LITTLETON -- With no opponent in the Republican primary, Rick Green spent close to a year running for the 3rd Congressional District out of the spotlight, keeping his presence known but having to wait until the 10-way Democratic primary settled to know his opponent would be Lori Trahan.
Now that the race is clearly defined, Green said his campaign has not changed beyond bringing on additional staff and volunteers. He continues to talk about infrastructure and opioids, two of his central themes, more than almost any other topic, and most days are a string of events to meet voters.
But despite Green's efforts, a significant question lingers as the general election draws near: can he do enough to win in a district that, despite a somewhat independent bent, has not elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 46 years?
"As a Republican, you've got to work harder," Green said. "It's just that simple. But my whole life, I've done things that people told me weren't possible, and I did it by working harder and smarter than anyone else. That's my path: work harder, work smarter."
Green came into the race with a footprint in the district and personal wealth. He and his brother founded 1A Auto, an online auto parts retailer that also produces instructional videos on how customers can perform repairs themselves, in 2000.
He draws frequently on this background on the campaign trail, arguing that it portrays a record of success without the kind of political connections he thinks voters do not want to see. For outside observers and experts, that could be an important part of his strategy.
"Green should promote himself as a businessman and portray Trahan as an insider if he's going to have a chance to win," said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist and commentator. "But to do that, he has to spend millions of dollars on advertising given where we are in this race. It's not clear to me that he's making a commitment to do that as of now."
The Republican is also the founder of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit group that has sent sharply critical mailers during election seasons while resisting calls to disclose its donors.
Despite Green's credentials, he faces a significant challenge. The 3rd District does have a history of voting for Republican candidates in certain races -- in his victorious 2010 U.S. Senate special election, Scott Brown received about 56 percent of the vote in the 3rd District compared to about 52 percent in Massachusetts as a whole, while Gov. Charlie Baker received 51 percent of the vote in the 3rd District compared to 48.4 percent statewide.
That trend does not carry across all electoral levels, though. In 2016, the 3rd District voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 23-point margin. The last Republican to win the House of Representatives seat covering the Greater Lowell area, either the 5th District until 2012 or the 3rd District since then, was Paul Cronin in 1972.
This year's election model from FiveThirtyEight, a data-minded media website, gives Green less than a 1 percent chance of winning as of last Friday, based on the district's partisan history and fundraising numbers so far. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group, rates the district as a "Solid Democrat" seat.
Gray described Green's task as "a very steep climb," while UMass Lowell political science professor John Cluverius called it an "uphill battle" for the Republican candidate.
"I know there's a desire by both sides to manage expectations, but the starting point of the race is that Democrats are outperforming in special elections their nationally expected results by high single- and double-digits," Cluverius said. "In a year that is so good for Democrats, something completely unexpected would have to occur to shift the district in favor of the Republican candidate."
Green has, to a degree, done what experts said he would need to do to put up the most competitive campaign possible. Gray suggested he invest heavily in himself and spend on ad buys, and even before the general election cycle started, Green loaned his campaign $170,000. Cluverius said Green would find success running a relatively moderate campaign and speaking about less partisan issues such as infrastructure, which is a favorite topic of Green's.
During an interview at 1A Auto's Littleton warehouse this week, Green said the two issues he hears most about on the trail are infrastructure improvements and the opioid epidemic. A central campaign promise of his is to repair Lowell's Rourke Bridge and the Route 2 rotary in Concord.
So far, Green has seemed to make a point of focusing more on those preferred topics than than more contentious or partisan national issues. In a recent 20-minute interview with The Sun, he rarely spoke about either political party or the Trump administration. Asked which politicians he admires, he jokingly answered with his own name and then said Charlie Baker.
He criticized divisiveness in Washington, but when asked what he believed to be the source of that division, he did not offer a specific answer. Instead, he said, he would rather focus on ways to solve it. Asked how closely his campaign is working with the national GOP, he said he is "running this race for the people of the 3rd District" and does not expect support from anywhere else.
Trahan has already made a point, though, to try and link Green closely to Trump. In a press conference as she accepted the nomination, she called Green "another voice, another vote for this president and his divisive policies," and that trend is sure to continue as the campaign unfolds.
"Any characterization of me as anything other than a reliable servant to the people of this 3rd District is flat-out a mischaracterization, plain and simple," Green said when asked for a response this week.
To this point, most of Green's criticism has focused on his opponent. His campaign is quick with press releases commenting on her pulling out of a debate or canceling an appearance at a rally last-minute, and he said this week that he believes her positions on issues are inconsistent.
"It's hard to understand where she is on most issues," Green said. "She's taken as many positions as Baskin Robbins has flavors when we've gone back and looked at it."
Pressed for specific examples of inconsistency, Green said Trahan violated her campaign slogan of "Born Raised Stayed" by traveling to New York City and Washington after the primary. (In a statement, Trahan spokeswoman Gretchen Grosky again linked Green to the president: "Rick Green can talk about ice cream," she said, mentioning health care, gun control and women's rights as areas in which he is "consistent in supporting the divisive policies of this administration.")
Whether the race between Green and Trahan will remain surface-level sparring or devolve into a more contentious affair remains to be seen. The two will mutually participate in at least one debate, perhaps more. In the meantime, Green said he will focus on face-to-face campaigning as much as possible.
"We have to go direct to the folks," he said. "If we're able to do that, to work hard enough, it's a winning strategy."
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