Can Charlie Baker Save the MassGOP from Extinction?
Red Sox hero Curt Schilling didn’t come right out and say it, but he wants to be the next Donald Trump. Or it sure sounds like he does. “I would like to be one of the people responsible for getting Elizabeth Warren out of politics,” he told a local radio station, announcing his desire to run for office in Massachusetts and sparking a frenzy of grassroots Republican fervor. “She’s a nightmare. The left’s holding her up as the second coming of Hillary Clinton. Lord knows we don’t need the first.”
Given the factionalized state of the Massachusetts GOP, this is not what Governor Charlie Baker needs: an ignorant, wealthy celebrity blowhard reveling in his politically incorrect remarks and straining what little goodwill Baker has succeeded in gaining for the state Republican Party.
Or, I should say: another one.
Schilling’s announcement in mid-August that he might run for U.S. Senate in 2018 against Warren (should she run for reelection) may seem like an eye-roll-worthy joke, especially as Trump heads toward a historic walloping in the Bay State next month. But for Baker, who greeted Schilling’s news with the equivalent of a brushback pitch, it threatens something potentially more troubling. After all, in arguably the nation’s bluest state, the Republican governor is fighting like mad to keep his party from going the way of the dodo bird.
Heading into November’s state elections, Republican ranks are thin. The party’s entire state Senate delegation could fit inside a Prius, and a mere 11 percent of Massachusetts’ registered voters belong to the GOP. Republicans hold only 34 out of 160 seats in the House and six of 40 in the Senate. Baker would love to have enough allies in the legislature to stop Democrats from overriding his vetoes, but the last time Republicans had the numbers to pull it off, members could celebrate afterward by catching a game at the old Boston Garden.
While working across the aisle as he must, Baker is also trying to build back to those relative glory days, reshaping the state party in his own moderate, pragmatic, cool-headed image. As many party members confirm, the governor is committed to smartly and methodically building the MassGOP into, well, an actual functioning political party, one that can win elections, hold seats, and accomplish policy goals. This lofty ambition, though, is endangered by the Trumpians and the growing number of Tea Party–esque Republicans eager for populist disruption, such as Schilling’s taking on the state’s highest-ranking and highest-profile Democratic officeholder. It suggests that Baker’s aim to redefine, renew, and restore the tiny, fractious Massachusetts Republican Party is far from a fait accompli.
Rather, it’s just another civil war inside the MassGOP clown car.
The state’s Republican Party has a long history of tribalism and hissy-fitting. Romneyites once battled Joe Malone loyalists. Hard-line Catholics squared off against WASPy Brahmins. Tea Partiers railed against the establishment. And conservatives assailed moderates—all resulting in a debilitating Bad News Bears streak of unforced errors on the political ball field.
The farcical blunders just over the past decade are too numerous to recount. There was the 2014 state convention that dissolved into a lawsuit between the party and an obscure gubernatorial candidate. Republicans blew a golden opportunity to beat scandal-plagued Democratic Congressman John Tierney in the GOP-friendly 2010 election when Tea Partiers ultimately took control and nominated a bizarre and unelectable conspiracy theorist. And who could forget the time Mitt Romney’s own delegates to his 2012 presidential nominating convention lost their spots to Ron Paul supporters?
Weak candidates, the failure to field candidates, and poor campaign decisions have held the party back and allowed winnable congressional and state races to slip away. As have ugly wars within the party for control of the Republican State Committee, and coup attempts against the House minority leader.
For his part, Baker learned a lot from his own 2010 campaign for governor about the ways Republicans should not woo Massachusetts’ unenrolled voters—more than half of the electorate, who register with no party affiliation. Caught in the wake of Tea Party rallies and Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate victory, Baker’s campaign slogan was “Had Enough?”—part of a sad bid to cast the moderate politician as an angry, pitchfork-at-the-gates right-wing populist. It was a terrible misreading of the Massachusetts electorate and he was punished for it at the polls, losing to incumbent Governor Deval Patrick by more than six points. When Baker returned to the public eye in preparation for the 2014 campaign, he seemed determined not only to rehab his own image—appearing regularly on WGBH with Margery Eagan and Jim Braude rather than with WRKO’s Howie Carr, for example—but to expunge all traces of resentment politics from the state party.
By winning the governor’s mansion, Baker proved he could successfully reach Massachusetts voters with a message of fiscal conservativeness while downplaying hot-button issues such as illegal immigration, charter schools, and government budget cuts. It was finally time to clean house and pull the party together. So, along with similar-minded Republican officeholders, including House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr—as well as behind-the-scenes influencers, many from business and financial circles—Baker began boxing out the rabble-rousers. For shorthand, think of it as Baker versus the Trumpians.
With the windbag in their sails, the party rank and file right now tilts toward the Trumpians. Schilling loves the man. So does Scott Brown, the only recent Republican statewide winner aside from Baker. Most important, despite Baker’s public pleas that they vote against Trump, 49 percent of Republicans cast their ballots for him in the Massachusetts primary—racking up nearly three times as many votes as the next candidate.
