Beth Lindstrom launched her campaign for US Senate this month by describing how two of her GOP primary opponents treat the president.
“One offers blind loyalty to Donald Trump,” the Groton Republican said, referring to state Representative Geoff Diehl, and “the other, blind hostility” — an apparent allusion to wealthy businessman John Kingston.
As for her own approach, Lindstrom attempted more nuance, saying she would “work with the president when he is right, oppose him when he is wrong, and always show respect for the office that he holds.”
For Republicans seeking the nomination to oppose Senator Elizabeth Warren next year, orienting themselves in relation to President Trump has required a series of early strategic decisions. How these GOP hopefuls talk about Trump could determine which of them emerges to face the state’s top Democrat and how he or she fares in the general election.
“It’s something that all the campaigns and all the candidates have thought a lot about. On the one hand he’s pretty unpopular in the state and you don’t want to have the Trump anchor, but on the other, you’re dealing with the Republican primary electorate where he’s pretty popular,” said Richard Tisei, a former state Senate minority leader who was the party’s 2010 lieutenant governor nominee.
“There’s a different land mine, that you have to very gingerly walk by, every day on the news,” Tisei added.
Massachusetts was one of Trump’s worst states in the 2016 presidential election. He garnered just 34 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 61 percent. But it was among his best in the Republican primary — the first state to give him 49 percent before several other candidates had effectively dropped out, leaving him with fewer competitors in the later states.
Polls show that Trump’s unpopularity among the broader Massachusetts electorate has only increased since the election.
That means that the deeper into Trump’s embrace the Republican candidates run in the primary, the more difficult time they will have returning in the general election to the party’s more moderate mainstream. That brand of GOP centrism has traditionally proved more fruitful in Massachusetts, working for Governor Charlie Baker, former US senator Scott Brown, and former governor Mitt Romney.
Thus far, the four GOP Senate campaigns — entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai is also running — have adopted sharply different strategies.
Diehl has made the clear decision to bind himself to Trump — both in the primary and against Warren. The fourth-term Whitman lawmaker has promoted his work on behalf of Trump’s campaign last year.
“We look at the overall numbers,” said Diehl adviser Holly Robichaud, explaining that both Trump last November, when a larger electorate went to the polls, and a 2014 ballot measure repealing an automated gas-tax increase received more votes than Baker got in 2014.
“What we need to [do] is turn those people out to vote,” she said.
Kingston has so far been most vocal in his criticism of Trump. As Trump neared the GOP nomination last year, Kingston unenrolled from the party and tried to help lead a draft for an independent candidate to oppose him. Kingston, also a Romney devotee, wrote in a June 2016 CNN op-ed that Trump’s “behavior disqualifies him to be a PTA member, let alone president.”
In an e-mail, Kingston spokesman Jon Conradi said “the vast majority of” voters prefer “results and common sense before political gamesmanship. That is why John’s independent stance toward the White House would not only be good for Massachusetts, but why it is also sound on the campaign trail.”
Like Kingston, Lindstrom has sought to appeal to the party’s establishment wing. While Kingston has been more confrontational with Trump, Lindstrom, a longtime GOP operative, has adopted a more balanced tack.
In her August announcement, she faulted Trump for his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., saying “the hatred spewed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis is ugly and bigoted.” But, like Baker, she has left the door open to working with Trump on areas where they agree.
Her campaign declined to comment this week on questions about Trump.
Ayyadurai is jockeying with Diehl for right-wing support, hoping to claim a share of Trump supporters. But, so far, Ayyadurai has demonstrated little momentum. Of the $1.21 million in contributions his campaign reported last week for the third quarter, $1.15 million came from the candidate himself.
Since Trump began his presidency, many Republicans across the country have reaped benefits by aligning themselves with him in GOP primaries.
“Trump obviously got killed in the general election in Massachusetts, but 300,000 Republicans voted for Trump in Massachusetts,” said Will Ritter, a former Romney aide who cofounded Poolhouse, a Virginia-based political consulting firm, and is unaffiliated with any of the candidates in the Massachusetts race.
“The idea of the anti-Trump Republican is fool’s gold, and has not come through yet. No one has yet been able to turn it into a viable political strategy,” Ritter said.
That reasoning could crumble, though, against a popular liberal incumbent like Warren — especially when the GOP nominee for Senate will share a ticket with Baker. The governor’s race will carry its own state-specific issues and be accompanied on the ballot by a handful of flash-point ballot questions.
While Baker has sporadically criticized Trump since before the election, his political team has been publicly ambivalent about whether a pro- or anti-Trump Senate nominee would be more beneficial to his reelection hopes.
“It’s obviously tricky, because in the governor’s case, most people see him on a day-to-day basis and understand that he’s dealing with a whole host of state issues and like the fact that he’s a check and balance in the state,” said Tisei, who also waged unsuccessful congressional bids in 2012 and 2014. “When it comes to running for federal office, you’re immersed in federal issues, very much a part of the political atmosphere on a federal level.”
Ritter, the GOP consultant, called Warren “extremely hard to beat” next fall, and suggested that national Republicans would be pleased with their party’s Senate nominee here if he or she could hamper what they perceive to be her 2020 presidential ambitions.
“A success for a Republican against her in the Senate race would be keeping her in Massachusetts more days on the calendar than not,” he said.