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Incumbents in the Massachusetts Legislature put on a strong showing across the state Tuesday night as House and Senate lawmakers from both parties defended their seats and the Republican Party flipped one seat on the Cape in an open race.
The fact that Democrats will send strong majorities in both branches back to Beacon Hill next session was never really in question, but incumbent Republicans held their own on a night when Hillary Clinton drove voter turnout in her strong win in Massachusetts, despite her struggle nationally.
Democratic candidates won all three open Senate seats, which are currently held by the party, with Adam Hinds poised to succeed Sen. Benjamin Downing, Rep. Walter Timilty claiming Sen. Brian Joyce's seat, and newcomer Julian Cyr scoring a victory on the Cape.
Cyr, who once worked for the state Department of Public Health, defeated Republican Tony Schiavi for the seat representing Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard currently held by Sen. Dan Wolf, who is not seeking re-election after 10 years in the Senate.
The Massachusetts Republican Party had targeted the open Senate seat on the Cape as one of the areas where they could gain ground in the 40-member Senate where the GOP holds just six seats.
Sen. Thomas McGee, the outgoing state Democratic Party chairman, cited the Cyr win as well as victories by Democratic Sens. Eric Lesser and Barbara L'Italien, who both faced strong challenges from candidates backed by Gov. Charlie Baker and the MassGOP, as proof of a good showing for the state party.
"I think we had a really great night to continue to send back a substantial majority in the House and Senate to push the things that we as Democrats care about, so I think it was a really good night for us and, to be honest with you, a really down night for the governor. I think he had a big loss tonight," McGee said.
McGee, a Lynn Democrat who also won re-election, was referring to Baker's ardent support for a ballot question to expand charter schools that lost Tuesday night.
"He put it all on the line on that question and lost. The reality is when we had a chance to put the facts on the table we really had a chance for people to understand this wasn't the answer and never was the answer," McGee said. "The reality is we aren't funding the schools the way we should be funding the schools, and that conversation starts tomorrow."
Late into the evening, it also appeared that Democrats would hold onto nine of the 10 open House seats currently held by Democratic lawmakers not seeking re-election. The one exception was in Barnstable where Republican Will Crocker defeated Democrat Aaron Kanzer in a pickup for Republicans that will boost their ranks to 35 of 160 in January.
"I am thrilled that our Republican leaders in the state legislature were victorious tonight in many of the important legislative races across the Commonwealth, as it is a sign that the people of Massachusetts value fiscal responsibility and commonsense leadership," Baker said in a statement.
MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes said it was the first time in more than 30 years that the party was able to build its ranks in the Legislature in a presidential election year.
"Our party is on the rise in Massachusetts," Hughes said.
But even before voters went to the polls, one thing was already certain: The partisan dynamics on Beacon Hill were not going to change.
Baker will enter the final two years of his first term in office dealing with Democratic supermajorities in both the House and Senate who play a decisive role in determining the agenda as the Republican chief executive moves into a possible re-election campaign.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg are both expected to return to as leaders of their respective branches after both won new terms on Tuesday and the relationship they have built with the governor and each other will be tested.
Democrats held 126 of the 160 seats in the House this session and 34 seats in the 40-member Senate. Less than one third of the 200 districts were contested on Tuesday, with 25 candidates for 40 Senate seats running unopposed and 117 candidates for House seats going unchallenged in the general election.
Among those who coasted without opposition Tuesday were the two newcomers who picked off incumbent representatives in the Democratic primaries — Juana Matias of Lawrence, who defeated Rep. Marcos Devers, and Mike Connolly of Cambridge, who defeated Rep. Tim Toomey.
Rosenberg suggested that one reason for relatively little legislative competition -- just 58 of 200 seats were contested Tuesday -- is that prospective candidates fear running for public office.
"There's a lot of apathy," the Amherst Democrat said during a Boston Herald Radio interview Tuesday. "There's a lot of fear about running for office because of all of the transparency involved in filling out ethics forms and all kinds of things and then there's all of the, I don't know, I guess you might say the challenges that people face by going out there and putting themselves before the public. It's just really hard to get people frankly on both sides, but especially if you don't have a really deep bench, to come out and put yourself out on the ballot and expose yourself to all of that transparency."
Rosenberg's district was one of 15 in the 40-member Senate where voters have more than one option on their ballots. He faced a challenge from South Hadley Republican Donald Peltier.
Voters may not have had a lot of choices on the ballot, but they did send a message to lawmakers over policy that could define the coming session.
Before they knew voters would approve the legalization of adult marijuana use, House and Senate leaders had made clear that they intend to open up the new law for debate after spending years largley ignoring the issue. While it would be remarkable for the Legislature to overturn the fundamental legalization of pot, everything from marijuana taxation to the siting of dispensaries could be up for debate.
The verdict on charter schools will also shape the discussion over education for years to come. So far, Baker's education agenda has been focused on expanding access to charters to give parents and students more choices. Now that the issue is settled, the question will become where the debate goes next.
Early education and reform of the foundation funding formula for district public schools have long been talked about, but whether a serious push on either front can be made in the next two years will depend on leadership.
"The voters have spoken and the matter is resolved. It's time to shift our focus to 100% of the students in our public education system. They deserve the best education possible so they can be engaged citizens and find a meaningful place in our increasingly competitive economy," Rosenberg said.
Katie Lannan contributed reporting.
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