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Trump Hinders Republican Candidate's Independent Appeal In Mass.' 3rd Congressional District05:23
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3rd Congressional District candidates Rick Green and Lori Trahan. (WBUR)
3rd Congressional District candidates Rick Green and Lori Trahan. (WBUR)

There's only one race in Massachusetts for an open congressional seat: the 3rd Congressional District. It's the seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who is retiring.

Republican Rick Green faces an uphill battle to defeat Democrat Lori Trahan.

The Leading Candidates

Trahan listened earlier this month as Buddhist monks dedicated a nonprofit education and workforce training center in the biggest city in the district.

Lowell is home to the country's second-largest Cambodian-American community after Long Beach, California.

"We talk a lot on this campaign about education, how it's the most powerful lever to creating economic opportunity, to creating successful businesses," Trahan told the small group.

On the campaign trail, Trahan talks about the need for more vocational education, and says, if elected, she'll seek a seat on the education and workforce committee.

In a TV ad, Trahan emphasizes her working-class roots in Lowell.

"My dad was an iron worker," she says. "My mom cleaned homes. In high school, I waited tables to help out."

In the ad, she goes on to say that the Republican Congress would make health care more expensive for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

In this race, she emphasizes old-school Democratic issues.

"This really is about sending leaders down to Washington who are going to be focused on economic priorities like making health care universal and affordable, prescription drugs that we can afford, good-paying jobs, high-quality public education, affordable college education," Trahan said in an interview at the training center. "Those are the things that are really holding working- and middle-class families back."

In one of his ads, Green swims across the Merrimack River, fully clothed, while his brother is stuck in traffic on Lowell's Rourke Bridge to make the point that it's faster to swim across it than to drive over it.

Green promises to focus on eliminating federal regulations he says can double the cost of infrastructure projects like the bridge, widening Route 2, and fixing the Concord Rotary. He says, if elected, he'll seek a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He says he wants to reconnect Congress with people in the district.

"They don't understand how what goes on in D.C. impacts their daily lives anymore, and where we've had great success and gotten the most engagement is talking about things like roads and bridges and your daily commute, fixing our infrastructure, the opioid crisis, things everyone can relate to," he said in an interview at his online auto parts company's research and development center in Pepperell, where he grew up.

The Voters They're After

In many congressional districts across the country, candidates are trying to energize their bases. This race is about winning over voters in the center.

"Both candidates are sort of moving to the middle, and I think part of that on the part of Trahan is to win by a larger amount and sort of to scare off potential Republican challengers in the future," said UMass Lowell assistant political science professor John Cluverius. "For Green, it's an attempt to capture as much of this reliably Democratic vote as he can, and he's running a good campaign."

At a debate in Haverhill last week, Green, the co-founder of an online auto parts business, promised to focus on disrupting the supply of fentanyl.

"Drugs are a business," Green said. "They're an illegal business, but they're also a distribution business. I run a distribution company. I compete against the likes of Amazon.com. I get distribution, OK?"

"The majority of people who are addicted to opioids, they get a legal prescription from their doctor," Trahan replied.

Trahan said the opioid epidemic is not just about fentanyl trafficking.

"This is about holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in over-marketing and over-prescribing, as a result, opioids to our young people," Trahan said.

Mike Mullen, independent candidate for the Mass. 3rd Congressional District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Mike Mullen, independent candidate for the Mass. 3rd Congressional District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The third candidate in the race, independent Mike Mullen, agreed with Trahan on this issue.

The tone of the debate was like the tone of this race: polite.

This is an independent district. It has not elected a Republican to Congress since 1972. But it has voted for Republicans in statewide races: for Scott Brown against Elizabeth Warren, for Gabriel Gomez against Ed Markey, for Charlie Baker against Deval Patrick. Still, this year is different.

"It's just not a good year to be a Republican candidate," said Cluverius. "We have a good economy, but in midterm years, what really matters is presidential approval, and we have a president who is unpopular nationwide and particularly unpopular in Massachusetts."

Green ran up against that this week at a breakfast spot in Ashby, one of the eight towns in the district — out of 37 — that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. A voter concerned about President Trump asked Green how independent he would be in Congress.

"Well, I'm going to vote for this district, plain and simple," Green replied. "The people of this district. ... This is a job interview. I have to prove to them that I'm the best person to represent your interests, interests of the communities that you love, and I'm beholden only to you. Your votes are what put me there, and your votes are what keep me there or throw me out."

Green told the voter if Republicans hold on to the majority, he would be the most influential member of the Massachusetts delegation.

But in a year of disenchantment with the president, he faces a tough audience, even in one of the state's least partisan districts.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate number of towns in the 3rd district that voted for Trump. We regret the error.

This segment aired on October 29, 2018.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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