Can Charlie Baker Bring the Party Back?

If Baker wins the election, we might be in for a genuine resurgence of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

charlie baker

Associated Press

We don’t yet know who will win the election for governor Tuesday, but if it turns out to be Charlie Baker, we just might be in for a genuine resurgence—within a very limited definition of that term—of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

It’s been a long time coming. Since its zenith following the 1990 election, the MassGOP has dwindled, flailed, and sputtered to its current state of irrelevance. Whatever good intentions Bill Weld brought with him were mostly brought low, partly by his own wanderlust but mostly by the so-called Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and subsequent soiling of the national Republican brand. Mitt Romney then further damaged the state party after staging his 2002 coup. He effectively turned it into an arm of his Presidential campaign conglomerate, and also led an ill-advised and poorly executed kamikaze mission to oust Democratic state legislators in 2004. By the time he left office, mooning the Commonwealth behind him, the state party was in tatters.

The years since have seen the party slogging along, leaderless and rudderless, beset by internal divisions and seemingly determined to piss away all opportunities for gain, most notably in 2010, when the GOP should have won at least two and probably three congressional seats, but produced untenable candidates who handed the elections to Bill Keating, John Tierney, and Niki Tsongas.

The party might fail yet again this year to break back into the congressional delegation, and will probably lose the other statewide offices, including a winnable Treasurer race. But, as the omniscient Frank Phillips correctly wrote in the Globe, Republicans appear likely to storm the state senate, at least relative to recent numbers. The concurrence of open seats in relatively conservative districts, during an off-year election in which voters wish to put a check on Beacon Hill Democrats, has insiders believing that Republicans Debra Boronski, Vinnie deMacedo, Michael Valanzola, and Alex Vispoli could win the seats of outgoing Democrats Gale Canderas, Therese Murray, Stephen Brewer, and Barry Finegold, respectively. (It might not have helped that Democrats nominated current or former state lawmakers in three of those four races.) In addition, Ryan Fattman, Shaun Toohey, and perhaps even Monica Medeiros could oust Democratic incumbents Richard Moore, Kathleen O’Connor-Ives, and Jason Lewis.

Gains in the state House of Representatives are not likely to be dramatic, but could easily be enough to push the party above its recent apex of 33 in the 160-body chamber. In both cases, these would be far greater results for the state GOP than my Insiders Poll showed back in the spring, if they in fact pan out.

Sure, even the best-case scenario for Republicans would leave Democrats with super-majority control in both houses, capable of overriding Baker vetoes. And it’s possible that trimming away moderate Democrats from those more conservative districts could make the remaining Democratic senate caucus even more liberal. But more likely, such gains would reverse the recent leftward drift, particularly in the senate, and give Republicans some real opportunity to work with the majority.

But most importantly for the future of the state party, Baker—if he does win on Tuesday—seems likely to do some real longterm good for the state party. In the current campaign, he has demonstrated a real emphasis on growing the field operation, and has opened offices around the state that have made a real difference for the coordinated party campaign. With an eye toward his own re-election—and, it seems, no lust for other positions—Baker will want to keep moving the party in that direction, and to use his gubernatorial status to boost fundraising prowess and candidate recruitment. That might or might not mean keeping the current, quite solid personnel including chair Kirsten Hughes, executive director Rob Cunningham, finance director Chris Thompson, and communications director Emmalee Kalmbach, some or all of whom he might re-assign to the state house.

If he becomes governor, Baker is also likely to solidify the victory of the less wave-making members of the state party over the grenade-throwers. I also imagine he will, in addition to appointing a full-fledged Democrat or two, keep his administration fairly clear of ideologues and controversial conservative policies. And, with a little help from global economic factors outside of his control, could easily find himself presiding over a period of prosperity in the Commonwealth, which would bode well for his own and his party’s fortunes.

The party still has significant roadblocks before it. Its field operation is still far too reliant, by necessity, on phone banking. The Shauna O’Connell wing of the party still wants to overthrow both the house and senate minority leaders, and take a more combative approach to dissent. The bench of potential future candidates remains meager at best, at almost all levels. And, in 20 years, the party has still developed no coherent image of what a contemporary Massachusetts Republican Party stands for, other than an occasional outlet for frustration with Beacon Hill Democrats.

And, of course, the good news described above is contingent upon Baker winning on Tuesday. If he loses, the MassGOP will be even more leaderless, rudderless, and powerless than ever, even with state legislative gains, which might not be as great without strong Baker coattails. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time the party seizes defeat when victory seemed in its grasp.