Recent Election Shows Chatham Democrats Now Dominate Political Landscape

By: Tim Wood

Republicans, who once dominated Chatham politics, are now a minority. 

CHATHAM – The late senator Paul Tsongas was fond of telling the story about looking for a vacation home on the Cape in the late 1980s. He asked House of Representatives Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill, a long-time Harwich homeowner, for advice. O'Neill recommended that Tsongas buy property in Chatham.

“Chatham is run by Republicans. It'll never change,” the speaker replied.

For decades, that was true; while the Lower Cape was for years more conservative than the rest of the peninsula and certainly the state, Chatham was a Republican stronghold. But as the results of last week's midterm election show, the political landscape in Chatham has shifted.

Currently, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by the largest margin ever. As has been the case for decades, however, voters registered as unenrolled — previously referred to as independent — outnumber both major parties. In the past the unenrolled vote largely broke for Republicans, but since the early 2000s that trend has shifted more toward Democrats, culminating in last week's election, when every Democratic candidate on the ballot won the Chatham vote.

“That was astonishing,” said William Litchfield, the town's moderator, a former selectman and one-time Democratic candidate for state representative.

The trend can even be seen on the current select board. Although nonpartisan, the board for most of the 20th century was reliably made up of Republicans. Today, three members are registered Democrats (Michael Schell, Shareen Davis and Cory Metters) and two are unenrolled (Jeffrey Dykens and Dean Nicastro).

While the majority of the board might lean left, they are, as were their Republican predecessors, more pragmatic than ideological.

“I think at the end of the day it's very focused on what are the problem and how do we solve them, and how to we generate consensus in the community,” said Schell, the board's newest member and chairman of the Chatham Democratic Town Committee.

The number of registered Democrats in town has steadily climbing since the early 2000s. In 1994, there were 855 registered Democrats and 1,693 registered Republicans. Democratic numbers started to rise in 2000, when 1,073 were registered compared to 1,785 Republicans. In 2012, the margin narrowed to 1,139 Democrats to 1,218 Republicans. In 2016, the positions reversed, with registered Democrats dominating, though just barely, at 1,184 to 1,153.

Ever since, the number of registered Democrats has risen while the number of registered Republicans has declined. By this year's midterm election, there were 1,349 Democrats registered compared to 1,029 Republicans.

The number of voters registered as unenrolled has been double either of the major parties going back at least to the 1990s. The number gradually climbed from 3,233 in 2000 to 3,794 this year.

The numbers only tell part of the story. Chatham voters actually began backing Democratic candidates before the party overtook Republicans in terms of the number registered. For many years, Republican candidates came out on top in Chatham, even when they lost regional, statewide or national elections. There were exceptions: Gerry Studds generally won Chatham voters when he ran for Congress, but Republican Senate, state representative and senate and county candidates tended to have an advantage. Ted Kennedy, a Cape favorite son, even lost in Chatham.

Chatham generally supported Republican presidential candidates, although Bill Clinton came close to taking the local vote from Bob Dole in 1996, with Dole pulling ahead by just 11 votes. In 2004 John Kerry became the first Democrat in decades (maybe longer) to top the vote in Chatham, besting George Bush, although again, it was close, 2,423 to 2,341. But in 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain here 2,585 to 2,116, and in 2012 Obama won against former Massachusetts governor Republican Mitt Romney, but narrowly, by just 13 votes.

In the 2016 presidential race, Hilary Clinton received more votes than Donald Trump, 2,398 to 1,796. On that same ballot, Barnstable County Commission candidate Ronald Beaty, a Republican, came in second in Chatham in a three-way race. In 2020, Chatham backed Joe Biden over Trump 3,107 to 1,834. There were fewer races on the ballot that year than in last week's election, but for the first time, Democrats swept the ballot in Chatham.

Shifting demographics may be one reason behind the change, which may not be unique to Chatham; it seems to be playing out in a number of Cape towns, said Diane Bronsdon, chair of the Chatham Republican Town Committee. Many of those retiring here or purchasing homes in recent years are coming from northeast metropolitan areas, like New York City and Boston, which tend to be heavily Democratic, she noted. She acknowledged that she was “quite surprised” by the outcome of last week's election, especially the Barnstable County Sheriff race, where former Republican state representative Tim Whelan of Brewster lost to Democrat Donna Buckley by just 75 votes. Whelan got the highest percentage of votes of any Republican on the ballot.

Litchfield said he remembers when a Democrat losing two-to-one in Chatham “was a great victory. That's no longer the case.” When growing up in Chatham, “most everyone was Republican,” and there were only about 80 registered Democrats. But the Republicans of that time, like Gov. Francis Sargent, “by modern standards would not be Republicans.”

“Maybe people haven't changed as much as the parties have,” Litchfield said.

Ronald Bergstrom, a former selectman who won re-election to the Barnstable County Commission as a Democrat last week, said the Republican party has drifted away from the “Yankee Republicans” that used to dominate Chatham.

“The change in the Republican party from fiscally conservative and strong defense to all these social issues, I think turned people off,” he said. “I think the Republican party here on the Cape has sort of lost its way. They don't really know who they are. Are they Charlie Baker Republicans or held in thrall to Trump?”

Schell said he thinks local Democratic candidates “really hustled” campaigning this fall.

“I think the [Democratic] town committee has gotten stronger,” he added. “I think people are more aware of issues that are more Democratic type issues,” such as housing.

“People are looking for centricity,” said Dykens, who is registered as unenrolled but aligns with Democrats. “They want us to get stuff done, and in order to get things done we have to work together. I think we saw that in the election results here and across the country.”

Bronsdon said local Republicans have always been pretty independent. “I wouldn't classify any of them I know as extremely right wing. They're mostly pragmatic.”

It would help if Republicans challenged more Democrats, she added. Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, was unopposed in last week's election, and hasn't faced a general election challenge since 2010. More debates would also help; the only local debate between incumbent Democrat Bill Keating and Republican challenger Jesse Brown for the Massachusetts Ninth District House seat took place five days before the election at Monomoy Regional High School.

“He did a good job,” Bronsdon said of Brown, “but it didn't have much of an impact. Candidates need more exposure like that.”

Chatham's conservative past was not completely absent from last week's election, going against the Cape and state majority in opposing Ballot Question 1, the so-called “millionaire's tax.”

It's clear, however, that the stigma of being a Democrat in Chatham has long worn off. Bergstrom recalled being told when he joined the Democratic Town Committee after first moving to town, “You sure you want to do that?” When he first bought his house here in the late 1990s, Schell said neighbors threw a party to welcome him to the neighborhood. Some guests were talking about how terrible Democrats were until he chimed in that he was a Democrat. There was silence until one neighbor, the late Grant Wilson, acknowledged that he, too, was a Democrat.

“Then it was OK,” Schell said.