THE ANNOUNCEMENT BY Gov. Charlie Baker that he won’t seek a third term shakes up the Massachusetts political landscape in a way that few decisions by a single officeholder could do.
Baker, a two-term Republican, has been one of the country’s most popular governors over a period when his party has lost legislative seats and made no serious play for congressional offices or other statewide posts. His looming exit – and the decision by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito not to run to succeed him – has many asking whether there will be anything left of the Mass. GOP, which only claims 9.7 percent of registered voters in the state and is helmed by a party chair enthralled by Donald Trump, who has twice been trounced by 2-to-1 margins in the state.
Don’t write the obituary yet, says Jennifer Nassour, the former chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
She joined Democratic activist Liam Kerr, director of the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and the Priorities for Progress PAC, on The Codcast to size up the state’s political landscape in wake of the Baker announcement.
Nassour thinks the state party has been run into the ground by current GOP chair Jim Lyons, and she thinks nominating conservative former state rep Geoff Diehl for governor would seal its downward slide. But she said the nomination of Diehl – who had been the only announced GOP candidate – is no certainty.
“We actually have a bunch of people who are super qualified, who would be amazing candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, and I think that we will see them come out,” she said. Nassour wasn’t ready to name names, but said she’s been talking to potential candidates “for a long time” in anticipation of the day when Baker would take his leave. She called Lyons “an embarrassment” who only represents a tiny band of far-right Trump acolytes who are behind Diehl. She and other more moderate Baker-type Republicans are looking to appeal not only to the tiny slice of registered Republicans in the state but also the 57 percent of the electorate that is not enrolled under either party banner.
(We invited Lyons to take part in the conversation, but he declined.)
Kerr pointed to Baker’s sky-high favorability ratings among Democratic voters. “Anytime you have someone who’s 85 percent popular in the Democratic Party running against the Democratic nominee, it is likely an uphill battle,” he said of the scenario Democrats would have faced in a race against Baker.” His exit, therefore, is “macro level great news for Democrats,” said Kerr. Indeed, Kerr thinks barring the entry of a big-name Republican or wealthy self-funding candidate, the Democratic primary for governor may effectively decide the election. Without a prominent moderate candidate like Baker, he said, the Republican primary turnout keeps getting smaller, and as it gets smaller, he said, it gets “Trumpier and Trumpier.”
Kerr underscored how anemic the GOP numbers have become in the Legislature by pointing out that “there are more Democratic state senators named Michael than there are Republican state senators.” (The Democrats can actually make that claim with one to spare, as they have five senators named Michael while the Republicans hold just three of the 40 Senate seats.)
Nassour said the party gained seats under her stewardship a decade ago, and can do so again if leadership is wrested out of the hands of the far-right activists allied with Lyons. But she said the party’s future hangs in the balance. If Diehl is the party’s nominee for governor, she said, “Then I hope the Mass. GOP absolutely sinks. I mean then the best thing could be for it to totally blow up, crash like the Titanic and go down. And then it gives an opportunity for the Phoenix to rise again, where it is going to be the Republican Party of Massachusetts, not the Republican Party of Arkansas.”
Meanwhile, Kerr said the shrinking state GOP means more unenrolled voters casting ballots in Democratic primaries – and more room for a moderate candidate against the field of three progressive-leaning Democrats now in the race. The roughly 3 million votes cast in the 2018 election, he said, divided roughly into thirds, with a third voting a straight Republican ticket with Baker at the top, a third voting straight Democratic, and another third – or about 1 million voters – casting ballots for Baker and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Kerr said those results line up with polling done by the more centrist Priorities for Progress PAC showing voters held Democratic Party values “but don’t trust Democrats to get results.” Whoever can “unlock that door” and frame a message animated by those values, but also win the trust of voters to deliver results, he said, “will be in the corner office until 2026.”