As life in Massachusetts finally returns to a semblance of normalcy, Gov. Charlie Baker continues to get high marks from Massachusetts voters. In March, a Suffolk University / Boston Globe poll put his overall approval rating at 67 percent, with 71 percent backing his handling of COVID-19.
You might think the Mass GOP would be celebrating those numbers, which suggest Baker will be tough to beat if he seeks a third term in 2022. Instead, if Baker does run for re-election, his own party might become his biggest hurdle.
Scroll through the Mass GOP’s Facebook page, and you’ll see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis praised for saying systemic racism doesn’t exist, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem cheered for limiting transgender kids’ access to sports. But Baker gets no such plaudits; instead, he’s panned for purportedly overreaching on COVID-19. The comments on that post are especially bracing: Baker, it’s alleged, is a “liberal” “control freak” “communist” “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only.
Social media isn’t real life, of course. But it does reflect and shape it — and according to Republican State Committeewoman Amy Carnevale, the antipathy on the Republican right for Baker is substantial.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s a good-sized segment of the active Republican base who would want to see a change,” Carnevale said, referring to the Republican Party’s upcoming selection of its next nominee for governor.
The dynamic Carnevale describes isn’t new. Back in 2018, 36 percent of Republican primary voters backed Scott Lively, an extreme anti-gay pastor, in what was widely seen as a protest vote aimed at Baker’s allegedly excessive moderation.
Since then, though, Baker has stoked frustration on the right with both his hands-on COVID-19 response and his increasingly sharp criticisms of former President Donald Trump. After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, for example, Baker blamed Trump for inciting violence.
“His remarks during and after the travesty of the attack on the capitol were disgraceful,” Baker said, adding that then-Vice President Mike Pence should be “empowered” to take the reins of government through then-President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Carnevale is a Trump backer, but she’s also a committed Baker supporter. She contends that Baker’s critics lose sight of the fact that Massachusetts’ political climate is different from the nation’s.
“We represent a different populace,” Carnevale said. “We are a blue state. And to get elected as a Republican in a blue state, you really have to appeal to those unenrolled voters, those independents, and even some Democrats.”
If bipartisan appeal is the goal, Baker’s credentials are hard to beat.
“Among Democrats, Charlie Baker’s often been in the high seventies or even in the eighties,” said MassINC Polling Group President Steve Koczela, referring to the percentage of poll respondents who say they approve of Baker’s performance. “We’ve even done some polls in primaries where his poll numbers have been that high — Democratic primaries, where our Republican governor’s numbers are way up there.”
In today’s GOP, though, Baker may be hard pressed to wear sky-high support from Democrats as a badge of honor. And a potential primary challenge already looms from Geoff Diehl, the former state representative and U.S. Senate candidate who suggested in January that Baker be censured for supporting Trump’s impeachment.
Diehl is currently crisscrossing Massachusetts for a YouTube series, titled “Bay State With A Bronco,” which feels a lot like the soft launch of a campaign. In one episode, he chatted amiably with Mass GOP Chair Jim Lyons, who praised Diehl’s successful leadership of a 2014 campaign to stop automatic hikes to the state gas tax.
“You drove that message all across the state,” Lyons said. “And that’s the kind of grassroots effort we have to build on.”
In a contest with Diehl, Baker would be the favorite. MassINC’s latest polling still puts Baker’s Republican approval at 62 percent, and a Republican primary would also be open to unenrolled voters, who think even more highly of the governor.
Baker’s fundraising ability would also be an asset in that race, according to Anthony Amore, the 2018 Republican nominee for secretary of state.
“I don’t think any other Republican running against him could raise anywhere near the amount of money he could raise,” said Amore, another Baker supporter.
“Make no mistake — I know his fundraising right now is something that’s been called into question by the media,” he added, referring to public scrutiny of a sequence low-donation months. “But it’s a matter of flipping the switch for Gov. Baker in terms of catching up.”
A bigger risk, if Baker seeks a third term, could come from the creation of new rules prior to next year’s GOP convention. Right now, support from 15 percent of delegates gets candidates on the ballot. But if Mass GOP boosts that threshold — say, to 40 percent — Baker might have difficulty make the cut.
Diehl recently proposed moving in the opposite direction, suggesting that the party drop the ballot threshold to ten percent to show that there’s no effort to box Baker out. But Jennifer Nassour, a former chair of the Mass GOP, remains concerned that the Republican State Committee will create more stringent requirements in the name of ideological purity.
“I’m hoping that the state committee members, before they vote anything that will shatter the party … actually think about what they’re doing, and make sure that they’re making a good decision,” Nassour said. “Not just [one] based on … a fire being fueled because they’re unhappy with some of the governor’s comments.”
Nassour, too, is a Baker backer. She takes a dim view of Diehl’s prospects, citing his losses in a 2015 state Senate campaign and his 2018 challenge to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in which Diehl received 36 percent of the vote.
“If you cannot win for state Senate, and if you cannot win statewide office running for U.S. Senate, then the chance that you can actually win in a general election for governor is pretty slim to none,” Nassour said. “It will kill our chances of having that balanced democratic system that we need in Massachusetts so desperately.”
Lyons, the current Mass GOP chair, declined comment for this story — after first noting that there are currently no declared candidates, and that party bylaws prohibit his involvement in primaries.
Recently, though, Lyons joined a vote of the Mass GOP’s bylaws committee to back a proposal that would remove Baker and other elected Republican leaders as voting members of the party’s executive committee.
That proposal, which goes before the full Republican State Committee in June, could pave the way for a pre-primary endorsement from the Mass GOP in the 2022 governor's race — along with financial resources for the party’s preferred candidate.
Unenrolled voters are by far the biggest group in Massachusetts politics, numbering about 2.7 million, or around 57 percent of the state electorate. Democrats follow, with about 1.5 million registered voters and just under a third of the electorate. With less than half a million registered voters, comprising less than 10 percent of the state's voters, Republicans are a distant third.