His sleeves slightly rolled and business cards in his pocket, gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty worked the line outside Mike’s Pastry in the North End on Wednesday, hoping to meet voters.
He did, though few can cast a ballot for him.
Doughty chatted with a group from Canada, a North Carolina family in town for a baseball tournament, and a woman from California. When he stopped to talk to a man wearing a Philadelphia Phillies hat, the Wrentham businessman warily asked if he, too, was from out of town. (He was.)
“How do you get votes here?” Doughty joked.
That’s the question facing Massachusetts Republican hopefuls. A first-time and almost entirely self-funded candidate, Doughty is vying for the GOP nomination against former Whitman state lawmaker Geoff Diehl, a conservative backed by Donald Trump, in what is strangely the only competitive gubernatorial primary left for Massachusetts residents to decide.
It’s a low-profile duel between two candidates with hazy contrasts, anemic fund-raising, and long odds at topping the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Attorney General Maura Healey. The South End Democrat is now effectively uncontested in the Sept. 6 primary after her last remaining opponent exited the race, though state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz’s name will remain on the ballot.
Theoretically, the situation could prove a boost for Doughty and Diehl, offering an unexpected platform to energize Republicans and pitch unenrolled voters at a time when consumer prices are soaring and the economy threatens to slip into a recession. But even close, conservative observers have serious doubts.
“Whoever wins out of the primary, I don’t think they’re going to make it,” said Mary Lou Daxland, the Northeast region vice president for the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a network of conservative groups that describes itself as the “Republican wing” of the GOP.
“It’s like 2010 all over again: People are fed up with the Democrats, our gas prices are through the roof,” Daxland said. “But I really don’t think it’s going to happen for Republicans for governor.”
In order to boost interest, activists say, Doughty needs to find his message and Diehl needs to reach groups outside of his conservative base.
Though Doughty has more cash — of the $2.3 million he’s raised, roughly $2.1 million came from his own pocket — Diehl, a former GOP nominee for US Senate who secured his party’s endorsement with an overwhelming vote at the state GOP convention, led Doughty by nearly 40 points in one June poll.
In the end, it could come down to who can raise their profile, said Janet Fogarty, the state party’s national committeewoman who worked on finance committees for former US senator Scott Brown, Governor Charlie Baker, and former governor Mitt Romney.
So far, Doughty’s $1.6 million in cash on hand is more than 14 times larger than Diehl’s $110,000, though it pales in comparison to Healey’s $5.3 million war chest.
“Will it be about name recognition?” said Fogarty, who isn’t advocating for either candidate, of the primary’s deciding factor. “Or will it be about who is going to raise the most?”
For the next eight weeks until the primary, they’ll fight an uphill battle for attention during the summer doldrums. The state party is fractured, cash-strapped, and has alienated the popular Baker, who has shown no interest in involving himself in — and thus elevating — the race.
In raising their profiles, the two will also have to distinguish themselves from one another, observers say, given their similar stances on policy areas like abortion, attacking inflation, and immigration. And that’s a particularly acute challenge for Doughty, a relative unknown compared to Diehl. As of late, both candidates have been actively drawing contrasts with Healey in campaign advertisements and on social media.
And there may be little opportunity for GOP primary voters to compare. There are no televised debates scheduled before September, and the candidates have so far agreed to appear in just one, on the radio, moderated by conservative talk show host Howie Carr on July 20.
Diehl, who has trumpeted Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, declined a Globe interview request through his campaign, citing previous Globe coverage of him.
But he wrote in a statement that his experience in both the public and private sector — Diehl owns a dance studio with his wife — “gives our campaign broad appeal to voters, especially unenrolled voters who make up most of the electorate.”
“People want a governor who will bring [Massachusetts] back to being a state where they want to live and work, not one they want or have to leave,” Diehl wrote.
Doughty, too, has leaned into promises to make Massachusetts a more affordable place for businesses and residents, framing himself as more electable than the conservative Diehl. The president of a gear manufacturer in Wrentham, he also has exhibited a contrast in messaging. He has described himself as a “conservative outsider” and, at the same time, has eschewed the label as the race’s moderate candidate even as he touts himself as an alternative to a “far-right candidate, and this far-left candidate.”
“And then,” he said, “there’s a reasonable businessman that’s running. . . . I’m not looking to be a divisive governor.”
That may not be enough for reliable conservative voters, some of whom were miffed by his admission that he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Doughty said he voted for Trump four years later, and that he accepts the election results.
So far, he has dropped about $500,000 on summer television ads; the two he has released both target Healey. One released last week claims she’s pushing a “radical, unworkable progressive agenda” because she sought to block the construction of new gas pipelines in the state.
“I want the Republicans to know I’ve got the résumé, the resources, the volunteer base to compete with Maura, that I’m an equal entity,” he said.
State party chairman Jim Lyons said the best way for both candidates to rally voters is to focus on the front-running Healey. She has led both Doughty and Diehl by 2-to-1 margins in public polling.
“The focus has to be for them individually to get their message out, but also stay focused on the Democratic nominee,” Lyons told the Globe. “They need to talk about how radical the Democrats are in Massachusetts, led by Maura Healey. That’s how you get people’s attention.”
Healey’s pitch has been intensely focused on pocketbook issues and, as she put it, to “continue with what’s working and fix what’s not.”
Some dialed-in GOP supporters, however, see a primary race built on more than attacking the Democrat. Doughty supporters say his experience running a company makes him fit for executive office.
“He’s measured, he’s thoughtful, he doesn’t seem to fly by the seat of his pants,” said Ann Ragosta, a member of the Milford Republican Town Committee.
Jaclyn Corriveau, a member of the GOP state committee, compared Doughty to Romney and Baker, saying he “comes closest” to the sitting Republican governor.
Diehl supporters, on the other hand, see a seasoned candidate. Diehl served four terms in the Legislature and won a three-way GOP primary for US Senate in 2018. He later lost by 24 points to Elizabeth Warren, and had failed in a bid for state Senate three years earlier.
“Geoff has a track record,” said Maureen Maloney, a GOP state committee member, “and, unfortunately, Chris Doughty doesn’t.”
In the North End last week, Doughty impressed one visitor. Alicia Doelman stopped Doughty as he left Mike’s Pastry to ask for his stance on protecting schools from active shooters.
“If there needs to be more gun control laws in place, he’d do that,” Doelman, a self-described moderate voter and school administrator, later said Doughty told her. Given the party registration next to his name, “I was not expecting that,” Doelman said.
Asked where she was from, Doelman told a reporter she hailed from outside Concord.
“New Hampshire,” she added.