Massachusetts voters might be excused for not paying close attention to this year’s primary elections for governor. On the Republican side, former state Representative Geoff Diehl, who was trounced by Senator Elizabeth Warren in his last electoral outing, faces a political newcomer, businessman Chris Doughty. In the Democratic race, Attorney General Maura Healey is effectively running unopposed.
Polls widely suggest that Diehl will handily defeat Doughty on Sept. 6 and that Healey will then rout him in November. Yawn.
But in fact something important is at stake in this primary: the future of the state’s small and steadily shrinking Republican Party. For those who believe vibrant debate between competing political candidates is good for democracy, the Grand Old Party’s near-comatose condition should be cause for alarm.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans among registered voters three to one. Less than 10 percent of the state’s electorate currently calls itself Republican. Matters on Beacon Hill are worse. Republicans now hold 27 of the 160 seats in the House and 3 of 40 seats in the Senate. Among the main statewide elected officials, only Governor Charlie Baker, who despite high approval ratings did not seek reelection, is a Republican.
If Democrats sweep those statewide races in November, as seems almost certain, their domination of state government will be complete and the Republicans’ utter irrelevance utterly assured.
It is time, then, for a party reset. That process will take years, but voters can jump-start it by choosing Doughty, a calm voice for a more pragmatic conservatism, over Diehl, a dedicated acolyte of former President Donald Trump. Independents, who can vote in the Republican primary, should take note.
Doughty, 59, is a California native who graduated from Harvard Business School and went on to build a company that makes parts for automobiles and other machines. A self-styled problem solver in the mold of former Governor Mitt Romney, he says he is trying to appeal to “the exhausted middle.” He advocates fiscal restraint and lower taxes and insists that he would not try to change the state’s strong abortion rights and gun safety laws. Importantly, he says he considers the rising cost of living the state’s biggest issue and pledges to make affordable housing a priority from day one.
On the question of President Biden’s victory in 2020, Doughty asserted in an interview with the Globe editorial board: “The election was decided. Let’s move on.”
Diehl, 53, was born in Pennsylvania and moved with his wife to her hometown of Whitman in 2001, building a career as an account executive for sign companies. In 2011, he won election to the House, where his claim to fame was helping overturn a state law tying the gas tax to inflation.
As a candidate for governor, Diehl’s policy agenda is notably thin on details, calling broadly for reducing government bureaucracy and opposing COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates. But on one thing he is crystal clear: He has become an aggressive proponent of Trump’s election-denying movement.
Having initially accepted the 2020 election results, Diehl did an about-face last year when, as he was preparing to run for governor, he suddenly declared the election “rigged.” (Trump’s endorsement arrived soon after.) More recently, he accused the FBI of trying “to bring down” the former president after agents, with a federal judge’s authorization, removed more than two-dozen boxes of government documents, some of them containing top-secret files, from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Diehl is also closely tied to the Republican state party chairman, Jim Lyons, who has pushed the party hard to the right while gleefully deriding Baker as a RINO — “Republican in name only.” He insists the party’s centrist traditions have failed, even though Republicans have held the governor’s seat for 24 of the past 32 years. He has also channeled the spirit of the former president by declining to condemn party leaders who made blatantly anti-gay and anti-Asian remarks.
In hewing to the Trump line, Diehl is of course little different from dozens of other Republican candidates who won primary elections in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wyoming on the strength of the former president’s endorsement. But Massachusetts is not like those states, and while Trump’s embrace might solidify Diehl and Lyons’s support among the tiny Republican base, it is more than likely to turn off voters in the general election.
Enter the state’s independent voters, who represent 60 percent of its 4.8 million registered voters — twice as many as in the Democratic Party. Polls indicate they like Baker’s centrist policies and want to see both parties represented in state government. This GOP primary is their chance to weigh in against one-party rule.
Loyal Republicans will no doubt object to the idea of independent voters flocking into their primary. But political parties are not private clubs. They are open associations where the members self-select. And in Massachusetts, the unenrolled can choose to associate with either party in their primaries, if only for one day.
There is also a case to be made for why reasonable conservatives should want to bring the party back from the brink of extinction. Subtract the blatant bigotry and narcissistic bullying Trump brings to almost every political endeavor and the party has an opportunity to win over more of those unenrolled voters. Though this page might not agree with many positions on the right, it sees the value of hearty debate over taxes, regulation, the high cost of higher education, and the economic plight of rural regions left behind by the global economy.
Diehl has declined most offers to debate Doughty except on conservative forums and loudly rejected an offer to meet with the Globe editorial board, calling it “a bulletin board for left-wing progressive talking points and utopian daydreams.” But in fact, this page has endorsed centrist Republicans in the general election, including Baker and former Governor Bill Weld.
More to the point, this page firmly believes in a functioning two-party system — provided both those parties legitimately uphold America’s democratic traditions and institutions. Trump, by refusing to stop the violent insurrection on Jan. 6 and relentlessly seeking to overturn a legitimate election, has forfeited any claims to political legitimacy. And so should any party that blindly follows his lead.
Though it happens only once in a blue moon, American political parties have been transformed or even replaced. It happened when an amalgam of anti-slavery parties came together in 1854 to create the Republican Party. Six years later, that party nominated an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln to be its candidate for president.
Massachusetts helped create that proud Republican Party, which came to play an important role in state politics. The time has come for reasonable conservatives, Republicans and independents, to reclaim it from the corrupt and autocratic grip of Donald Trump. They can start on Sept. 6 by voting for Chris Doughty.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.