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Harrington Runs as a Republican, but Will the GOP Chip in?…

Chip Harrington with supporters on March 16. (WMassP&I)

Chip Harrington with supporters on March 16. (WMassP&I)

LUDLOW—A column of light spilled out from the old Ludlow Mill that hugs the Chicopee River. Cars jammed the narrow road once lined with rail beds to service the sprawling former factory. Inside the patrons of the brewery named after a legendary local political figure, the Iron Duke, crammed into a former loading dock. For a history buff like James “Chip” Harrington, few places could be better to hold a fundraiser on St. Patrick’s eve.

Harrington’s new bid for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate seat—he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 2014—retains elements of his last campaign like his local appeal, but there is one big difference. Now Harrington is carrying the GOP’s banner. Yet, the Republican lane may not be smoothest means to face off against his old Democratic primary opponent, Eric Lesser.

Harrington joined the GOP earlier this year due to what he called a leftward shift of the Democratic party, to which he had belonged for much of his adult life. Republicans want to contest races even in a presidential years when larger turnout would favor Democrats like Lesser. Governor Charlie Baker has also indicated an interest in building the party’s elected ranks.

The 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate District in gray. Click for larger view.. (via malegislature.gov)

The 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate District in gray. Click for larger view.. (via malegislature.gov)

The 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district includes Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Wilbraham and about a third of Chicopee and Springfield each.

While Republicans might salivate at the prospect of reclaiming Lesser’s seat, Democrats are hardly cowering at the prospect of Harrington’s run.

“I don’t see a freshman Republican having much of a voice,” Jake Oliveira, chair of the Ludlow Democratic Committee said, a nod to the Democratic dominance of the Senate. “Eric Lesser can do much more for Ludlow and for the communities in the district.”

The base Harrington has here remains a key asset. He won Ludlow handily in 2014 despite the presence of another Democrat from the town in the race, bolstered by unenrolled voters pulling Democratic ballots.

Lori Osborne, an independent, told WMassP&I had known Harrington for years and that he had “always been a strong and active part of the community.”

Chip Harrington (via Facebook/Harrington campaign)

Less clear is how strongly the Republican faithful will rally around Harrington. Republicans did attend his fundraiser at the brewery named after a former Democratic State House speaker, but some merely expressed relief Lesser would not be unopposed. Others offered enthusiastic praise.

Joshua Carpenter, a Republican who recently ran for Select Board here, highlighted Harrington’s community ties and knowledge of local matters. “Had I been able to vote for him two years ago, he would have had my vote,” Carpenter said referring to 2014’s Democratic primary.

However, part of Harrington’s game plan involves hitching his campaign to Baker’s star, something that may have become only more difficult after the governor’s successful but fraught adventurism into Republican State Committee elections.

It makes for an awkward dance for Harrington, who in an interview declared himself a “Massachusetts Republican” not one in league with the national GOP, currently stained by the reckless and racist rhetoric of GOP presidential frontrunner, real estate tycoon and provocateur, Donald Trump.

He said he would “be progressive, probably not that too far a progressive” on social issues, but “more conservative in the fiscal realm.”

Eric Lesser on his first day as senator in 2015. (WMassP&I)

Eric Lesser on his first day as senator in 2015. (WMassP&I)

Harrington’s case against Lesser so far boils down to granular critiques while emphasizing local ties. To claim the Longmeadow Democrat is disconnected, Harrington pointed to Lesser’s votes on the Boston Convention Center and filing fees.

Yet pesky details undercut these criticisms. The expansion was approved before Lesser was elected. The issue only came before the Longmeadow Democrat once last year in the form of a budget amendment that would have repealed two 2014 laws that greenlit the expansion.

Lesser did cast one of 25 noes against the amendment. However, that vote came weeks after Baker himself had squelched the expansion. Observers and media reports at the time characterized Baker’s move as a pause to evaluate the state’s contribution to the project, a conversation the amendment would have bluntly ended. If anything, this vote casts more daylight between Baker and Harrington than Lesser and Western Massachusetts.

Carpenter, the select board candidate, piled on, accusing Lesser of underappreciating infrastructure problems here.

While the Lesser campaign could not be reached for comment, Oliveira praised Lesser’s outreach here.

“From the beginning he has been a presence in Ludlow,” Oliveira said, noting the senator had visited all of the schools and met with Ludlow’s and other local select boards during their regular meetings.

Gov. Charlie Baker has staked a lot on adding more charter schools, even poo-pooing compromises offered by Senate Dems. (WMassP&I)

Gov. Charlie Baker has staked a lot on adding more charter schools, even poo-pooing compromises offered by Senate Dems. (WMassP&I)

Harrington’s own record could complicate drawing from Baker’s well. As a member of the Ludlow School Committee, Harrington opposed Baker’s push to expand charter schools—by far the governor’s biggest and most intelligible legislative initiative. That puts him on the opposite side of a popular political figure Harrington needs come Fall.

Harrington countered by casting this divide as proof Republicans have a bigger tent than Democrats. The GOP can accommodate differing views on charter schools, he said, whereas Democrats maintain a rigid party line on issues like raising the minimum wage. (For what it’s worth, the Democratic party has a spectrum of opinion on charter schools and on how much and when to boost the minimum wage).

Needless to say, Harrington seemed unconcerned that he opposed the governor on charter schools.

“He knows my position,” Harrington told WMassP&I saying he had spoken with the governor personally on the matter. “I hope to get his endorsement.”

A spokesperson for the governor referred WMassP&I to the state GOP for comment about Baker suppporting Harrington and their disagreement on charter schools. The party did not return an email requesting comment.

Whether pursuit of Baker, who alienated the Republican right during the State Committee elections, will affect Harrington’s relationship with that faction is less clear. Some Republicans, speaking off the record, suggested hard-right Ludlowites might blank in Harrington’s race, but attempts to confirm such rumors with GOP activists directly were unsuccessful.

That leaves Harrington’s years in Ludlow public life as his surest starting point from which to branch out. Political figures like John “Iron Duke” Thompson grew out from their base here. Of course, Thompson, being a rep, only needed to keep Ludlow locked down to stay in power. And Lesser has his own strong local following in the district’s southern tier.

However Harrington may only look to the Iron Duke for only so much guidance. After all, Thompson made his mark on history as a Democrat…before being felled by scandal.

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