Ayanna Pressley and Lori Trahan both won congressional primaries earlier this month, after trailing in the polls. Both will probably be sworn in next January—Pressley is unopposed in November, and all the major political rating services have labeled Trahan a “Solid” favorite to defeat Republican Rick Green—and will likely go on to represent Massachusetts in Washington for years to come.

Only one, however, has attracted massive in-state and national attention, with analysis of how she won and speculation about what she represents for the future of the Democratic Party.

To some degree, that’s understandable. Pressley knocked off a 20-year incumbent in the population and media center of the region; Trahan won an open seat in an out-of-the-way district along the New Hampshire border. Pressley was already a well-known figure; Trahan was virtually unknown. Pressley is a dynamic, exciting orator threatening to shake up the status quo; Trahan is a business-like pragmatic who seems a near carbon copy of her district’s retiring representative, Niki Tsongas.

But in fact, the differences between the two are perfectly reflective of the districts that chose them—and that’s precisely what they have in common. It just might be that locally-driven heterogeneity is the direction that congressional Democrats are heading.

“That’s exactly it,” says congresswoman Katherine Clark, who represents the district sandwiched between Trahan’s and Pressley’s, and who serves as recruitment vice chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for this election cycle. “What we’re seeing around the country are candidates that reflect the values and concerns of the people in their district.”

Trahan’s 3rd district in north-central Massachusetts runs from Gardner and Fitchburg in the west to Lawrence and Haverhill in the east, dipping as far south as Concord and Marlborough. There are liberal pockets, and all the major national rating services have labeled it a “solid Democratic” district this year. But it is largely working class, white, non-urban, and ideologically moderate.

Republican Presidential candidates typically get around 40 percent of the vote there (a little less for Donald Trump), compared to more than 80 percent in Pressley’s 7th district. And Charlie Baker won it over Martha Coakley by 20,000 votes in 2014.

That’s presumably why Trahan wasn’t doomed by her 2014 contribution to Baker’s gubernatorial campaign, or, perhaps worse in Democrats’ eyes, one to Tim Cahill’s 2010 campaign against Deval Patrick.

And, it’s why Trahan campaigned as a “pragmatic progressive,” rather than a strident or outraged one.

The idea, says Trahan campaign advisor Eileen O’Connor of Keyser Public Strategies, was to show that she was “fired up about the issues that matter, but also willing to assemble coalitions, find common ground, and work across the aisle to get things done.”

That presumably wouldn’t have flown in the 7th; just as Pressley’s rousing rhetoric, identity politics, and fighting spirit might not have played well in the 3rd.

But it had less to do with positions on major policy issues—which, much like in Pressley’s campaign against Michael Capuano, were a matter of broad agreement in the 3rd district primary—and was more about style, temperament, approach, and an authentic connection to the district.

In fact, where the voters of Boston, Somerville, and elsewhere in the 7th district were looking for a change, candidates in greater Lowell seemed happy to find the closest thing to the current, retiring incumbent.
“Niki and Lori have similar styles,” says Clark. “She is like Niki, who doesn’t seek the headlines or the Sunday talk shows, but works hard every day, and gets things done for the district however she can.”

Disciplined, focused, and local

To be fair, Trahan did not exactly win by being the right fit for the entire district. She did it by being the right fit for a sufficient portion of the district.

In fact, Trahan did not finish second in any of the district’s 37 cities and towns. She finished first in 12 of them, all in a contiguous cluster from Townsend to Dracut—broadly speaking, the Lowell-centric core of the 3rd congressional district. Those 12 municipalities gave Trahan nearly two-thirds of her total vote.

She finished no better than third in the northeast bloc of Andover/Haverhill/Lawrence/Methuen; the western towns of Worcester county; or the leafy liberal southern enclaves such as Concord and Acton. But, she ran consistently well everywhere, and scooped up enough votes to fill in what she needed to win.

She also ran a smart, disciplined campaign. She raised money early, and saved most of it for the final stretch of the campaign—trusting the strategy even as she fell behind bigger spenders in the polls. She focused heavily on her geographic base, making sure that voters in greater Lowell saw her, and heard her message, multiple times over a year of non-stop campaigning.

And, of course, she was helped by a 10-candidate field carving up the electorate, allowing her to win, by just a hair over Dan Koh, with 22% of the primary vote.

The difference, in large part, was the perception that Trahan is truly dedicated to and in touch with the local area—an important factor for a region where people often feel forgotten in the shadows of Boston and Worcester.
Even Tsongas, whose name is nearly synonymous with Lowell, nearly lost back in 2007 because of concerns that she had moved to Charlestown and lost touch with the Merrimack Valley.

