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Rise of the hard-right Massachusetts GOP marks end of an era

The Mass. GOP will likely anoint Geoff Diehl as the convention-approved candidate for governor.Steven Senne/Associated Press

There was a time, not all that long ago, when state Republican conventions were fun.

Though the GOP has always, at least in my day, been an underdog in state elections, they were lively gatherings of the faithful, and celebrations of slightly overrated past triumphs and fully merited giddiness over some present ones — like the election of a governor.

That spirit of conviviality will very likely be missing when the Mass. GOP gathers Saturday in Springfield. For years, this has been a party at war — less with Democrats than with itself.

It is a conflict from which, it now appears, a winner has emerged. Under the truly bizarre leadership of current party chair Jim Lyons, the party’s Donald Trump-loving right wing has decisively seized control. It will likely anoint Geoff Diehl as the convention-approved candidate for governor, and in fact his opponent might not even clear the 15 percent threshold to qualify for the September primary ballot.

All of this, of course, mirrors the national party’s hard right turn.

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But if you believe — as I used to — that the point of a party is to, you know, build support and win elections, then it’s hard to understand why moving so far out of the political mainstream in this state would be considered a triumph.

It’s even odder when you consider that Lyons and his minions have made a point of repudiating Charlie Baker, one of the most popular governors in the country. He’s a politician who actually gets votes and wins elections. You would think a party would want more of that, not less — but you would be wrong.

The radical shift of the state GOP hasn’t come about overnight. Throughout Baker’s moderate reign, there have been loud voices arguing he was not sufficiently willing to engage in the culture wars defining Republican politics elsewhere. Baker might be a Bill Weld Republican, but this is not the party that once fawned over Weld.

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While GOP factions have been squabbling, the party’s already weak influence on Beacon Hill has been steadily declining. Republicans lost five legislative seats in the last election. Not only are their numbers too small to pass a bill or sustain a veto, at this point they are barely players at all.

I suspect the rise of Geoff Diehl isn’t going to help all that much.

This isn’t the first time Massachusetts Republicans have been lost in the wilderness. Before Bill Weld was elected governor in 1990, they had become a decidedly minority party of old Yankee legacy families and mid-level financiers.

Weld and his partner, Paul Cellucci, created the modern playbook for Republican relevance in Massachusetts — fiscal conservatism and moderate social politics. Republicans here have relied on that formula for three decades, and three governors, since.

All political formulas eventually become less effective, and it isn’t surprising that this one has run its course. But the party’s hard-right move doesn’t reflect the politics of the state. This version of the GOP can barely recruit credible candidates, much less win elections. Those concerns are waved off by the ideologues, who seem proud of what they view as their ideological purity.

One remarkable measure of how divorced the party has become from reality: Baker, the two-term Republican governor, isn’t even attending his party’s convention. This should be a victory lap for him and his party. Instead, they’re done with him and he’s done with them.

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Republicans on Beacon Hill like to talk about the evils of “one-party rule,” but they have done everything in their power to destroy their legitimacy as the other party. By some estimates, as many as half the chosen delegates to Saturday’s convention won’t show — turned off by the party’s internal politics, the $150 entrance fee, or the prospect of wasting a great beach day at what will effectively be a Trump rally. I can’t say I blame them.

Saturday will likely be the best day of the entire Diehl-for-governor campaign, since he is almost certain to lose handily to Maura Healey in November.

And I suppose the convention will be a good time for a few hundred like-minded diehards.

But it will mark the end of an era. Someday, I think Republicans are going to miss having a party that had something to celebrate.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.