Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Republican Party are like a miserable married couple who have separate bedrooms but are not yet officially divorced.
The state GOP is run by Trump supporters who despise Baker’s socially liberal views. Last September, President Trump personally called Baker out as a “Republican in name only” after the governor defended expanded mail-in voting. Yet Baker still seeks middle ground.
On one hand, he quickly denounced the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol, saying it made him “sick,” and blamed Trump for inciting it. On Jan. 13, as the House met to vote on a second impeachment of Trump, Baker said he supported the effort. Yet when asked if Trump should be prevented from running for president again — which would require conviction in the Senate — Baker dodged, saying, “I didn’t support him either time he did run. The rules of the game associated with that are not something that I make decisions about. My preference would be, obviously, for other candidates.”
When Baker serves up mush, he might think he’s doing a political balancing act. That may protect him from blowback in the short run, but it does nothing to solve the fundamental schism in his own party. Mincing words about Trump won’t make the hard-core right (who are unreasonable by definition) like Baker any more or become more open-minded. For the sake of his own integrity and the future of a moribund party, he needs to make one last attempt to take control of the state GOP or split from it officially over irreconcilable differences. Democracy is best served everywhere — including in Massachusetts — when it offers a balance of reasonable opposing views. That gives voters the option of at least considering different policy agendas — and gives politicians an incentive for compromise over strict party dogma from the right or left.
In Massachusetts, only 10 percent of registered voters in the state identify as Republicans, and the party apparatus is dominated by a right-wing cadre that mostly fields losing candidates instead of centrists who might actually win. So it’s easy to dismiss the Mass. GOP as irrelevant.
Yet after the violent assault on the Capitol, it’s a mistake to ignore any group that embraces President Trump — and that’s the case with the Massachusetts GOP. Some people from Massachusetts traveled to Washington, and some of them are being investigated for possible involvement in the rioting. Jim Lyons, the Trump-loving chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, issued a statement denouncing the violence. But the statement didn’t mention Trump’s name or hold the president in any way accountable for what happened. Meanwhile, the party’s website still features a smiling photo of Trump and the Trump-inspired slogan “Make Massachusetts Great Again.” Lyons also tried to dislodge Ron Kaufman, a moderate Republican, from his position as longtime treasurer of the Republican National Committee. In a letter to the RNC, Lyons complained that he has come under attack from “the progressive — or RINO — wing of the Massachusetts Republican Party. Sadly, this RINO wing includes Ron Kaufman.” Kaufman, however, narrowly won reelection to that post.
The irony of Lyons’s grip on the party is that, under his leadership, the Mass. GOP is on life support. Republicans hold only three seats in the 40-member Senate and 30 in the 160-person House. Since 2012, when Republican Senator Scott Brown lost to Elizabeth Warren, no Massachusetts Republican has come close to winning a congressional race. While around the country the acrimonious divide between Never-Trumpers and Trump followers reverberates, at least in other states, including Maine, the party is actually able to get people elected to national office.
To grow the Republican Party and revive its relevance in Massachusetts, the ultra-right focus has to change, but efforts to do it from the inside have failed. On Jan. 3, state Representative Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, who said he wanted to bring the state Republican Party back to its core values, lost to Lyons by three votes. According to Dooley, Baker made calls on his behalf, but votes that Dooley thought he had went to Lyons. Three days later, after the Jan. 6 assault, Dooley blogged: “I cannot tell you how horrified, saddened and frightened I am for our nation. I’m ashamed of our President for encouraging this behavior and I feel guilty for not condemning more of his nonsense in the past.” If this is what the Republican Party has become, wrote Dooley: “I honestly do not know what I am going to do. I feel adrift, a man without a country — and by the dozens of calls and emails I have received today, I am not alone.”
So, what are these adrift Republicans going to do? It would help to have Baker come forward and declare himself clearly in their camp, with assurance he’ll back them in future leadership contests. The closeness of the recent vote, which predated the Capitol attack, means he might have a new window to bring more of the state’s Republicans around. If the election for party chair happened after Jan. 6, “Lyons would lose,” said Stephen Tocco, chairman of ML Strategies, a consulting and lobbying firm, who served in the gubernatorial administrations of Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. With Trump on his way out, “This is an opportunity for responsible and moderate Republicans to rebuild the party and themselves,” said Tocco.
At this point, words and soul-searching are no longer enough. They, with Baker in the lead, either have to gain control of their party or make it official and get a divorce. The latter would spell extinction for two-party politics in Massachusetts, which would be a bad outcome for everyone — party leaders, their voters, and residents of the Commonwealth.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.