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Baker defends a quieter resistance to Trump

Governor Charlie Baker has been guarded in his reaction to President Trump.
Governor Charlie Baker has been guarded in his reaction to President Trump.(Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff)

The thousands of people who thronged downtown Boston on Sunday had come to protest President Trump’s immigration crackdown, but some briefly expressed frustration with the governor as well, chanting, “Where the hell is Charlie Baker?”

Baker, a Republican who didn’t support Trump’s campaign but also didn’t attend either of two enormous anti-Trump rallies in Boston on consecutive weekends, said Monday that he appreciates voters’ concern about his “true north.” But the governor and his inner circle also argue that a less strident and more policy-based resistance to some of the new president’s efforts will prove more prudent in the long term.

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“It’s just not credible to argue that Governor Baker isn’t standing up to President Trump’s policies, given his statements on the [federal Affordable Care Act], sanctuary cities, and the recent immigration order,” said Will Keyser, a senior adviser to the governor who had previously long worked for Democrats. “Not to mention the two have governing approaches that are polar opposites. It must be frustrating for partisans looking for ways to tie the two together to have nothing of substance to point to.”

Still, the furor over the president’s immigration crackdown threw into sharp relief the political dilemma confronting Baker: forsake his state’s prevailing political winds and go along to get along with the young administration, or embrace the anti-Trump movement that has only grown in the last week, and risk further deterioration in the relationship with a commander in chief of his own party.

Little more than a week into the Trump era, Baker advisers think he has found a middle ground, pushing back on issues like health care and immigration, while avoiding the rhetoric that Democrats – with growing frequency and volume – are deploying against the new president.

The governor gave voice to the uncertain footing on Monday, saying during a radio interview that some would wonder, “ ‘What’s Baker’s true north?’ My true north is ensuring that Massachusetts continues to be a great place to raise a family, to work, and to be part of a community.”

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At the same time, the state’s Democrats are helping lead the anti-Trump charge. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh blasted Trump during an emotional City Hall press conference, and went to Logan Airport in a sign of support for people detained by the immigration order. US Senator Elizabeth Warren has emerged as perhaps the party’s leading Trump critic. US Representative Seth Moulton has garnered national attention for his pointed critiques of the president.

Baker’s inner circle argues that the governor’s proclivity for falling back on his inner policy wonk, honed during years at a right-leaning think tank and then successive postings as health and budget chief in Republican administrations on Beacon Hill, could actually prove a political asset. By offering reasonable resistance, Baker allies say, the governor might be out of step with the state’s progressive id, but could also fashion himself as a sort of anti-Trump — essentially in the middle, where the moderate voters who provided his narrow margin of victory in 2014 want him to be.

The governor, his advisers note, has said he did not vote for Trump and has resisted the president by penning a nine-page letter urging congressional Republicans to hold onto several key provisions of the Affordable Care Act and speaking against Trump’s immigration policies.

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Referring to his announcement the day after the state’s March 1 presidential primary that he would not vote for Trump in November, Baker said, “I made my views clear on Donald Trump as a candidate, and I’ve made my views clear on a number of times on issues that have taken place since he took office, and I’ll continue to do that.”

Baker, speaking on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” added, “But I also have a job to do, and the job I have to do is to represent the state’s interests every day around federal policy that has tremendous import to Massachusetts.”

State Democrats for months have used Trump’s unpopularity here to boost their own profiles and, increasingly, bash Baker. The first formal challenger to Baker’s expected reelection bid, former Patrick administration budget chief Jay Gonzalez, who formed his campaign committee on Monday, focused largely on Trump in his announcement.

“President Trump threatens our values and threatens to take us backward,” Gonzalez said. “Now more than ever, we need a [g]overnor who is going to stand up and fight for our values and fight to move us forward.”

The awkwardness of navigating political pitfalls laid by a president of his own party could hamstring Baker, analysts said, but most especially within his own party. Independent voters, who comprise a majority of the state electorate, could warm to a governor’s efforts to walk a nonpartisan path.

“I don’t think it puts him in any grave danger, but I think he’s going to spend a lot of time disagreeing with the titular head of the party,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Report, a non-partisan political newsletter based in Washington D.C. “Where does that manifest itself? I think in a primary more than anything else.”

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Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.