Analysis: Mass GOP Poisons Its Most Effective Well…
In late 1989, Massachusetts became the second state to include gays and lesbians in the state’s anti-discrimination laws, following Wisconsin. The bill had been batted around for well over a decade before opponents exhausted patience for dilatory delays. Then, as now, the legislature brimmed with Democrats and the governor, Michael Dukakis was a Democrat who supported the bill. But if all Republicans had voted no in the House, there would have been 81 votes in opposition.
It is important to not overread this episode. Yet, contrary to some armchair historians, Bill Weld did not find a secret sauce in 1990. Rather, he doubled-down on his party’s main asset that had given it life in New England since the days of Lincoln: moderation. Reading the room helped, too. On Saturday in Springfield, the state GOP endorsed former State Rep Geoff Diehl for governor. The only room Diehl read was the one at the MassMutual Center and the Fox News green room.
“No more taking away our freedoms,” he said according to WAMC. Specifically, “No more spending billions of dollars on crazy pet projects. No more closing businesses because of power hungry, abusive mandates.”
There was more. “No more driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. No more putting masks on kids in schools and teaching our children to be ashamed to be Americans.” He went on, “No! And don’t you dare try to undermine the integrity of our elections by trying to bring up mail-in ballots. No way.”
He went on like that, invoking the southern border among other aired grievances. Things became wackier when the endorsed Secretary of State candidate suggested, without evidence, state pols want to permit pre-schoolers to well… Diehl condemned the claims but backed the idea indoctrination was happening in schools.
The big ? from MA GOP convention – why wasn’t party’s Sec. of State cand. Rayla Campbell yanked off stage after her foul, homophobic fantasies about grade school sex ed. This is face of Chair Jim Lyons/Geoff Diehl’s anti-gay, anti-abortion rights party? Instead she was endorsed.
— Frank Phillips (@GlobeFPhillips) May 23, 2022
The fact that a Republican governor instituted some things Diehl bemoaned and that Massachusetts had relatively tame restrictions overall compared to states like California, Oregon or New York is beside the point. This was culture war. It is not that Massachusetts abstains from such things but it is not how Republicans win here.
The reason is quite simple. The majority of the state dislikes Republicans as they define themselves nationally. Not nearly enough ex-Democrats have veered right in Southern New England as they have in the Midwest. That is necessary to counterbalance the rise of the suburban center-left and the fortification of urban latte left.
Aside from when Bay Staters stared into the gleam of the Gipper’s smile or the tailgate of Scott Brown’s truck, Democrats have dominated the state for decades. Republicans overcame this often by running to Democrats left or by summoning, in effect, the ghost of James Michael Curley and scream urban political corruption. It works.
What has not worked, however, is social conservatism. Historically, this was the province of the Democrats, which drew so much support from Catholics. Louise Day Hicks was not a conservative on economic policy. But the anti-integration Democrat was an incessant victor in Boston’s elections. Yet, Republicans of that era won the governor’s office and supported reform.
Today, Diehl is complaining against critical race theory, which is not taught in public schools. It is a subject for law school academics. If the school Diehl’s daughter attends had some pledge about white privilege—which, if true, sounds like feckless pedagogy—that is not critical race theory. The fact that the subject even came up in a gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts just proves how far afield the state GOP has gone.
Diehl did not stop businessman Chris Doughty from getting on the ballot. There is enough admiration for realpolitik among state Republican activists to support a more moderate alternative. However, it seems unlikely that the rightward wave Governor Charlie Baker held back for two primaries in a row can do it again for Doughty.
Of course, Diehl’s criticism is as much leveled at Baker as it is at Democrats. In his successful runs for governor—less so his failed dethroning of Deval Patrick in 2010—Baker brought the Massachusetts GOP to its apotheosis. Not only did he project reason and moderation, in office he spurned and suppressed political battle with the legislature as much as possible. While voters may prefer political kumbaya, in practical terms this strategy had costs.
For the commonwealth broadly, it allowed the worst of the state’s political culture to fester. Massachusetts government only reforms when someone forces a mirror into its face. Baker has not done that. At the same time, Baker has not exactly steered the commonwealth into an iceberg either.
But for his party, the costs were much higher. As with the GOP nationally, there was a restive and increasingly angry hard-right bloc. Baker and his forebears were able to smother it. However, because the brass ring was and always had been the governor’s office, they failed to maintain a political infrastructure that could keep the party’s extremities from being taken over. Finally, under Baker despite his best efforts, this wing prevailed.
That is exactly what happened in Springfield with far-right candidates winning the party’s endorsement, save Anthony Amore, the party’s Auditor candidate, who faces no competition in the primary.
While no oddsmaker would ever count out Democrats collapsing on the one-yard line, the likelier implosion is on the Republican side in Massachusetts. Diehl has a slightly more pleasant mien than his chief endorser, Donald Trump. Yet, tossing cultural red meat into the Massachusetts political arena will repel as much as it attracts. It is not a winning formula.
Jokes about the Massachusetts Republican death spiral go back decades, even as the party won the corner office. It has been year since the party won any other state office except Brown’s freak win. The party got wiped out of the congressional delegation in 1996. It blew its best chances for pickups with sophomoric or even offensive appeals.
However, when Trump seized power in the Republican party, it had a ripple effect in state party organizations and GOP primary electorates. They became inured to the fact that general election voters in some states loathed Trump and his direction.
If Baker turns his office over to a Democrat next year as seems likely, it could put the GOP here into terminal irrelevance. Republicans have been lucky to have a string of prominent figures since Weld to prop up through their primaries as Democrats nuked each other in theirs. After the 2022 election who will be left? Will anybody with the resources to support credible candidacies care? Certainly, Democrats can self-immolate, but that does not seem imminent absent an unprecedented scandal or economic catastrophe that is clearly Beacon Hill’s fault.
Given the national impact, the idea that a Republican candidate for governor would bank so much on cultural conservatism is perhaps not surprising. However, it is a recipe for disaster for a party that once counted Lodges and Sumners in its ranks. This danger may hold for New England generally, too. There’s a reason why after the Supreme Court leak of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu cozied up to abortion rights and once and perhaps again Maine Governor Paul Lepage misplaced his tongue on the subject.
Perhaps Doughty will surprise or perhaps Diehl will moderate after the primary. However, it may be too late by then. The Massachusetts GOP has already burned down the broad church that kept it relevant as Democrats grew dominant. At least they may keep law school coursework out of kindergartens.