Two years after the Tea Party surge helped double Republicans’ numbers in the state House of Representatives, Democrats are trying to beat back legislative gains by conservatives while outnumbered Republicans are trying to capitalize on pockets of conservatism in a deep blue state.
Some of the hottest races to watch this season are rematches between candidates who faced tense showdowns in 2010. In the state Senate, President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, faces a second duel with Thomas F. Keyes, a Sandwich Republican who nearly displaced her by claiming 48 percent of the vote in 2010.
In the House, Republican Representative Steven Levy faces a challenge from Marlborough Democrat Danielle Gregoire, whom Levy edged out of office by about 100 votes in 2010. And Representative James J. Lyons Jr. will face Democrat Barbara L’Italien, whom he ousted in 2010.
Lyons, of Andover, is viewed as the most conservative of the pack of freshman Republicans in the House — 15 newcomers whom Democrats have had their eyes on. This year, Lyons held a sit-in in the House chamber until the Patrick administration disclosed how much the state spends on health care for illegal immigrants. He has also sponsored bills that are viewed by women’s groups as restricting contraception or abortion, making him a target of the left.
Despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a liberal state on women’s issues, Beacon Hill is divided on abortion rights, with less than half of lawmakers considered solid votes for abortion rights.
With many races still too close to call, abortion activists are worrying about their margins — especially since the Republican nominee for president, former governor Mitt Romney, has expressed interest in returning decisions on abortion rights to individual states.
“In the 2010 election, we lost over a dozen prochoice seats and we walked into the last legislative session with a one-vote prochoice majority,” said Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
“We haven’t been immune to the antichoice wave that has taken over the country over the past two years,” Amundson said.
Fresh off US Senator Scott Brown’s special election, Republicans made gains in the State House in the last election, despite losing elections at the top of the ticket, including the governor’s race.
But Democratic dominance continues on Beacon Hill: The 40-memberSenate now includes just four Republicans. And Republican gains in the 160-member House have only brought their numbers to 33.
As a result, Democrats continue to have a lock on legislative leadership, despite scandals and complaints about one-party dominance on Beacon Hill.
Republican spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement that incumbent Democrats “will hike taxes on Massachusetts’ working families because they are incapable of controlling spending.
The party responsible for 23 years of criminal House speakers either has trouble with simple math or is hiding their only fix to the budget mess, which is raising taxes after the elections.”
Republicans constitute just 11.3 percent of Massachusetts’ registered voters. Democrats make up nearly 35.6 percent, while 53 percent are unenrolled.
But Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in the Legislature in conservative swaths of the state — and the biggest prize would be in Plymouth, where the Democratic Senate president barely beat back a challenge from a Republican last time around.
Murray’s challenger is a management consultant specializing in ethics and compliance, who recently drew Democratic fire for failing to include on his ethics disclosure forms a house he had bought and that he obtained a mortgage through friends, according to the State House News Service.
The news service reported that Keyes blamed the mistake on a glitch in the state computer system. But Keyes has made transparency a theme of his candidacy, and the Democratic party seems eager to pounce on Republicans’ ethical or legal problems, after seeing their party’s last three House speakers indicted and a scandal in the Probation Department cast a continuing cloud over some lawmakers’ futures.
“It’s hard for the Republican party to be making a consistent case here,” said Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh.
Republicans meanwhile are hoping to hold onto a rare Republican seat in Pembroke, where Republican Daniel K. Webster of Pembroke is stepping down after being accused, as an attorney, of misusing client funds. The allegations surfaced before the primary, at which point, Webster faced a late primary challenge from a write-in candidate — his onetime campaign manager Republican Karen Barry. He won the primary, but later bowed out, letting Barry become the GOP nominee. Democrats however believe they have a good shot at claiming that seat through their candidate, Josh Cutler, a newspaper editor from Duxbury.
Republicans are also eyeing an open seat in Franklin, where Democratic Representative James Vallee resigned in June and Republican Richard A. Eustis faces Democrat Jeffrey N. Roy.
The GOP hopes to capitalize on support spreading outward from its traditional corridor between Interstate 495 and Route 128. The 2010 election brought a westward push into outlying turf as several GOP candidates claimed districts that had not traditionally been Republican.
But Democrats are trying to halt the tide and hope they have challengers strong enough to return two of those districts to Democratic control.
They have their sights set on Representative Richard Bastien, a Gardner Republican who faces opposition from Democrat Jon Zlotnik, as well as Representative Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who squeaked into office in 2010 by one vote and who now faces Democrat Kathleen Walker, a member of the Charlton Board of Selectmen.
Republicans are also trying to unseat Democratic incumbents in districts where they think they can make inroads with conservatives. Plymouth School Committee member Debra Betz is challenging Democratic Representative Thomas J. Calter of Kingston and Republican Jon Fetherston is trying to edge out incumbent Democratic Representative Tom Sannicandro in Ashland.
A number of races are contentious in the Merrimack Valley, in addition to the Lyons-L’Italien contest. Both parties have designs on the seat left open by State Senator Steven Baddour.
Haverhill School Committee member Shaun P. Toohey, a Republican, faces Newburyport City Councilor Kathleen A. O’Connor Ives, a Democrat, and two unenrolled challengers, Amesbury Municipal Councilor James Kelcourse and Haverhill School Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti.
Also in the Merrimack Valley, Representative Paul Adams, a Republican, is leaving his seat to challenge Senator Barry R. Finegold, a Democrat from Andover. Democrats say they see potential for Lawrence City Council president Frank Moran to pick up Adams’s former seat; he faces unenrolled candidate Kevin M. Cuff.