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OPINION

Baker’s exit creates a huge vacuum

Attorney General Maura Healey now becomes the strong favorite to be the next governor.

Charlie Baker’s decision not to seek a third term will touch off an intraparty battle for the soul and control of the Massachusetts Republican Party.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Baker era is drawing to a close — and with it the storied era of moderate Republicans capable of winning statewide office in Massachusetts.

Governor Charlie Baker’s decision not to seek a third term will touch off an intraparty battle for the soul and control of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Absent the emergence of a figure with Baker-like standing, the strong advantage goes to the Trump wing of the party that has long been at war with the governor. The problem now for Republican moderates is this: Who else is there?

For Baker, the state GOP’s Trump-aligned right wing had been a headache, but not a migraine. Had Baker run again, he would have prevailed over that wing’s already declared candidate, Trump-endorsed former state representative Geoff Diehl, a politician of overweening ambition but underwhelming ability.

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That’s because Baker had the ability to bring political independents into the Republican primary to support him — and the ability to raise the millions of dollars it takes to wage a successful race for governor.

Now, with Baker out of the electoral fray, Diehl — or another Trump Republican — could very well win the GOP nomination. That, however, would prove a pyrrhic victory for the state GOP. In politics and James Bond movies, you learn never to say never, but it’s hugely unlikely that that kind of Republican could ever win the corner office.

Why? Because one can’t be both a committed Trumpist and a plausible candidate for statewide office in blue Massachusetts. What renders a candidate popular to Trump supporters would make him or her unelectable statewide. Similarly, the qualities required to win statewide as a Republican — political moderation and reasonableness, independence of mind, an unwillingness to engage in nativist, “othering” demagoguery, a non-reflexively combative, compromise-inclined political approach — virtually dictate that one would not be a Trumpist.

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So: To nominate a Trump-endorsed or Trump-supporting Republican for governor would be to turn the governor’s office over to the Democrats. At first glance, that would seem highly unproductive for Massachusetts Republicans. But make no mistake, there are legions of resentful Trump Republicans — and even some jealous, Baker-hating, failed GOP aspirants for office — who prioritize having their faction control the state Republican Party over having a more moderate, non-Trumpist Republican actually hold statewide office in Massachusetts. Doubt that? Just look at the clown show at the Massachusetts Republican State Committee.

Baker’s popularity with both independents and, yes, Democrats, had frozen the Democrats’ on-deck heavy hitter, Maura Healey, the state’s popular attorney general. Although Healey is a big political talent, and though she is obviously interested in being governor, she just as clearly knew it would be an uphill battle to beat Baker. Thus she has stayed on the sidelines for long months while Baker played Hamlet.

That left the incipient Democratic primary race to an assemblage of second-tier candidates. Several of them are smart, serious policy wonks, but none would have been a particularly plausible challenger to Baker.

On the Democratic side, there will now be a strong call for Healey to get in. Expect her to do it. If and when she does, she will instantly become the strong front-runner both to be the Democratic nominee and the next governor of Massachusetts.

Healey would have little trouble with Diehl. His play-to-the-cheap-seats politics would draw the predictable Republican share of the vote, but would be unlikely to attract enough support to render it a close race.

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Baker will be in office for another year. And Baker being Baker, he will no doubt apply himself to the job as he has done all along: tackling big and often thorny issues in a smart and serious-minded way, with a focus more on getting important things done in a collegial, cooperative, compromise-inclined fashion than on scoring political points or posturing.

It’s that approach that has made this non-flashy, mild-mannered guy a hugely popular governor through extremely troubled times. There’s a lesson there for any potential successor, be they a Democrat or Republican.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.