That was not, however, the first battle between Baker and Trump’s supporters. That came, unnoticed by most, in several obscure 2014 state representative contests. In a half-dozen districts where Republicans actually stood a fighting chance, the Tea Partiers backed candidates who, they hoped, would provide them enough allies among the small House Republican caucus to mount a coup and replace Jones as minority leader. Ultimately, the insurgent-backed candidates lost every primary.
In large part, Baker’s victories so far stem from his drawing a clear line between temperament and ideology. Former Tea Party stars Ryan Fattman, now a state senator, and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, for instance, have come to accept roles where they can shine by working with Baker rather than raging at the machine. Sure, Baker will frequently disappoint them—by signing the transgender-rights bill, for instance—but he has drawn the line on taxes and spending and shown that he’s willing to listen. In July, Baker initially seemed to support Attorney General Maura Healey’s “copycat” assault-weapons ban. After getting an earful from his allies on the right, though, he reversed course and challenged Healey.
Of course, there’s political self-interest at stake as well. Republicans hoping to advance their careers—by winning reelection, let alone climbing to higher office—are wise to hitch their wagon to Baker and hope that he really can get the party back on track.
In mid-August, Polito was down on the Cape speaking to several dozen Republicans at the official opening of the latest MassVictory office, in Centerville. It’s the seventh such war room in the state, established under Baker to assist Republican campaign efforts in a particular region. Over the past several decades, tales of a MassGOP resurgence have often been rumored and always exaggerated, but this time—with Baker at the helm—it might finally be true.
Activists and party insiders tell me that the moves aimed to grow GOP operations extend from Baker’s 2014 campaign efforts. Even without much help from the national party—which has no reason to take interest in the state this year—Baker’s team still opened those seven MassVictory offices, each with a field rep and deputy field rep. Phone banks will be manned; voter contacts will be made; databases will be updated; get-out-the-vote operations will be run. “Things are different this time,” state committee member Brock Cordeiro insists. “The commitment made by the governor and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito to support our candidates—up and down the ballot, at the legislative and municipal levels and beyond—has been tremendous.”
Meanwhile, Baker’s sky-high popularity across the state has people believing he’ll win reelection in 2018—one of the reasons why he and the GOP are playing possum during the presidential election year, when young voters and minorities flood the polls, lifting Democrats and sinking Republicans. Instead, the party—and Baker personally—are sticking their neck out in just a few targeted races, including state Senator Patrick O’Connor’s reelection bid and several isolated contests for state representative.
Perhaps most impressive is the way Baker has been hustling for his party’s more-moderate candidates, offering public endorsements and tin-cupping fundraisers around the state.
Whereas the Trumpians rely heavily on small-dollar donations from true-believing grassroots members, the state party under Baker is more reliant than ever upon a small number of large donors. Of the $2.5 million raised between January 2015 and June 2016 by the Massachusetts Victory Committee, the major funding vehicle for the state party, $1.4 million came from a mere 37 individual donors giving at least $20,000 apiece. The roster is predominantly investment managers, real estate developers, and big-business CEOs, including the heads of Analog Devices, Bob’s Discount Furniture, Boch Enterprises, and Horizon Beverage. (The lone woman among the 37, Kathleen Severino, matched the $25,000 contribution of her husband, computer networking mogul Paul Severino.)
In early August, Baker and Polito hosted many of these elites at an annual weekend retreat in Gloucester. Later that month they mixed it up with the party hoi polloi at a thank-you “Summer Picnic” in Shrewsbury. The two groups might have little in common, but the party needs the support of both to flourish—and right now, Baker is the only link between the two.
The big question, though, is whether the Republican Party’s grassroots members, who typically perform the critical campaign grunt work, will make the effort on behalf of a Baker-led party that doesn’t entirely represent their conservative populism. Only time will tell if they’ll ultimately follow someone whom they don’t believe in.
Try naming a prominent Massachusetts Republican living in the state, other than current Governor Charlie Baker, of course. Bet you can’t do it.
Brown lives in New Hampshire now. So does Romney, when he’s not in Utah or California. Former Governor Jane Swift moved to Vermont. Bill Weld? You must not have heard: He’s in the Libertarian Party now. So unless you’re a fan of otherwise obscure lieutenant governors (Polito and Kerry Healey), you have to go back 17 years to remember State Treasurer Joe Malone and even farther to find a Republican serving in Congress (Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen).
The point is that the MassGOP is Charlie Baker, and Charlie Baker is the MassGOP. There is no other face, no other name, no other leading light. His is the image into which the state party is being molded.
Unless, of course, the Trump wing puts up the one competing face it has right now in Massachusetts, the one whose uncensored social media rants and fanatical positions on subjects such as immigration most resemble their favorite presidential candidate this year: Curt Schilling.
Let the games begin.