help people recover from that,” she said. The district includes about two-thirds of Andover, where Nguyen lives, as well as sections of North Andover, Tewksbury, and Boxford. Since March, Nguyen said her office has been inundated with requests for help with pandemic-related issues, including unemployment insurance claims and where to go for coronavirus testing. Through the summer, her office was putting out a summary every day of Gov. Charlie Baker’s daily briefings on the pandemic.
Ken Thompson, the chairman of the Boxford Town Democratic Committee, said Nguyen has been diligent in tending to local needs, securing $50,000 in state budget funding, for example, for “turnout” equipment for the town’s volunteer fire department. “Tram is proactive, she’s always looking out for the people she represents,” Thompson said.
Dufour, a 59-year-old information systems project manager and longtime Tewksbury resident, says he was motivated to run by a concern over the lack of competition in Massachusetts elections. “I got in because democracy isn’t democracy if there’s only one name on the ballot,” he said.
Thompson calls Dufour a “Jim Lyons stand-in.” But the first-time candidate exhibits little of the pugilistic appetite for a fight that marked Lyons’s time in office and has carried over to the former lawmaker’s leadership of the state Republican Party, which has become a diehard booster of President Trump. Indeed, Dufour, who calls himself a political “rookie” and only joined the Tewksbury Republican Town Committee earlier this year, hesitates when asked his stand on a range of issues.
On abortion, Dufour said, “I personally lean pro-life,” but he said he didn’t know enough details about the ROE Act, a bill pending on Beacon Hill to codify abortion rights in state law, to take a stand on it.
Dufour, who calls fiscal responsibility, government transparency, and public safety his top three priorities, said he’s focused on “the non-social issues,” and highlighted the need to restrain state spending and taxes. He said it will be hard to maintain the current level of spending on various state programs with the hit state revenue is taking from the pandemic. “Those are just words for raising taxes,” said Dufour, something he said the state must avoid. “We’re not going to be able to be as generous as we have been in the past.”
Though Dufour said he entered the race because he didn’t want Nguyen to run unopposed, another Republican, Andover resident Shishan Wang, also jumped in primary for the right to take on Nguyen in November.
Massachusetts Majority, the independent political action committee with close ties to Baker that has supported moderate Republican and Democratic candidates, spent $3,700 to boost Wang, but Dufour beat him 2-to-1 in the September primary.
Dufour says he’s been wrongly pigeonholed as far right because of the Baker-aligned PAC’s support for Wang.
But he parts ways with the Republican governor on one of Baker’s big initiatives, the Transportation Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade emissions program that would slap a levy on gasoline wholesalers and lead to higher gas prices. Dufour balked, however, when asked his overall assessment of Baker’s tenure.
“I think he’s in a tough spot, so it’s tough to say, ‘what do you think of Baker?’” said Dufour.
Other Republican activists in the district, however, don’t hesitate to weigh in on a governor who has largely abandoned the Trump-aligned state party and looked to influence races through the independent Massachusetts Majority PAC.
“I’m not a big fan of Charlie Baker,” said Evelyn Curley, who recently took the helm as chair of the Andover Republican Town Committee. Curley said she voted for Baker in 2014, but not in his reelection race in 2018 after he rejected Trump in the 2016 presidential contest. “When he said he blanked Trump, I blanked him,” she said.
While Dufour has largely avoided pointed attacks on Nguyen, the state party has shown little restraint, blistering her with social media posts saying the Democratic lawmaker’s backing of the ROE Act means Nguyen “supports killing babies born alive.” (The bill would allow abortions after 24 weeks in the case of fatal birth defects.) Another post from the state party accuses Nguyen, who backs a police reform bill pending on Beacon Hill, of supporting “anarchy,” showing a car in flames behind a superimposed image of Nguyen and says she puts her “radical party before public safety.”
“I think she supports chaos over law order, and I don’t think she supports our police,” said Curley.
For his part, though he calls public safety a top priority, Dufour said he hadn’t read the pending police reform legislation and wouldn’t comment on it.
Dufour said he’s not been involved in the state party’s social media posts, and noted that the party hasn’t singled Nguyen out but is using the same images and language to go after several Democrats facing Republican challengers.
Lyons did not return a message to discuss the race for his former seat.
Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the strident messaging from the Republican Party under Lyons, which embraces the over-the-top rhetoric leveled by Trump against his Democratic foes, does not strike him as a very effective way for the Massachusetts GOP, which claims only 35 of the 200 seats in the Legislature, to make inroads.
“If you are on a daily basis going to promote this person in the White House who lies every single day of his life and promotes racism, you’re putting an albatross around all your candidates’ necks,” said Bickford.
Nguyen called the attacks from the state party “appalling” and said attacks that equate her support for police reform to radical anarchy are spreading reckless misinformation that reduces complicated issues to sensational soundbites. “Most people would agree we do need accountability and do need better training so they can build trust among communities,” she said of her views on police reform.
Nguyen said she works well with Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who also represents Boxford and part of North Andover, and Rep. Lenny Mirra, who also represents part of Boxford. “The messaging that’s coming out from the state Republican Party doesn’t really match up with the reality of what we have to do in districts, and the bipartisanship needed to really fully represent the towns we represent,” Nguyen said.
Along with the barrage of social media attacks from the Republican Party, Nguyen was recently the target of anonymous robocalls that sought to undermine support for her. “We need less white people in positions of power, so please vote for candidate Tram Nguyen,” said the calls, according to the Boston Globe.
Nguyen enjoys a massive fundraising advantage over Dufour. She’s raised nearly $100,000 since January, and had $159,796 on hand as of the end of September.
Dufour has raised just shy of $17,000 as of the end of September, but more than a third of it — $6,500 — came in the form of loans and a donation he made to the campaign. As of September 30, he had $5,185 remaining on hand.Nguyen does not appear to be taking anything for granted, pivoting from the door-knocking campaign she waged two years ago to a pandemic-governed effort that leans heavily on phone calls and mailed literature. “She runs like she’s 20 points down. She’s a terrific campaigner,” said Cathy Dwyer, chair of the Tewksbury Town Democratic Committee.
Curley, the Andover Republican town chair, acknowledged that Dufour faces tough odds. “We’re trying to support Jeff in any way we can,” she said, referring to visibility “standouts” local Republicans have held and a mailer the Andover town committee hopes to send on his behalf. “I’m hopeful, but realistic,” said Curley. “Any challenger is always the underdog, and in this state a Republican against a Democrat is like David against Goliath.”