Trahan took advantage of a perception that some of her opponents were, to carrying degrees, carpetbagging. Koh, though he grew up in the district, had been living and working in Boston. Rufus Gifford moved from Boston to Concord just before the campaign. And Barbara L’Italien lives in a part of Andover that lies just outside the district line.

Trahan branded herself in not-too-subtle contrast. Her campaign used the hashtag #LorifromLowell on Twitter, and boasted of raising the most money from within the district. She repeated a tagline, “I was born here, I was raised here, and I stayed here,” in debates and throughout the campaign.

That’s not something Chicago-raised Pressley could say—but local roots weren’t as important in a district where many voters have blown in themselves from elsewhere in the country. There, voters found their connection with Pressley through the sense that she has directly experienced more of their problems and frustrations than Michael Capuano had. Her mantra, “those closest to the pain should be closest to the power,” was a reference to class, race, gender, and victimization, not geography.

Same story, of differences

Political analysts have noted that, for the most part, moderate, establishment-backed candidates have been winning Democratic primaries in districts the party needs to win, if it hopes to win majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

That’s not, however, so much because the national party establishment has been forcing its will upon voters in those swing districts. It’s more because the establishment has started to learn to follow those voters, and support candidates with local appeal, rather than those with the right connections.

“The party has a history of picking the next guy in line—and it’s almost always a man; someone who has put in his time,” says congressman Seth Moulton, who bucked the establishment to oust John Tierney four years ago, in a district abutting Trahan’s. “We need to find leaders who fit their districts.”

As Moulton suggests, outside party regulars have historically not always had their finger on the local or regional pulse. And, most national establishment backing didn’t get behind Trahan or Pressley, either.

On the other hand, at least in the 3rd district, those national party organizations mostly stayed out, and let the locals work it out. That included, crucially, EMILY’s List, which declined to choose among the five women in the race. Even Tsongas herself steered clear.

Elsewhere in the country, Clark has emphasized local authenticity while recruiting and supporting a slate of candidates in the DCCC Red To Blue program, aimed at winning seats currently held by Republicans.

Those candidates include Mikie Sherrill, a Navy pilot, federal prosecutor, and “highly successful suburban mom,” in the words of one Democratic party staffer, running in the upscale suburban New Jersey 11th district; Xochitl Torres Small, a second-generation American running in New Mexico in large part on her expertise in water management issues; and Richard Ojeda, a pro-coal Trump voter who probably couldn’t win any Democratic primary other than the West Virginia 3rd, but whose local flair and populist leadership during a statewide teachers’ strike has turned the race surprisingly competitive.

Moulton, who backs candidates for Congress with endorsements and through his Serve America PAC, says that local authenticity is the constant he sees in this year’s successful Democratic candidates.

“Lori Trahan is really seen as a native daughter of Lowell, and is still embraced by that community,” Moulton says. “Then you look at someone like Elissa Slotkin, an extraordinary woman I’ve endorsed in Michigan. She spends a lot of time talking about farming, and raising pigs, and making hot dogs. They’re both extraordinary candidates, and will be great representatives of their districts in Congress.”

Moulton has also backed Jared Golden, a tattooed, casual-dressing former Marine with a Maine authenticity that can’t be faked; and Amy McGrath, a former independent ideologically in synch with the conservative Kentucky 6th district.
Sometimes, of course, the locals know better than Moulton. He backed Maura Sullivan, a Harvard educated ex-Marine, in New Hampshire, as did many national Democrats. She was painted as a carpetbagger beholden to outsiders, and lost her primary to local stalwart Chris Pappas.

Most of these Democratic nominees are running on local, rather than national themes for the general election. Pappas touts a “Homegrown Campaign Pledge.” “Xochitl Is New Mexico,” touts the boldfaced headline on Torres Small’s introductory web page. Ads focus far more on opioids, local industry, and health care premiums than on the various daily dramas of the Trump administration.

But what if they win?

These candidates, by reflecting their individual districts, might be increasing the Democrats’ chances of winning back majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives. But what then?

How does a Democratic caucus made up of both Pressley and Trahan, and other equally different new members—along with the hearty returning liberals from safely blue districts—agree upon issues, priorities, tactics, and leadership?
It might not be as difficult as it seems on the surface. After all, when you get down to it, there are few significant policy differences between Trahan and Pressley. That’s generally true for most Democratic candidates across the country.

“They may have different styles and priorities, but the core values are there,” Clark says.

Moulton argues that the party will be well served by “having a diverse caucus that represents the country.”

Besides, he says with a laugh, given the current situation, “anything that helps us win the majority helps us to govern.”