They are an increasingly marginalized breed in Texas and Florida. They haven’t made it to the front of the presidential pack in a decade. And even in Massachusetts, once a cradle of Rockefeller Republicanism, the moderate GOP teeters on the brink of extinction: most of the party’s candidates for statewide office this year revere Donald Trump and reject the politics of retiring Governor Charlie Baker.
At the Massachusetts GOP’s convention two weekends ago, speakers falsely claimed that the 2020 election was “stolen,” labeled Democrats “evil,” and reprised a 2016 greatest hit, chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!” at the mention of Hillary Clinton. Baker, the party’s top elected official and one of the nation’s most popular governors, was present only on the back of candy wrappers, sporting a red clown nose under mocking valediction: “Adiόs, Chuckles.” Rayla Campbell, the GOP’s candidate for secretary of state, baselessly warned the crowd that public schools are instructing 5-year-olds to perform oral sex on each other. (Many fellow Republicans disavowed her vulgarity, but backed up the sentiment.)
That rhetoric is easy to dismiss as irrelevant in a reliably blue state where those extreme voices are unlikely to win elected office. But the hard-right turn the party has taken nonetheless signals the continued decline of the moderate New England Republican, long popular here for conservative fiscal policy, a hands-off approach to social issues, and as a counterbalance to a Democratic-dominated Legislature.
And it raises questions about the character of the party nationally: If moderate voices cannot prevail in the Massachusetts Republican Party, then where?
“I do not recognize the party today as the party I led,” said Fergus Cullen, who chaired the New Hampshire GOP in 2007 and 2008. He described support for Trump as the litmus test for candidates and political operatives across the country.
In Massachusetts, “of all states,” one might expect conservative Republicans to recognize that “maybe we’re a minority, maybe we’re not the mainstream, maybe not everyone out there agrees with us or shares our perspective,” Cullen added. “And yet you have a faction within that group that is dominating.”
A party once united around lowering taxes and protecting free trade is now splintered by social issues. Some argue that moderate Republicans can still rebound in New England. But for this year, at least, it’s the Trump-influenced wing of the Massachusetts GOP that will appear on the ballot.
Analysts say state Republican parties — though not as influential as they once were, and not always a good barometer of a party’s electorate — have trended to the right over the past decade, with support for Trump increasingly seen as a requirement for their leaders. It’s been much the same story in Massachusetts, where the pull of Trump and a widening rift between Baker and party leadership has left some longtime moderate operatives feeling like they no longer have a home in their party.
“I left the room for a lot of [the convention] because a lot of what was said was going to be disturbing.… A lot of xenophobia, a lot of misogyny,” said Jaclyn Corriveau, the only Asian American member of the GOP state committee. “It’s just not the party I identify with.”
That brash messaging is not likely to succeed, she added: “Read the room. It’s Massachusetts, not Alabama.”
In the past, Massachusetts Republicans have succeeded by running away from the culture wars and hot-button controversies of the national party. Now, they are running toward them.
Case in point: pins distributed at the GOP convention bearing American flags in the shape of fetuses. Conservatives heading the party now argue that Baker’s moderate approach has achieved little; the GOP has tiny minorities in the state Legislature, and fewer than 10 percent of Massachusetts voters are registered Republicans. A new strategy is needed, they argue, one tied to party principles rather than reliant on a single popular politician.
Running that play is Jim Lyons, the party’s controversial chairman, who has made opposition to abortion and false claims of election fraud central to the party’s message while publicly feuding with Baker. Lyons did not return a request for comment.
Not everyone is convinced Lyons’ playbook is the wrong one. Brad Todd, a national GOP strategist, said social issues could be winners for Massachusetts Republicans if they’re able to appeal to blue collar voters supportive of populist figures like Trump.
Baker successfully attracted wealthy suburban centrists by signaling, “‘I’m a Republican, but not really,’” Todd said. But that’s not the only way the GOP can win here, he argued.
“I think the model going forward is going to be, ‘I’m a Republican, but not really,’ but it’s a different ‘not really.’ It’s, ‘I’m not a country club Republican,’” Todd said. “It’s the same formula, it’s just a different group of independents.”
Still, on social issues, Democrats enjoy a major edge over Republicans in Massachusetts. Seventy-four percent of Massachusetts adults believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, polling has shown, and 98 percent of registered voters support background checks for anyone who buys a gun. The state GOP’s leadership vehemently opposes abortion, and the candidate the party endorsed for governor, Geoff Diehl, has in the past earned support from the National Rifle Association.
Trump won roughly 32 percent of the vote in Massachusetts in 2020 and 2016, less than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
But you would not have known it from the crowd at the MassGOP convention, where Trump was a particularly animating force, even if not all delegates were blindly loyal to the former president.
“Donald J. Trump is the greatest president in my lifetime!” Lyons exclaimed from the convention stage, pulling many in the crowd of 1,200 delegates to their feet for a long applause.
In interviews with the Globe, a number of delegates said they’d like to see Trump policies dominate the party going forward, while acknowledging that Trump himself might not be the best person to carry them.
“I would like to see his policies run,” said Stacey Morano, a delegate from Sudbury. But, she added, “I don’t know if he’s too polarizing.”
John Margie, a 68-year-old East Bridgewater delegate, called himself a “huge Trump fan,” but said the party could benefit from nominating someone “smoother,” such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
John Paul Moran, a Billerica delegate and onetime Congressional candidate, said he hopes DeSantis runs for president — just not against Trump.
“It would be better for the party to have someone younger,” Moran said. “I just hope they don’t run against each other.”
Such comments are an indication that even if Trump recedes from the national spotlight, his populist politics have indelibly shaped Republican politics even in blue states like Massachusetts.
Some Republican strategists caution against overinterpreting the rhetoric of the state party convention. It’s common for such events to draw the most extreme members of any party: It’s the most dedicated activists who are willing to spend on tickets and travel and devote their sunny spring weekends to debates on political endorsements and party platform planks. The positions of those party faithful do not necessarily represent the average party voter, some analysts point out.
“The state party convention is inside, inside, inside, inside baseball…. That is not the new Republican party,” said Jennifer Nassour, a former chair of the MassGOP. “The Republican Party is the one that believes in fiscal conservatism, the one that believes that the next governor should carry on the same messaging that Governor Baker has.”
But Baker’s was not the predominant message of the candidates who won the most support at the convention, and it is their positions whose popularity will be tested on November’s ballot.
Polling suggests Diehl, the Trump-backed conservative who won the party’s endorsement for governor, is faring better than his opponent, businessman Chris Doughty, who has made his campaign more about economic issues than social ones. Diehl led with 37 percent support to Doughty’s 9 percent in a recent Emerson College poll of Republican primary voters. And in hypothetical general election match ups, Diehl fared better than Doughty against both Democratic contenders, Suffolk University polling found.
Still, in every matchup, Democrats handily defeated their GOP opponents.
Matt Stout and Samantha Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.