Republicans have clung to relevancy in this bluest of blue state through a long line of moderate governors, including one-time presidential nominee and sitting Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who appealed across party lines even as Democratic supermajorities in the state Legislature continued to grow.
But Trumpâ€™s rise splintered the party, pitting a popular governor who repudiated Trump against a conservative state party chair who embraced the former president and his rhetoric. Now that power struggle is turning into an all-out war without Baker or Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who also passed on a 2022 run, to keep things in check.
â€œThe Massachusetts GOP is, in my estimation, in a bad place â€” riddled with conflict, declining membership, declining coffers and declining representation in the state Legislature. And now we just lost the two things we could point to proudly,â€ said Anthony Amore, a former Republican nominee for secretary of state. â€œRight now, things seem like weâ€™re in a real fight for our existence.â€
Trump changed the GOP calculus in Massachusetts by energizing voters who typically sat out elections. Itâ€™s a popularity thatâ€™s engendered a fierce loyalty among voters in what was traditionally a more moderate-leaning primary electorate.
â€œThe litmus test for a lot of voters became are you with him or against him, and it still is,â€ former Massachusetts GOP political director John Milligan said in an interview. â€œHe changed the battlefield for any primary going forward.â€
But some Republicans argue it fast-tracked the party, already less than 10 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, further into obscurity.
Baker, the governor since 2015, stood tall as a moderate firewall against the growing pro-Trump sentiment within his party in a state where the president was â€” and still is â€” wildly unpopular. He said he blanked his ballot for president in 2016 and 2020 so as not to vote for Trump and emerged as a vocal critic of the former presidentâ€™s handling of the pandemic. He supported Trumpâ€™s second impeachment and rejected his false claims of election fraud â€” leading Trump to knock him as a RINO and endorse conservative former state Rep. Geoff Diehl’s 2022 run for governor.
Baker allies and political observers dismissed the endorsement: Trump got drubbed twice in Massachusetts general elections, and candidates whoâ€™ve hewed too closely to his messaging have met the same fate.
But polls showed the twice-elected Baker faced significant political headwinds in a GOP primary against Diehl, to the point one pollster even tested his path forward as an independent. When Baker bowed out of the 2022 contest this week, Trump, Diehl and their allies danced on Bakerâ€™s political grave even as the governor insisted the endorsement hadnâ€™t shaken him â€œat all.â€
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin delivered a blueprint last month for appealing to Trumpâ€™s voters while keeping the former president at armâ€™s length, and Diehlâ€™s already ripped a page out of it with an education-focused “Parents for Diehl” initiative.
â€œWhat you saw this week was the death knell of the Baker Republican and the beginning of a groundswell of grassroots organizing toward a new kind of Republicanism,â€ GOP strategist Wendy Wakeman, an ally of state party chair Jim Lyons, said in an interview. â€œCharlie did a great job, but he had become something different than what the Republican Party represents.â€
Baker sees it differently. He argued this week that voters are still more aligned with his brand of old-school New England Republicanism and bipartisanship than anything else. And other Republican strategists dismissed the GOPâ€™s rightward march and embrace of Trump as a losing general-election strategy in Massachusetts.
â€œCatering to 10 percent of a population and not focusing on the other 90 percent â€” it doesnâ€™t take a rocket scientist to figure out youâ€™re not going to get the numbers you need to get elected,â€ said Colin Reed, former campaign manager to former Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown.
Next yearâ€™s Republican primary will now test moderatesâ€™ strength without Baker. His departure leaves a massive void for a Republican Party thatâ€™s long suffered from a shallow bench in Massachusetts. And two of the most prominent candidates being floated as possible replacements â€” Taunton Mayor Shaunna Oâ€™Connell, a former state representative, and former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, a Trump appointee â€” are both to his right.
Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics have both tipped the 2022 governorâ€™s race toward the Democrats with two formidable candidates â€” state Attorney General Maura Healey and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, also the recently former Boston mayor â€” weighing whether to join a field that already includes progressives state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, former state Sen. Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen.
â€œWeâ€™ll see another candidate, if not more candidates, emerge on the Republican side,â€ Amy Carnevale, a Massachusetts GOP state committee member whoâ€™s voted for both Baker and Trump, said in an interview.
But few are eager to deal with the infighting thatâ€™s roiled the GOP since Lyons succeeded Baker allies as the state party chair in 2019 and promptly steered the state’s GOP into a hard-right turn. Lyons and his allies have frequently attacked Baker â€” a fiscally conservative and more socially liberal Republican forced to work across the aisle in a Legislature dominated by Democrats â€” as being too â€œleft.â€ Baker and his allies have called for Lyonsâ€™ resignation for various reasons, and members of the state committee skipped a quarterly meeting earlier this week just to protest his leadership.
Lyons has routinely dismissed the drama and waved away concerns about a Trump-aligned party trajectory.
â€œThere are a lot of Republicans in Massachusetts, quite frankly, that were kind of getting concerned about whatâ€™s happening with the Republican Party because of its lurch to the left,â€ Lyons said in an interview, calling Bakerâ€™s departure the â€œperfect opportunity for the party to really focus on the fundamental issues of freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility.â€
But Carnevale, the state committee member, said intraparty tensions, which frequently spill into public view, have again reached a â€œboiling pointâ€ as moderates look to regroup in Bakerâ€™s wake.
Some outsiders are holding out hope for a hero â€” a candidate with the same not-so-secret sauce as Baker and Romney, business-savvy moderates known more for their managerial skills than their politics.
â€œWould it be great to have a functioning party? Sure,â€ former Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican who served as acting governor in the early 2000s, said. â€œWe are at a low point. But strong candidates have emerged in nearly every cycle for governor.â€
Others are more resigned â€” at least for now.
â€œIâ€™m hopeful someone will come out of the woodwork,â€ state Rep. Shawn Dooley, a GOP state committee member, said. â€œBut if Geoff Diehl is our nominee, itâ€™s going to be disastrous for Republicans up and down the ticket.â€