As a moderate Republican governing blue Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has repeatedly, and often successfully, dodged the entanglements of national GOP politics, and, above all, the derision of a president he doesn’t support.
That changed Friday.
Seizing on the governor’s public defense of mail-in balloting, President Trump targeted Baker on his preferred platform, calling him a “RINO Governor” in a tweet and pointing, without evidence, to claims of widespread voter fraud.
RINO Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is unsuccessfully trying to defend Mail In Ballots, when there is fraud being found all over the place. Just look at some of the recent races, or the Trump Ballots in Pennsylvania that were thrown into the garbage. Wrong Charlie!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2020
Trump’s pejorative message, in which he labeled Baker as a Republican in name only (or RINO), came a day after Baker issued a long, impassioned rebuke of the president for not committing to a peaceful transition should he lose November’s election.
To political observers, Baker becoming the focus, albeit briefly, of Trump’s wide-ranging animus served to make him the latest straw man in Trump’s months-long, and escalating, campaign to sow doubt about mail-in balloting.
The Massachusetts Republican Party, whose leadership Baker has butted heads with under Chairman Jim Lyons, also aligned itself Friday with Trump and his mail-in balloting concerns.
But in perhaps the most visible way since Trump took office, that 274-character Twitter message entangled Baker in the morass of national politics he has often avoided. It appeared to be the first time Trump has lashed out on Twitter against the second-term governor, who has enjoyed high approval ratings from Democrats and Republicans.
Baker on Thursday had offered a defense of mail-in balloting, which both he and Trump have used to cast their own votes, saying its expansion “worked just fine” in Massachusetts after nearly 813,000 of the 1.7 million voters who cast ballots in the Sept. 1 primary did so by mail.
“The same way," Baker said, “it worked just fine across the rest of the country.”
There’s been no evidence voting by mail has sparked coordinated, widespread fraud — a point the FBI’s director lent support to in congressional testimony Thursday. Dozens of states have also moved to allow more voters to use mail-in voting amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, however, for months has sought to erode public support of mail-in balloting, repeatedly warning its expansion would delegitimize the election. Polls show him trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
His attacks continued with Friday’s tweet, in which he also seized on reports that nine ballots in a Pennsylvania county had been “discarded,” seven of which were cast for him. The issue was fueled largely by an unusual statement from a Trump-nominated US attorney that disclosed both the investigation and which candidate most of the ballots favored.
“RINO Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is unsuccessfully trying to defend Mail In Ballots, when there is fraud being found all over the place,” Trump wrote to his 86.2 million followers. “Just look at some of the recent races, or the Trump Ballots in Pennsylvania that were thrown into the garbage. Wrong Charlie!”
Twitter later flagged Trump’s tweet, adding a link that cites experts in describing voting by mail as “legal and safe.”
A Baker spokeswoman said Friday that the governor stands by his statement.
“The Baker-Polito Administration has complete confidence in Massachusetts' mail-in voting system that worked as designed in the recent primary elections," spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said.
In a statement, the MassGOP cited concerns from two clerks, in Hanover and Sandwich, about the security of the state’s newly launched ballot application portal. Their statement, Lyons argued, “validates President Trump’s concerns” of the state’s mail-in balloting system, which the party said would "determine the outcome of November’s general elections.”
The party’s release did not cite Baker by name but linked to Trump’s tweet.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Democrat, defended the security of the state’s elections system, saying the primary’s vote-by-mail experience “was very clearly successful.” The election drew a record number of voters for a state primary, and state officials have said they have not received any reports of potential fraud.
He also pushed back against criticisms from the two clerks cited by the state GOP, who questioned whether allowing people to apply for a ballot online without a signature could open the system to fraud. Galvin said the system has safeguards by requiring voters to sign their ballots when returning them and for the signatures to then be verified.
“Outrage is one of the strategies he seeks to use,” Galvin said of Trump. "Baker’s a convenient target for him. Baker has been critical in the past, and he is in this sort of amorphous position: Yes, he’s a Republican, but he says he didn’t vote for Trump last time and he’s clearly not supporting Trump.
“It’s just another episode of [Trump’s] reality show," he added.
Trump’s criticism of Baker is unlikely to harm him politically in Massachusetts. Baker has said he has no interest in federal office, and he made appeals to Democrats and independents a key part in twice winning gubernatorial contests. (He has not said whether he’ll seek a third term in 2022.)
“Badge of honor,” former acting governor Jane Swift tweeted Friday of Trump’s “RINO” attack.
Baker has been a regular critic of Trump. This last week, he also broke with many within his party when he publicly urged Trump and the GOP-led Senate to hold off on nominating, and voting on, a replacement for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before November’s election.
On Thursday, Baker said it was “appalling and outrageous” that Trump did not expressly commit to a peaceful transition should he lose November’s election, calling the handoff of power a basic but fundamental bedrock of American democracy.
“That peaceful transfer of power is what the people of this country rely on when they go to vote," he said.
And in June, Baker said Trump’s comments calling for harsh measures against protesters taking to the street in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were “incendiary.”
“At so many times during these last several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it simply was nowhere to be found," Baker said then. "Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness, and self-interest.”
Rob DeCola of the Globe staff contributed to this report.