SPRINGFIELD — Republican activists Saturday overwhelmingly endorsed a Donald Trump-backed conservative for governor at the Massachusetts GOP convention, where speakers leaned heavily into national themes and culture war debates, railing against abortion, characterizing Democrats as “evil,” and issuing vague yet vulgar warnings about the state of education.
Geoff Diehl, a former Whitman state lawmaker who’s trumpeted Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was rigged, received 71 percent of the 1,194 votes cast by party delegates, winning the party’s backing for governor. Diehl, also a former US Senate candidate, far outpaced Chris Doughty, a Wrentham business owner running for office for the first time, who cleared the 15 percent threshold of delegate support needed to appear on the Sept. 6 ballot.
Gathered at the MassMutual Center, activists were about two hours from Governor Charlie Baker’s Swampscott house. But in rhetoric and policy, the convention showed a party straying far from the moderate, non-confrontational playbook the two-term Republican used to sweep into office and continually poll as among the country’s most popular governors.
Diehl pitched himself as progressive Democrats’ “worst nightmare,” promising to hire back state workers fired by the Baker administration because they refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and dispatch members of the National Guard to the southern border “to stop the lawlessness.”
“We will stand tall and deliver a powerful message to Maura Healey and her fellow progressives loud and clear,” he said, referencing the attorney general and frontrunner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. “To the Democratic party — be on notice. We are not some infection found in the wastewater. We aren’t deplorables, and we aren’t going away.”
Diehl and other statewide Republican candidates leaned into the idea that a one-party state could spur “indoctrination” of their children and schools. They promised to be bulwarks against what he called the threat of critical race theory. Jim Lyons, the party chairman, invited boos when asked if anyone believes “we should be teaching third-graders gender transitions?”
Rayla Campbell, the party’s candidate for secretary of state, urged Republicans not to sit back and say, “Maybe somebody else will take care of it. That’s not so nice.”
“I don’t think it’s nice when they’re telling your 5-year-old that he can [perform a sex act on] another 5-year-old,” she said, drawing gasps from the audience. “Do you?”
“Because that’s what’s happening in your schools!” she added. “If this makes you uncomfortable, it should.”
Pressed by a Globe reporter, Campbell did not provide evidence of this, instead pointing to a pending bill in the Legislature intended to update the state’s sexual education curriculum. The bill would require schools that offer sexual health education to deploy “medically accurate, age-appropriate” programs, including in providing information about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The overwhelming support for Diehl at the convention marks a drastic departure for a party that, since 2010, had turned to Baker as its standard-bearer.
Baker, the party’s nominee each of the last three cycles, is not seeking reelection, and in a sign of intense friction between Baker and the party’s conservative leadership, neither he nor Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito attended Saturday’s convention.
There was no mention of Baker on Saturday from the stage, though he was the target of veiled shots, with some Republicans slamming his administration’s early COVID-19 policies. Outside the MassMutual Center, a delegate handed out packages of candy with the phrase “Adiós Chuckles” and a caricature of Baker wearing a red clown nose.
The convention offered other evidence, both subtle and in-your-face, of a party that has ditched the brand of republicanism touted by Baker, a frequent Trump critic.
Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who Trump named his “border czar” in 2019, spoke for more than an hour, leading the crowd in a “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chant after he finished.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who is serving as an adviser to Diehl, weaved through the delegates throughout the day, occasionally getting stopped for a handshake or a selfie.
David Bereit, the former leader of 40 Days for Life, an antiabortion group, also addressed the crowd. The party’s platform in the past has frowned on abortion, though Baker, like his political lodestars and predecessors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, supports abortion rights. Delegates arriving at Saturday’s convention could pick up pins showing a fetus colored with an American flag pattern and the words “Protect the unborn” ringing the margin.
“We don’t get our rights from Beacon Hill. We don’t get our rights from Washington. We get our rights from God. It’s time that these Democrats realize this,” Lyons told delegates. Lyons, who has openly feuded with Baker, did not mention the governor but promised of the dawn of a changing party, one that won’t “do what the Democrats tell us to do.”
“We will never, ever be a party that puts up with that again,” Lyons said. “The radical left wants us to sit down in the corner and do what we’re told. This is a new Republican party. A party that is going to stand and fight.”
Campbell, vying to be the state’s chief elections official, also charged that Republicans “watched our elections be stolen” and vowed that a “red tsunami . . . is brewing” in this year’s election, using biblical terms to describe Democrats.
“We are going to crush and destroy these rotten devils that call themselves Democrats!” she thundered into the microphone. “This is a battle of good versus evil.”
At times, the focus turned to Healey when candidates slammed her for suggesting that protests across America in the summer of 2020 could have a positive effect.
“Yes, America is burning. But that’s how forests grow,” she said in June 2020 to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
To light applause and some booing from Diehl fans, Doughty drew on his experience as a business owner in promises to create jobs and his role as a grandfather in promises to root out “indoctrination” in schools.
He received almost 29 percent of the delegates’ votes, about double what he needed to make it onto the Sept. 6 ballot.
“I’m shocked, and delighted,” Doughty said after the vote. “Now it expands beyond just the activists, to the whole party, and really the whole state. . . . I’ll need the independents. That’s the largest party in our state, right? We’ll reach out to them and make our case.”
The gubernatorial race is one of just two statewide contests that feature multiple Republicans; former lawmakers Leah Allen and Kate Campanale — Diehl and Doughty’s hand-picked running mates, respectively — vied for the party’s endorsement for lieutenant governor. Allen received 70 percent of the votes.
Jay McMahon, a Buzzards Bay lawyer running for attorney general for the second consecutive cycle; Campbell, a Whitman Republican; and Anthony Amore, a second-time statewide candidate from Winchester running for state auditor, fill out the GOP’s statewide slate. No Republican is running for state treasurer.
US Representative Byron Donalds, a conservative Florida congressman who was endorsed by Trump last year and was billed as the convention’s keynote speaker, urged activists still streaming into the arena Saturday morning to be “more active” to help begin cutting into Democrats’ control.
Though, he also trained his sights lower than turning the “deep-sea blue” state red.
“Let’s just get to, like, purple,” he said. “Can we do that, Massachusetts? Let’s get to purple.”