In early 2016, Governor Charlie Baker set out to reshape the bedrock of the Massachusetts Republican Party. Through endorsements and donations, he pushed a slate of like-minded moderate Republicans onto the party’s state committee before successfully backing a new national committeewoman over a more conservative incumbent.
But Baker’s efforts to mold the party in his image didn’t account for this: Sharing this year’s GOP slate with a pro-Trump Republican who opposes abortion rights and whose US Senate candidacy has suddenly become Democrats’ most effective cudgel against the governor.
The fractures were laid bare Wednesday night, when in a live television debate against Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez, Baker stumbled over repeated questions about whether he’d vote for Geoff Diehl, the former Donald Trump state campaign cochair who’s challenging Senator Elizabeth Warren at the top of the ballot.
Baker’s wavering — “I haven’t made a decision” — evaporated as soon as the broadcast ended: He said he misspoke and reaffirmed to reporters his intention to vote for the entire ticket, Diehl included.
But after months, if not years, of Democrats trying to tie Baker to Trump, the sequence managed to draw blood from the Republican incumbent. It also underscores the political briar patch the governor is navigating in a Trump-led GOP — all while trying to shave off the votes he needs from Democrats and independents that dominate the state’s electorate.
“The rank-and-file are for Trump, and Baker has done nothing to try to change that. He’s accepted it as a political reality, and has just tried to straddle, tried to avoid controversy of all kinds,” said Todd Domke, a longtime Republican analyst who deregistered from the GOP the morning after Trump’s election.
Since 2015, Baker has sought to distance himself from Trump, the controversial head of his party. Baker has said he didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 general election, and since Trump was elected, criticized Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has slammed some of Trump’s comments as “disgraceful” and “appalling.”
Domke argues that Baker failed in his effort to recast the Massachusetts GOP when the governor decided to stay publicly neutral in the state’s Republican presidential primary, effectively conceding Massachusetts and its delegates to Trump. (Baker had previously endorsed former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who dropped out before the Massachusetts vote.)
“That was his first moment of truth,” Domke said. “When he conceded the state, basically he was conceding the party.”
Fast forward to 2018. Baker has couched his support of
Diehl by noting his own longstanding support for women’s reproductive rights — Diehl has described himself as “pro-life” — and pointing to his various criticisms of Trump and his policies. Even his mea culpa after Wednesday night’s debate was far from enthusiastic: Baker did not utter Diehl’s name in any of his responses.
On Thursday, Baker said he’s supported candidates “over the years that I didn’t agree with on everything,” and said he was confident voters would be able to separate his own reelection pitch from Diehl.
“I think people are making decisions on this stuff based on the work we’ve done, the people we are, the relationships we’ve built, and the track record we’ve established and the vision we have for the Commonwealth,” he said in Boston. “And I believe that most people, when they vote, make their decisions based on those sorts of things.”
To be sure, Gonzalez may have landed body blows Wednesday, but he still faces long odds in beating the popular and much better funded incumbent. Recent polls show Baker with a yawning lead of nearly 30 points or more ahead of his Democratic opponent.
It didn’t stop Gonzalez from hammering Baker over the misstep, arguing at an event at NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts headquarters Thursday that the governor’s waffling shows a broader lack of leadership.
“We all know he didn’t misspeak,” Gonzalez said, accusing Baker of changing his tune once “his political handlers got a hold of him.”
“He doesn’t take stands based on his core values,” he added. “These are political calculations for him where he does everything he can to walk the tightrope up high where he hopes nobody notices him and tries to balance in the wind without falling down.”
With less than three weeks to the election, it leaves the question: Does it ultimately hurt Baker?
“Yes. But how many people were paying attention?” said Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Between the consuming churn of the national news and the feeling that Baker has the race locked up, Jenkins suspects the blow landed by Gonzalez won’t dent Baker’s lead enough to make a difference.
Among other things, Baker’s enormous war chest remains an advantage, which he demonstrated Thursday by hitting the airwaves with yet another TV ad featuring Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Representative David Nangle of Lowell, and other Democrats praising him and his running mate, Karyn Polito.
By contrast, Diehl on Thursday touted the endorsement of Vice President Mike Pence, who sent out a fund-raising e-mail on behalf of the Whitman Republican.
With the subject line, “How we defeat Elizabeth Warren,” it had a far less bipartisan message than Baker’s ad, calling the Cambridge Democrat a “radical leftist” who is “desperate to stay at the extreme left edge of the increasingly socialist Democratic Party” so she can run against Trump in 2020.
Back in April, Baker said his calendar was too full to meet with Pence when the vice president was in town for fund-raiser.
For his part, Diehl shrugged off Baker’s hemming and hawing over voting — and rejected the idea that he has become an albatross for his fellow Republican.
“Look, he’s running his race. I’m running my race,” Diehl said. “He’s just focused on a race that’s obviously different than mine.”
His presence, however, is a reminder that despite being the state party’s titular head, Baker can’t change the Massachusetts GOP into an anti-Trump party.
“There is still a strong, common-sense, conservative base of people. It’s hard to wipe those people out,” said Steve Aylward, a Diehl supporter and state committee member whose 2016 challenger Baker endorsed. “When you work hard to take out hard-working Republicans, like he did with me . . . that’s how you end up hurting Republicans.”
Still, Aylward said he’s voting for the governor and expects other conservatives will, too.
Why? “Baker is better than the alternative,” he said.