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Charlie Baker, a Republican, throws support behind Richard Neal in Democratic primary

Charlie Baker.
Charlie Baker.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican who has repeatedly eschewed national GOP politics, splashed into one of the state’s most contentious Democratic races Thursday, endorsing Representative Richard E. Neal in his primary fight with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Baker, writing from his personal Twitter account, called Neal “a powerful voice for all” in the First Congressional District, where the 71-year-old Neal, the chairman of the House Ways And Means Committee, is trying to hold off a progressive challenge from Morse, 31, in their Sept. 1 primary.

“The Commonwealth is a better place because of his hard work,” Baker wrote of Neal on Twitter. “I’m looking forward to working with him now more than ever as we fight and come back from this pandemic. Good luck next week, @NealForCongress!”

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Even within the chaotic Western Massachusetts campaign, Baker’s political maneuvering was unusual, especially for him.

While often preaching a commitment to bipartisanship, the Republican governor had never before endorsed in a Democratic congressional primary since he took office in 2015. And he’s regularly avoiding wading into national politics generally, often leaning on a line that’s focused on his work as a governor as he leaves open the possibility of seeking a third term.

Baker has remained steadily popular throughout the state, and amid the novel coronavirus pandemic especially, with 80 percent of those in a June poll saying they approved of his handling of the outbreak.

A Baker advisor said Thursday the governor and Neal have had a close working relationship and he “wants to continue that because he thinks it’s in the best interest of Massachusetts.”

But his backing also immediately created awkwardness for Neal, who’s fending off a challenge to his left. Asked about Baker’s comments, the Democrat’s campaign said it “didn’t know about this or ask for it,” and offered muted excitement for the endorsement.

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“While Richie and Governor Baker don’t see eye to eye [on] every issue, they have worked together to deliver for the people of Western and central Massachusetts, especially during the pandemic,” Kate Norton, a Neal spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Baker tweeted his comments shortly before he appeared with Neal and other officials Thursday morning at an unrelated public event in Springfield, where they announced a $51 million redevelopment project in the city’s downtown.

The governor, twice-elected on a socially liberal platform, didn’t vote for President Trump in 2016 and said he wouldn’t this year, either. But he’s repeatedly declined to say who he’d vote for this fall, and despite offering an 11th-hour endorsement of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the 2016 presidential race, he chose not to publicly support another candidate in that race.

Facing reelection in 2018, Baker said he was backing the Republican ticket that fall. But he wobbled in his lukewarm support of Geoff Diehl, a conservative who was challenging Senator Elizabeth Warren, and put other GOP candidates at arm’s length within reliably blue Massachusetts.

Baker said this week that he was not invited to take part in the Republican National Convention, where Trump is expected to accept the GOP nomination Thursday. “Honestly,” Baker said Tuesday, “I’m a lot more focused on what’s going on in Massachusetts right now.”

His entrance into the fold for Neal quickly added to the primary’s unpredictable feel. Allegations leveled by the College Democrats of Massachusetts roiled the race earlier this month, when the group accused Morse of inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign.

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Morse, who until recently was a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, quickly apologized to anyone he made feel uncomfortable, but maintained that he had done nothing wrong. But a string of messages between club leaders, and detailed by the news website The Intercept, indicated the accusations were part of an effort to engineer an attack on Morse, who is openly gay. One club leader explicitly stated that he hoped to get a job with Neal.

The imbroglio has also enveloped the state Democratic Party, where officials say they are launching a probe into what role state party leaders in leveling the accusations.

Morse has said the uproar has only served to underscore the need to oust longtime political insiders, and several prominent backers, including the Sunrise Movement and Jamaal Bowman, a New York progressive who defeated longtime Representative Eliot Engel in their primary, later returned to backing the progressive mayor.

The Holyoke Democrat framed Baker’s support as evidence of Neal’s entrenched status. “I’m not surprised to see Governor Baker’s tweet, because those who are satisfied with the status quo are supporting Richie Neal,” he said in a statement.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.