What Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is doing gingerly in Florida, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Geoff Diehl just did big time in Massachusetts. He’s dumping Donald Trump.
After announcing a primary challenge to Governor Charlie Baker, Diehl — who used to tout his role as honorary state cochair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — went on GBH’s Greater Boston and said the 2020 presidential election was not stolen from Trump and he would have voted for the bipartisan committee to investigate the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Such renouncement of the Big Lie is not so shocking in a state where Joe Biden beat Trump with 65 percent of the vote and Republicans account for only 10 percent of the electorate. But from Diehl to DeSantis, there’s also a lesson in how much personal ambition can tamp down Trump fever, especially at the state level, even as politicians also try to appease the party’s base.
In Trump-loving Florida, DeSantis, of course, walks a much stricter political line. Fueled by his own presidential hopes, he keeps the culture wars alive. But as he faces the tragedy connected with the deadly Surfside building collapse, DeSantis has stood beside local Democrats and even said a few kind words about President Biden. In a crisis, it’s the right thing to do. But remember the blowback Chris Christie got when he was governor of New Jersey and it looked like he might have hugged President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy? And that was in 2012, days before the presidential election that pitted Obama against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who was unloved by far-right conservatives. The Trump wing is much less forgiving.
In Massachusetts, Diehl’s campaign is fueled by far-right conservatives who despise Baker, especially for his rejection of Trump. Yet on public television, of all places, Diehl trampled on the core beliefs of what should be his base. For good measure, he also said a Republican State Committee member was “wrong” to say she was “sickened” by a gay Republican congressional candidate who has two adopted children. On Dark Red GOP, a Facebook page that follows Republican politics, some commenters questioned if Diehl can be their true standard-bearer — or if he will turn out to be just another RINO, Republican in Name Only.
It’s not unusual for politicians to tap dance around controversy for political reasons. In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin just got caught admitting he couldn’t express his true antiabortion feelings during the campaign. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, I can start going on offense, but as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win me independent votes that I have to get,” he said on a secretly recorded video.
In a state where unenrolled voters make up 57 percent of the electorate, Diehl faces similar constraints. In this case, he rejected the essence of what drives the Trump base. He didn’t respond to a text or e-mail requests to talk about his somewhat confusing political history.
As reported by the Globe in 2018, Diehl first registered to vote in 1996 as a Democrat, and in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, he voted for Democatic Attorney General Tom Reilly. In that year’s general election, he said he chose Republican Kerry Healey over Democrat Deval Patrick. In 2008, he cast a vote for Joe Biden over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, but said he voted for Republican John McCain in the general election. He ran for a Massachusetts House seat as a Republican and served from 2011 to 2019.
As a state representative from Whitman, Diehl endorsed Trump ahead of the Massachusetts primary and was a local media contact for Trump during the July 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. When he challenged US Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2018, Diehl continued to embrace Trump. Indeed, when questions were raised about the extent of his 2016 support for Trump, he doubled down. On election day, Warren won with 60 percent of the vote.
Loyalty to Trump got him nowhere then. Can disloyalty get him to a better place, even as voters wonder: Who is the real Diehl?
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.