BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker kept Republicans relevant in deep-blue Massachusetts. Now his exit has the GOP at each others’ throats.
Baker announced this week that he wouldn’t seek a third term. But with no heir apparent — giving Democrats their clearest shot at the corner office in a decade — his fellow moderate Republicans are scrambling to find someone to battle a Donald Trump-backed conservative in the 2022 primary.
“It’s a battle for the soul of the party,” former GOP state party chair Jennifer Nassour, a Baker ally, said in an interview. “And I don’t think it was while there was still hope that Charlie was going to run.”
Republicans have clung to relevancy in this bluest of blue state through a long line of moderate governors, including one-time presidential nominee and sitting Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who appealed across party lines even as Democratic supermajorities in the state Legislature continued to grow.
But Trump’s rise splintered the party, pitting a popular governor who repudiated Trump against a conservative state party chair who embraced the former president and his rhetoric. Now that power struggle is turning into an all-out war without Baker or Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who also passed on a 2022 run, to keep things in check.
“The Massachusetts GOP is, in my estimation, in a bad place — riddled with conflict, declining membership, declining coffers and declining representation in the state Legislature. And now we just lost the two things we could point to proudly,” said Anthony Amore, a former Republican nominee for secretary of state. “Right now, things seem like we’re in a real fight for our existence.”
Trump changed the GOP calculus in Massachusetts by energizing voters who typically sat out elections. It’s a popularity that’s engendered a fierce loyalty among voters in what was traditionally a more moderate-leaning primary electorate.
“The litmus test for a lot of voters became are you with him or against him, and it still is,” former Massachusetts GOP political director John Milligan said in an interview. “He changed the battlefield for any primary going forward.”
But some Republicans argue it fast-tracked the party, already less than 10 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, further into obscurity.
Baker, the governor since 2015, stood tall as a moderate firewall against the growing pro-Trump sentiment within his party in a state where the president was — and still is — wildly unpopular. He said he blanked his ballot for president in 2016 and 2020 so as not to vote for Trump and emerged as a vocal critic of the former president’s handling of the pandemic. He supported Trump’s second impeachment and rejected his false claims of election fraud — leading Trump to knock him as a RINO and endorse conservative former state Rep. Geoff Diehl’s 2022 run for governor.
Baker allies and political observers dismissed the endorsement: Trump got drubbed twice in Massachusetts general elections, and candidates who’ve hewed too closely to his messaging have met the same fate.
But polls showed the twice-elected Baker faced significant political headwinds in a GOP primary against Diehl, to the point one pollster even tested his path forward as an independent. When Baker bowed out of the 2022 contest this week, Trump, Diehl and their allies danced on Baker’s political grave even as the governor insisted the endorsement hadn’t shaken him “at all.”
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin delivered a blueprint last month for appealing to Trump’s voters while keeping the former president at arm’s length, and Diehl’s already ripped a page out of it with an education-focused “Parents for Diehl” initiative.
“What you saw this week was the death knell of the Baker Republican and the beginning of a groundswell of grassroots organizing toward a new kind of Republicanism,” GOP strategist Wendy Wakeman, an ally of state party chair Jim Lyons, said in an interview. “Charlie did a great job, but he had become something different than what the Republican Party represents.”
Baker sees it differently. He argued this week that voters are still more aligned with his brand of old-school New England Republicanism and bipartisanship than anything else. And other Republican strategists dismissed the GOP’s rightward march and embrace of Trump as a losing general-election strategy in Massachusetts.
“Catering to 10 percent of a population and not focusing on the other 90 percent — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you’re not going to get the numbers you need to get elected,” said Colin Reed, former campaign manager to former Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown.
Next year’s Republican primary will now test moderates’ strength without Baker. His departure leaves a massive void for a Republican Party that’s long suffered from a shallow bench in Massachusetts. And two of the most prominent candidates being floated as possible replacements — Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell, a former state representative, and former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, a Trump appointee — are both to his right.
Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics have both tipped the 2022 governor’s race toward the Democrats with two formidable candidates — state Attorney General Maura Healey and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, also the recently former Boston mayor — weighing whether to join a field that already includes progressives state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, former state Sen. Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen.
“We’ll see another candidate, if not more candidates, emerge on the Republican side,” Amy Carnevale, a Massachusetts GOP state committee member who’s voted for both Baker and Trump, said in an interview.
But few are eager to deal with the infighting that’s roiled the GOP since Lyons succeeded Baker allies as the state party chair in 2019 and promptly steered the state’s GOP into a hard-right turn. Lyons and his allies have frequently attacked Baker — a fiscally conservative and more socially liberal Republican forced to work across the aisle in a Legislature dominated by Democrats — as being too “left.” Baker and his allies have called for Lyons’ resignation for various reasons, and members of the state committee skipped a quarterly meeting earlier this week just to protest his leadership.
Lyons has routinely dismissed the drama and waved away concerns about a Trump-aligned party trajectory.
“There are a lot of Republicans in Massachusetts, quite frankly, that were kind of getting concerned about what’s happening with the Republican Party because of its lurch to the left,” Lyons said in an interview, calling Baker’s departure the “perfect opportunity for the party to really focus on the fundamental issues of freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility.”
But Carnevale, the state committee member, said intraparty tensions, which frequently spill into public view, have again reached a “boiling point” as moderates look to regroup in Baker’s wake.
Some outsiders are holding out hope for a hero — a candidate with the same not-so-secret sauce as Baker and Romney, business-savvy moderates known more for their managerial skills than their politics.
“Would it be great to have a functioning party? Sure,” former Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican who served as acting governor in the early 2000s, said. “We are at a low point. But strong candidates have emerged in nearly every cycle for governor.”
Others are more resigned — at least for now.
“I’m hopeful someone will come out of the woodwork,” state Rep. Shawn Dooley, a GOP state committee member, said. “But if Geoff Diehl is our nominee, it’s going to be disastrous for Republicans up and down the ticket.”