Fresh off the high ground of his resounding reelection victory, Governor Charlie Baker has been forced to pivot back to the swamps of Massachusetts politics, where a battle is brewing over control of the state Republican Party — a nasty fight that lays bare the GOP’s ideological fault lines that run from the State House to the White House.
At stake is Baker’s ability to retain control of the party apparatus —
including its $1.3 million bank account, highly effective fund-raising machinery, and political staff.
The governor and his more moderate, anti-Trump allies face a strong challenge from conservative factions who appear to be coalescing behind a pro-Trump, former US Senate candidate, Geoff Diehl, for party chair.
Diehl, after weeks of deliberation since he was trounced in his bid to unseat US Senator Elizabeth Warren, this week informed Baker aides and other GOP leaders that he is jumping into the contest, according to both Baker and Diehl allies.
Baker’s operatives, despite his unprecedented move two years ago to take control of the 80-member Republican State Committee, struggle to control the ideologically divided governing board of the party. It is scheduled to choose a new chair for a two-year term at its meeting in January.
Reached Tuesday, Diehl, who has served four terms in the House since his election in 2010 and was Massachusetts cochair of Trump’s 2016 campaign, would neither confirm nor deny he is running. But GOP leaders, including several members of the state committee, said they received calls from the legislator, who told them he has decided to seek the chairman’s post. Most declined to comment on the record.
“He’s going to run,’’ said James Lyons, a GOP legislator who recently lost reelection and state committeeman who said he spoke Monday with Diehl. “That is what he indicated to me.”
Another committee member who is in close contact with Diehl and supports his candidacy, confirmed the outgoing lawmaker has decided to seek the chair’s post, which pays about $95,000 a year. “He is very close to a formal announcement,’’ said the person.
Diehl will be going up against what most GOP insiders consider the Baker operation’s favored candidate, Brent Andersen, a veteran committeeman from Auburn and current party treasurer.
But Andersen, who does not have the formal endorsement of the governor but is getting help from some of his operatives, is struggling to get a majority of votes on the committee.
Baker’s political adviser, Jim Conroy, declined to say whether Baker will get involved in the contest for chair. Andersen would not comment on whether he had the support of Baker’s political team.
The governor’s wavering in his support of Diehl during a gubernatorial debate did little to help their strained relationship. Diehl informed Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito Monday that he was readying to enter the contest for chair, according to those with knowledge of the call.
Another conservative — state Representative Peter J. Durant of Spencer — is also seeking votes but appears to be struggling to amass support.
Diehl, a 49-year old Whitman resident, has been a consistent thorn in the side of the Republican establishment, particularly on Beacon Hill, where he was often at odds with the GOP legislative leadership and the Baker administration.
But he has strong support among the GOP rank and file. He won the party’s endorsement for US Senate at its April convention with 54 percent support from the delegates in a three-way contest. He won the September primary with a similar margin.
A Diehl election, with the support of its boisterous conservative pro-Trump factions, would create potential political trouble for Baker. The governor won reelection by more than 35 points — a mandate for his nonpartisan style of governing.
“At first blush, no sitting governor wants to have his party controlled by a competing faction,’’ said former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone, who served as executive director of the state GOP in the late 1980s.
Still, Malone sees a potential political benefit for Baker if the party falls into the hands of pro-Trump forces.
“Charlie Baker has carved out a coalition that would be very strong even if he didn't control the party apparatus,’’ he said. “He could tout his image that he is above the party fray and is a Republican with a strong independent bent.”
After he was elected governor in 2014, Baker and his advisers made an all-out effort to control the state committee.
In a move by a sitting governor never seen before, Baker plunged into the GOP state committee elections held in the state’s 2016 presidential primaries. With a barrage of mailings, his political operation endorsed candidates, many of whom Baker recruited to unseat right-leaning conservatives.
The governor was able to retain control of the party when state committee members reelected his ally, Kirsten Hughes, to another two-year term.
Hughes recently announced she is stepping down.