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Charlie Baker and the demise of the Yankee Republican

Long a fixture in New England politics, Yankee Republicans like Baker are increasingly rare

Charlie Baker has declined to seek a record third term that was his for the taking.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

What does it say that Charlie Baker of Massachusetts isn’t running for governor again but Paul LePage of Maine is?

It says that the Yankee Republican, a political species that has long been a stabilizing force in New England public life, is one step closer to going from being endangered to being extinct.

Baker, like Bill Weld, his predecessor and former boss, embodied the classic Yankee Republican: Ivy League, patrician, pragmatic, not especially partisan, moderate to liberal on social policy, more conservative on spending, and a bulwark against one-party rule.

Massachusetts voters like a Republican in the corner office at the State House if only to serve as a check on the unbridled power of Democrats who overwhelmingly control the legislative branch of state government.


That explains why, since just before the turn of the 20th century, Republicans have been elected governor in Massachusetts nearly twice as often as Democrats. It explains why, since John Volpe was elected in 1964, six of the last nine Massachusetts elected governors have been Republicans, even as the Democratic stranglehold on seats on Beacon Hill and in Washington has solidified.

Yankee Republicans were the duck boots of New England politics, the embodiment of what was on offer in an L.L. Bean catalogue: nothing flashy, but well-made and reliable, able to withstand the muck.

In Maine, Paul LePage, who served as governor from 2011 to 2019, likes to say he was Trump before there was Trump, a self-assessment that is hard to dispute. Riding a wave of resentment, musing about using violence against those he disagrees with, LePage was elected twice, first with a plurality of just 38 percent, then a plurality of 48 percent. He left office with one of the lowest approval ratings of US governors.


In 2016, LePage, like Baker, endorsed former New Jersey governor Chris Christie for president. But when Christie dropped out, LePage hitched his wagon to Trump and never looked back.

LePage became Trump’s biggest cheerleader in New England, even while the other Republican governors in the region — Baker, Phil Scott of Vermont, and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire — openly criticized Trump’s divisive and dishonest rhetoric, lamenting the hyper-partisanship they said is ruining the country.

The Yankee Republican governor most like Baker is Phil Scott. As a Republican in a state that sends Bernie Sanders to Washington, Scott is more popular with Vermonters than Sanders is. He is the most popular governor in the nation, and by that same metric Baker and Sununu come in at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively.

I asked Scott for an appraisal of Baker’s governing style.

“He has been an incredible leader for Massachusetts during difficult times, and I believe his approach of finding common ground, being practical, pragmatic and deliberate, while putting the needs of his constituents ahead of his own political interests is the exact kind of leadership we need more of in America,” Scott said.

“Whenever a group of governors are on a call together and Charlie speaks, we all listen,” Scott added.

Sadly, the common-sense pragmatism that made Yankee Republicans a durable political class in New England has run headlong into the partisan nihilism of Trumpism, which has come to dominate the state party apparatus of even those states that, against the national tide of hyper-partisanship, have popular Republican governors despite having a majority of Democratic voters.


Like Baker, Scott is more popular in his state with Democrats and independents than with Republicans.

Like Baker, Sununu has had to endure unseemly protests outside his residence by Trump cultists.

Scott and Sununu have ruled out running for Senate seats, saying they prefer to get things done in their states rather than get stuck in the mud that figuratively overflows from the Potomac.

And now, Charlie Baker has declined to seek a record third term that was his for the taking. His state party is determined to nominate a no-hope Trump loyalist to replace him.

The Yankee Republican is not dead yet, but the prognosis isn’t exactly promising.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.