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OPINION

Charlie Baker reminds Massachusetts voters why they’ll miss him

He’s a socially liberal, fiscally responsible governor. And now comes along Geoff Diehl, who is blowing up the socially liberal part of what had been a winning formula.

Governor Charlie Baker is silhouetted alongside an interpreter translating his press conference about COVID vaccines into sign language.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In his last months in office, Governor Charlie Baker is reminding Massachusetts what it’s like to have a socially liberal, fiscally responsible adult in charge of state government — one who also happens to be a Republican.

Baker just signed a bill that broadens abortion access in Massachusetts, including after 24 weeks. He also said he wants to send back $2.9 billion to taxpayers under an obscure tax cap law and expressed reasonable concerns, shared by restaurant owners, about a legislative proposal to bring back low-cost happy hour drinks. Baker’s skill at finding what counts as rational middle ground in a blue state has kept his voter approval rating high over two terms. According to the most recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, it’s currently at 65 percent. If past is prologue, even an MBTA train on fire won’t change that.

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Since 1990, pitching themselves as a check against total Democratic control and the spending that goes with it has been the key to electoral success for several Republican governors. Now comes Geoff Diehl, the Donald Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate who leads his primary opponent, Chris Doughty, for the GOP nomination. With backing from a state GOP leadership that’s taking a hard turn to the right, Diehl is blowing up the socially liberal part of what had been a winning formula. This month, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who supports her state’s strict abortion ban, is scheduled to campaign for Diehl.

Diehl, a former lawmaker from Whitman, also backs a citizen effort to get a question on the November ballot that calls for the repeal of a new law, which passed over Baker’s veto, allowing immigrants who are in the country unlawfully to get a Massachusetts driver’s license. Diehl has also pressed Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey on the need to protect people who are gathering signatures for the ballot question from alleged harassment and intimidation. Jim Lyons, the head of the state party, also filed a federal lawsuit against Healey for allegedly failing to do that.

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On the surface, Diehl’s gubernatorial quest appears delusional. According to the Suffolk/Globe poll, Healey leads him by more than 30 points and voters surveyed in the poll overwhelmingly support abortion rights and also support the new immigrant license law. Yet the polling also picks up a significant degree of voter unhappiness with President Biden and uncertainty about the economy, which a smart and well-positioned Republican candidate could exploit. While Republicans account for less than 10 percent of all registered voters in the state, independent or unenrolled voters now total nearly 60 percent. That adds up to a shrinking affiliation with the Democratic Party, what Jon Keller identifies as “The Purpling of Massachusetts” in a new Boston Magazine article.

In 2020, Trump won only 32 percent of the vote against Biden. Still, on the way to a nearby shopping center, I regularly pass a home proudly adorned with a Trump mannequin, and a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign, and a quieter contingent of Massachusetts voters no doubt supports different aspects of Trump’s agenda. As the Globe reported, white nationalist groups are flourishing in New England and on two recent occasions, white supremacist groups targeted Boston.

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It’s on the fiscal front that Republican gubernatorial candidates have traditionally enjoyed an advantage against Democrats. However, because of their embrace of Trump and the irrational contempt for Baker as a “Republican in Name Only” that goes with it, Diehl and the so-called leadership of the state party have chosen to focus on issues that have little chance of yielding electoral success in November. For example, in Boston Magazine, Lyons identifies his party’s message as “the four I’s: inflation, immigration, indoctrination (in schools), and infanticide.” In Massachusetts, only inflation is a possible winner for Republicans. With Healey now running without a primary challenger, she escapes scrutiny concerning her economic policies as governor. That’s a huge advantage. Meanwhile, if Healey faces off against Diehl, as expected, it’s hard to see how he overcomes his misguided focus on issues unrelated to the cost of government.

As for Baker, it can be argued that he resurrected a law that dates back to 1986 as a way to put pressure on Democrats by sowing last-minute confusion about the budget at the end of the legislative session. But politically, it’s a fine way to frame his mission as a governor who wants to give money back, not take more of it from taxpayers — and that’s a mission some voters will miss.





Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.