NORTH ANDOVER — Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker, after months of edging away from his party’s presidential front-runner, took his firmest stance yet against Donald J. Trump Wednesday, saying, “I’m not going to vote for him in November.”
Still, Baker, who said he did not vote for the runaway winner of the state’s primary on Tuesday, was “not willing to concede” that the Republican presidential contest is over.
The governor’s statement comes after months of declining to say if he would vote for Trump, should he be the GOP presidential nominee, and amid the tumultuous reckoning Republican officials across the country face as they figure out how to deal with the political rise of the reality television star.
Growing numbers of party elders, including US Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and former US House majority leader Tom DeLay, have said they would not support Trump if he is the nominee. Former governor Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, who has called Trump’s remarks on white supremacy groups “disqualifying,” is scheduled to discuss the race on Thursday.
Baker has repeatedly distanced himself from some of Trump’s most controversial statements and knocked the billionaire’s temperament and seriousness of purpose. But he had previously stopped short of definitively ruling out support for Trump if the New Yorker is the GOP standardbearer.
Baker’s evolution on Trump appeared to create a significant distance between the bombastic businessman and the popular governor, who is expected to run for reelection in 2018.
Baker’s path to another term “runs directly through Democrats and independents, who will be, I suspect, increasingly turned off by Trump’s rhetoric,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, who also does paid work overseeing an internship program at a Democratic consulting firm.
Boston-based Republican strategist Rob Gray said he sees Baker’s new Trump stance as “protection against having to answer for everything Trump says and trying to seem moderate, which he is.”
Eric Fehrnstrom, a strategist who served top roles in the campaigns of Romney and US senator Scott Brown, said Massachusetts doesn’t elect governors based on whose side voters think they are going to be on in presidential politics.
“No one blames [Baker] for Donald Trump,” Fehrnstrom said. “He should stay focused on his knitting.”
Wednesday’s comments, notably, came the same day Baker claimed victory in an intra-party battle with Tea Party-leaning conservatives for control of the Massachusetts Republican Party. Taking a definitive stance against voting for Trump in November before Tuesday’s vote could have made Baker’s attempt to reshape the Massachusetts Republican State Committee more difficult, some political observers said.
Baker aides emphasized that the governor had previously knocked several of Trump’s outrageous comments and said, again and again, he wouldn’t vote for him in the primary.
But the governor’s new stance was significant, particularly given Trump’s wide margin of victory across Massachusetts, where the billionaire drew heavily on the types of independent voters who gave Baker his slim victory margin in 2014 against Democrat Martha Coakley and other candidates.
Exit polls and the map of Tuesday’s results show the force of Trump’s victories across every county of the state and every pocket of the GOP. His support was almost even among men and women. Baker struggled among female voters in 2014, losing them by 15 points.
Trump won every age cohort and voters of every education level, though his backing was strongest among those with no college degree. There was little variation across income strata, and self-described conservatives and moderates broke for him in nearly equal numbers.
Despite a highly public spat last month with Pope Francis, Trump carried a majority of the half of the primary electorate that identified as Catholic.
Aside from a ribbon of affluent suburbs to the west and northwest of Boston that went for Ohio Governor John Kasich, Trump dominated every corner of the state.
The 25 towns that gave Baker the highest percentage of the vote in 2014, against one other major-party candidate, averaged 66 percent support. Trump, on the ballot against three other Republicans, averaged 49 percent in those towns, which are dotted across the state.
Asked Wednesday if he would consider voting for the Democratic nominee, if Trump is the Republican one, Baker replied that he is “not much of a fan of Hillary Clinton.”
Another journalist pressed, asking if Baker is hoping for a third-party candidate or might eschew voting in the general election altogether.
“I’m not willing to concede that the Republican nomination is over and, frankly, you know, you guys shouldn’t either,” he told reporters in the foyer of Kittredge Elementary School in North Andover, after reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to costumed students.
His focus Wednesday was on his day job. Baker, repeating a common refrain, said he is concentrating on his work, not national political pontification.
“The voters of Massachusetts did not elect me to engage and participate at great lengths in national and presidential politics,” Baker said. “They elected me to serve as the governor of Massachusetts and to focus on the work and the people’s business here. And that’s what I intend to do.”
LISTEN to Baker speak to reporters in North Andover, Mass., on Wednesday morning: