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‘A little red pocket on the New Hampshire border’: The national fissures splitting a competitive Mass. state rep. race

Main Street in downtown Pepperell, which will choose a new state representative this fall.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PEPPERELL — In this community of 11,000, you can visit the closest skydive site to Boston or walk along a picturesque covered bridge. Nearby Groton is known for its prestigious college-prep schools and a tranquil rail trail that meanders up the Nashua River.

This stretch of the Nashoba Valley near the New Hampshire border is also home to what observers see as one of Massachusetts’ most competitive races for the state House of Representatives, a contest with just about as much ideological diversity as Massachusetts can muster, and a rare pickup opportunity for Democrats.

The race for the GOP nomination between a hard-line and a moderate Republican is also a brass-knuckle brawl of a reminder that national fissures — over whether the 2020 election was stolen, for instance — can still divide the most local contests, even in a state like Massachusetts.

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The district’s longtime Republican representative, Sheila Harrington, resigned after Governor Charlie Baker picked her for a clerk magistrate job.

Now, in spite of headwinds that could make the midterms a banner year for Republicans across the country, Massachusetts Democrats see a prime opportunity to flip a seat that has been in GOP hands since 1984, with Margaret Scarsdale, former chair of the Pepperell Select Board, set to be the party’s standard bearer in the race.

Two candidates who have never held elected office are vying for the Republican nomination. Andrew Shepherd, a farmer with moderate politics, and Lynne Archambault, a fitness studio owner who takes a more MAGA stance.

So, who’s leading?

“I don’t think anyone’s a shoo-in right now,” said Karen Riggert, a Groton resident, independent, and a friend of Harrington who previously worked on her campaigns. “Sheila was lucky to be in office for as long as she was.”

The 40,000-resident district — which includes all or part of Groton, Lunenburg, Pepperell, Ashby, Townsend, and Dunstable — sits at a political crossroads. Harrington was first elected in 2010 and reelected five times, mostly without having to put up much of a fight. She’s a well-liked moderate Republican who was endorsed by Governor Charlie Baker. But in 2020, a Democrat, Deb Busser, came close to unseating her, losing by about 800 votes.

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Busser, though, isn’t too shocked at the loss.

“You’ve got to understand — the district has always been more conservative, and for a long time has been a little red pocket on the New Hampshire border,” Busser said.

Still, in 2020, Joe Biden would have won nearly 56 percent of the vote under the newly drawn district lines, boundaries that will be used starting this election. But historically, the area has routinely elected Republicans at the state level.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who represents towns just south of the district, described the purple 1st Middlesex District as a far cry from eastern Massachusetts.

It’s “ignored by Boston and the State House, and that’s everything from fixing roads and bridges to not providing enough support to rural school districts to underwhelming job growth,” he said.

That constellation of concerns has made the district fertile political ground for a moderate Republican, observers say.

Andrew Shepherd, a candidate for the GOP nomination for state representative, spoke to attendees of Republican candidates night at the Pepperell VFW Post 3291. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

And of the candidates running, the one hewing closest to Harrington’s brand of politics is Shepherd, who runs a Townsend water delivery company.

A mustache-sporting, button-down-wearing farmer whose family has called the district home for more than 100 years, Shepherd peppers his Facebook page with a hodgepodge of patriotic posts and “Tractor Talk” videos. And while Shepherd holds some conservative views, such as opposing vaccine mandates, he leans into conciliation and moderation, and says, for example, when it comes to abortion, the government shouldn’t “tell somebody what to do in that regard.”

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“In my opinion, people who supported Sheila and align themselves with her views and her values will support Andrew,” said Joanne Foran, who ran several of Harrington’s campaigns.

Shepherd, who interned for Harrington and Baker, said he’s forging his “own brand of Republicanism.”

When asked, he wouldn’t share his presidential vote in 2020.

“I’m not interested in the national brand of politics,” Shepherd said. He prioritizes securing state funding for the district and juicing what he characterized as a sluggish local economy.

“I’m the guy that’s shoveling that turkey [excrement],” Shepherd, who raises turkeys, said at a recent campaign event. “And I’m ready to go down to Beacon Hill and shovel the [excrement] . . . for our district.”

Lynne Archambault watched as Andrew Shepherd shared his message with Republican and independent voters at the Pepperell VFW Post 3291. Both are running for the Republican nomination for state representative.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

But there is a more conservative strain of Republican politics in the district, one that is ascendant in the Massachusetts state party and the national GOP.

From Shepherd’s right comes his primary challenger: Lynne Archambault, a Pepperell mother of three, schoolteacher, and owner of a fitness studio in Pepperell.

Archambault is running on a platform of stopping critical race theory from being taught in schools, pushing back on vaccine mandates, and supporting the police.

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“We share a lot of conservative beliefs,” Shepherd said of his primary challenger. “I think we go about it a little differently.”

She is a self-described “conservative Republican” who voted for Trump in 2020 but said going forward she’s a fan of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis if he steps into the 2024 presidential race.

Informational pamphlets propped up a table leg at Republican candidates night. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Archambault released what she called a voter’s guide. It said her opponent doesn’t oppose vaccine mandates and doesn’t oppose critical race theory in public school curriculums. Shepherd said he was “disgusted” at this, wondering how she could get away with misconstruing his positions.

One late June evening, Pepperell’s senior center held a candidates night featuring all four challengers. The GOP differences were stark.

One resident stood up and asked all the candidates to give a yes or no: “Do you believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump?”

Outright “no’s” from three candidates. Archambault paused.

“I’m going to say there was some fraud,” she said. “But I am not qualified to say if it was stolen.”

On abortion, Archambault describes herself as “pro-life.”

Shepherd highlighted the opportunity for the district to run a local electric utility and said he wanted to stay out of federal issues. Archambault’s first words in her opening statement at the Republican debate: “Joe Biden.”

Whoever the GOP victor, Democrats are counting on their presumptive nominee, Scarsdale, who has racked up a number of endorsements from liberal statewide organizations and sitting lawmakers. She is embedded in local politics. A Georgia transplant, she first ran a writing and consulting business and had stints in environmental activism.

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Margaret Scarsdale, a Democratic candidate for state representative, bumped elbows during a NoWoCo (North Worcester County) Pride Flag raising ceremony and celebration in Lunenburg.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Scarsdale, who will face the GOP nominee along with independent Catherine Lundeen, said she is “fiscally conservative” and “socially responsible,” repeatedly describing herself as someone who rolls up their sleeves. She voted for Baker and Biden, and touted her “lifelong Republican supporters.”

In an interview, Scarsdale struggled to answer questions about several of her policy proposals.

When asked about her priorities if elected, Scarsdale said she hopes to reform how soil dumping sites, like one planned in Pepperell, are selected, but she said she’s unsure if this could be addressed via legislative action. Scarsdale added she hoped to secure more state aid for local schools and fund workforce development in environmentally sustainable industries.

Whatever issues most animate voters, local or national, old-school door-knocking might decide the race.

Said Foran, the former Harrington aide: “It’s literally going to be who has a stronger presence.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story deviated from the way Lynne Archambault characterizes her position on abortion. She describes herself as “pro-life.”


Simon J. Levien was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow him on Twiitter @simonjlevien.