State Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, won his House seat over a decade ago by defeating a Democratic lawmaker in an election so close it had to be held twice. The first contest ended in a tie, and Durant won by 56 votes the second time.
Two years later, Gardner Democrat Jonathan Zlotnik knocked off an incumbent Republican representative in a nearby district. Zlotnik was freshly out of college at the time, and recalls the victory as unexpected.
“I don’t think there were too many people that put big bets on me that campaign,” he said.
Now, with Reps. Durant and Zlotnik days away from facing off in a Nov. 7 special election for an open state Senate seat, political power players on both sides of the aisle are anteing up.
The central Massachusetts district was last represented by Spencer Democrat Anne Gobi, who resigned in June to become Gov. Maura Healey's director of rural affairs. It's considered an unusually competitive seat in the Massachusetts Legislature, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 6 to 1.
For Republicans, the Worcester and Hampshire Senate race represents a chance to write a new narrative after a series of inter-party battles and a 2022 election that shut them out of statewide office.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to do a couple things, one of which is to start bringing some balance,” Durant said. “I get it: 4 out of 40 senators does not make a balanced Legislature, but I do think it starts that process and it helps change the conversation. If people voice their concern and voice that they want to basically flip a seat and say we want some representation up here that’s more in tune with us, that can bring a little bit of balance to the conversation.”
Democrats, too, see high stakes.
In an email encouraging Democrats to make campaign calls for Zlotnik, Reproductive Equity Now President Rebecca Hart Holder highlighted his past House votes for abortion-access measures — and Durant's votes against them.
"Massachusetts cannot be complacent to anti-abortion threats," she wrote. "In a post-Roe world, it's essential that we elect champions for reproductive freedom up and down the ballot. Jon Zlotnik is our candidate in this race, and we need your help to get out the vote this November 7th."
The district encompasses the city of Gardner, parts of Worcester, and 20 other suburban and rural towns, from Hardwick and Ware at its western boundary to Sterling and Holden at its easternmost.
Though its lines have shifted over time, the seat has been held by a Democrat for more than 50 years. Gobi, the most recent, represented some of the most reliably Republican-voting towns in Massachusetts.
Of the 21 communities that are fully within the district, 11 voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and last year, 16 backed Republican gubernatorial hopeful Geoff Diehl over Healey.
Zlotnik noted that in the House, the same set of municipalities is represented by four Democrats, three Republicans, and the body's sole independent lawmaker.
"It's important that the senator for this district is someone who has a track record and an ability and a reputation for working well across party lines, for bringing together diverse political groups like this, because we need to be able to work really well together," Zlotnik said.
He considers himself a good fit for the district.
"I am, I think by any barometer, a moderate. And I also think that government ... works best when it works for everybody, and that means people on the left, people on the right," he said.
Durant sees another unique feature to the territory he and Zlotnik are vying to represent: It’s home to what he believes is the largest concentration of sportsmen's clubs in Massachusetts.
Members of some sportsmen's clubs joined other gun owners in opposition to a gun law overhaulthe House passed last month. Both Durant and Zlotnik voted against the bill, and Durant in particular has been vocal in his criticism.
Durant joined a Gun Owners Action League rally against the bill in September, and the Massachusetts Republican Party issued a statement after the House vote emphasizing his stance.
Both candidates have collected a slew of endorsements from within their parties. Notably, Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll are behind Zlotnik, while former Gov. Charlie Baker and former Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito back Durant. Lawmakers in both parties are also picking sides.
Several of the Senate's 36 Democrats have come out to canvass or hold signs for Zlotnik, including Senate President Karen Spilka. Meanwhile, the Senate's three Republicans hosted a "unity event" with Durant and Bruce Chester, who lost to Durant in an October primary.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr told GBH News he sees “a lot of unity among the various factions” of his party as the special election approaches and believes that improves the GOP’s odds.
"There's a lot of hard work being done, and I think Peter Durant would be a very strong voice for central Massachusetts in the Senate — not just for Republicans, but for all of the people in the region,” Tarr said.
Tarr is the highest-ranking elected Republican in Massachusetts. After Baker opted not to seek a third term and last year's election ushered in Healey to succeed him, all statewide offices are now held by Democrats.
The 2022 elections also saw the GOP lose ground in the Legislature. While all three Senate Republicans were reelected, Democrats picked up four House seats, giving them their largest House majority since 2009.
Durant came to Beacon Hill in 2011, part of a wave in which Republicans doubled their ranks in the House. He’s watched his party’s numbers dwindle, and hopes 2022 represented its “low-water mark.”
“We struggled as a party here in Massachusetts, and especially over the last four years under our previous leadership,” Durant said. “We have new leadership in the party. I really do feel like everybody is rowing in the same direction for this election. It feels good that you’ve got a team behind you and you’ve got a lot of people who’ve come out in support of that.”
Though most state lawmakers in Massachusetts run unopposed in any given year, Zlotnik has regularly faced Republican challengers. He said he's been "on the GOP target list" since winning his initial 2012 race, and feels buoyed by support from both fellow lawmakers and local officials in the district.
“One of the things that I’ve really tried to do is work well with others,” Zlotnik said. “I think that’s what we should be doing and I think that’s more productive for our constituents.”
In the run-up to Tuesday's election, the two candidates say they're spending their final days focused on turning out supporters and continuing to introduce themselves to their would-be constituents.
Both anticipate an intense push to the finish: Durant described himself as over-caffeinated, and Zlotnik said he's not expecting much sleep.