When Representative Richard Neal arrived at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and saw the huge crowd that had turned out that summer day in 2009, he was thrilled. Wow, he thought, more than 200 people had shown up to hear his views on health care.
Those feelings lasted for about 15 seconds into his talk when an elderly woman stood up and began railing at him, egged on by hisses, boos, and raspberries from the crowd when he tried to answer her. It was the beginning of a nearly two-hour session full of rants about death panels, the “government takeover” of Medicare, and sometimes far-fetched fears about the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law the following year.
Neal, a Springfield Democrat, felt he was seeing the first explosive evidence of what was brewing at the precinct and ward levels of the towns he represented in Worcester County.
The once Democrat-dominated county — a collection of rural and suburban communities, three small cities, and the city of Worcester — is now a Republican enclave. It is the state’s epicenter for Tea Party activity. Some of the most conservative groups in the state GOP, many of them renegade competitors to the party establishment in Boston, are based in the county.
“It’s the most underreported political story in the state,’’ Neal said in a recent interview. His district, for many years until it was redrawn for the 2012 election, spread east from his home city, taking in the southern Worcester County communities along the Connecticut border and reaching into the Blackstone Valley.
The political shift gives Republicans fertile ground in a wide geographical swath in the middle of a very blue state. And it is giving them confidence that Worcester County, with its large — and growing — percentage of the state’s voting population, can be ground zero for its resurgence in Massachusetts.
It has also put Democrats on their heels as they work to hold back the GOP tide.
That may be difficult. Long-held Democratic legislative seats in the county are now held by Republicans. Republicans have doubled their grip on House seats, from five to 10, since 1990 and now have a majority of the House seats in the county.
Two Republicans have recently won election to top county posts that Democrats held for decades. Lew Evangelidis was elected sheriff in 2010, and political novice Stephanie Fattman pulled off a major upset last year when she beat an incumbent Democrat in the race for register of probate.
A Republican has represented the county on the Governor’s Council at the State House for the past four years. And Fattman’s husband, former state representative Ryan Fattman of Webster, last year crushed a respected longtime Democratic senator, Richard T. Moore.
With his choice of local state Representative Karyn Polito as his running mate, Governor Charlie Baker got an extra boost out of the county in last fall’s gubernatorial campaign. Baker won the county with 56 percent of the vote, to Democrat Martha Coakley’s 38 percent. In the 1990 governor’s race, by comparison, Republican William Weld carried the county by one-third of a percentage point over Democrat John Silber and barely eked out a statewide victory.
And now, for the first time in years, the GOP is making a play in heavily Democratic Worcester city politics, with many of its elected officials and activists rallying behind City Councilor Michael T. Gaffney, a Tea Party-leaning councilor who is challenging Mayor Joseph Petty’s run for a third term this year.
Drawn to his antigovernment, antitax rhetoric, Republican officeholders and activists have endorsed Gaffney, a registered independent, setting up a confrontation next November that could demonstrate the party’s reasons for optimism.
“The Republicans and the Tea Party want to make this race a test,’’ said Paul Giorgio, a Worcester political activist and consultant to Petty’s campaign. He predicted Petty would win easily. As for the Republicans’ success countywide, he said: “They’re certainly feeling their oats.”
Kirsten Hughes, the state Republican Party chairwoman, said party leaders see a huge potential for Worcester County to provide a revival for the party that has been outgunned by Democrats for decades.
“Since 2010, there has been an explosion,’’ she said. “It has been increasingly red, but it is now getting deep red.”
Hughes said that because Worcester County has a much larger percentage of voters than the few other GOP enclaves in Massachusetts, mostly in the Cape Cod area, the new crop of legislators and elected county officials finally gives the Republicans a bench of future state political figures, the lack of which has been a major hurdle for the party.
“That is where the farm team is the strongest,’’ Hughes said. “We think it can be our launching pad for candidates for statewide office.”
To be sure, Democrats are still the dominant force in some key areas. They hold four out of five county-based state Senate seats. They also hold two of the most important local offices: the state’s Second District congressional seat, held by Representative James P. McGovern; and the district attorney’s seat, held by Joseph Early Jr., a conservative Democrat who has crafted a popular, tough-on-crime image.
The question is how much more will change and how fast. It has, after all, taken several decades to get the GOP to this point.
When Neal first campaigned in his district beginning in 1988, he could count on places like Uxbridge, Sutton, and Spencer, where he would win by ratios of 2 to 1 or more over his Republican challengers. But by 2010, the margins in those Worcester County towns and others were reversed.
“I saw this huge change; it was transformative,” said Neal, dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. When his district was redrawn four years ago, he retained just a few of the Worcester towns he had represented.
The first eye-opener for Neal came in the epic 1996 battle when Weld challenged Senator John F. Kerry, who was seeking his third term. Kerry won statewide by a comfortable margin, but he lost Worcester County.
In his 1990 race against a heavily self-financed Republican James Rappaport, Kerry had won the county 52 to 48 percent.
The consensus from both sides of the political aisle is that the rise of the Republican Party’s power in Worcester County is a result of a shift in the county’s demographics in the last quarter-century — the exodus of conservative and moderate Democrats from the urban centers — as well as an exodus of local voters from the Democratic Party.
At one end of the economic spectrum, the change has come from an influx of white-collar voters, drawn to the area by lower housing prices, less traffic, and good health care, according to both Democratic and Republican analysts. They are registering as independents and are willing to vote Republican.
The number of unenrolled, or independent, voters surged between 1990 and 2014, growing from 137,272 to 298,776.
“They are a newer breed of independent voters, fiscally conservative and socially moderate, who will look at Republican candidates favorably,’’ Evangelidis said.
Moore said his constituency work in his district and his ability to get state funding for projects always kept him in good standing in his Uxbridge-based district in the past.
But last year he could see the difference in the electoral makeup. The newcomers to his Senate district were not as connected to the communities in which they lived and did not care what a legislator could do for the towns, Moore said. The constituency that sent him to Beacon Hill for so many years — blue-collar workers who believed in FDR’s Democratic Party values and looked upon government as a force for good in their lives — had died off.
“A lot people don’t work locally, they’re not part of the community and not active,’’ he said of the current constituency. “They would rather have the money in their pockets than for the region as a whole.’’
Another source of the Republicans’ growing strength, according to analysts, is disaffected Democrats who have settled in suburban towns and rural communities and away from rapidly diversifying cities where they grew up. They feel they have lost control of their lives and blame President Obama and liberal politicians.
Lou DiNatale, a Democratic political analyst and longtime Worcester County activist, said those voters feel alienated from the Democratic Party and its socially liberal, pro-immigration, antigun agenda and are angry over their stagnant wages and what they see as burdensome taxes.
“Worcester County is ground zero in Massachusetts for noncollege white voter reactionary behavior,’’ said DiNatale, who grew up in a working-class family in Leominster.
“They have fears of immigrants when there aren’t any in their communities, fears of benefit losses to immigrants, and a hostility to institutions across the board — governments, corporations, the media.
DiNatale and others say those former Democrats feel alienated from their party, believing it has become dominated by elite liberals more concerned with social issues than the issues they care about.