Baker’s take on the state Republican Party

GOP needs a makeover, just as he did after 2010 defeat

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER would like to see the Massachusetts Republican Party rebuild and recover, but he says it first has to go through a transformation, much as he did after his defeat in his initial run for governor in 2010.

It’s a subject Baker has been thinking about a lot lately. He delivered a lecture on the state of national politics on November 3 at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and then sat down for an interview at the State House on Wednesday as he prepares to leave the corner office for the top job at the NCAA.

The governor has previously talked about what he learned from his unsuccessful run for governor against Deval Patrick in 2010, but during the State House interview some possible parallels emerged for the state Republican Party, which suffered a devastating defeat in November and now has to decide its next move.

When Baker lost to Patrick, he did some soul searching. He talked to reporters who covered the campaign, as well as friends and business associates who followed it. Their consensus was that the candidate who ran in 2010 was nothing like the person they knew: He was shrill, combative, edgy, and, at times, mean. He also acted as if he had an answer for every question.

Baker said the critiques were painful to hear at times, but he learned from them. When he ran for governor again in 2014, he adopted a new campaign style that also triggered a change in his politics.

“We made a deliberate decision to campaign in a lot of places that don’t vote for Republicans, with the idea being that it would be informative and important if you were truly going to try to reach a broader audience,” Baker said. “The thing I didn’t fully appreciate when we started the campaign – but I certainly learned as it went along – was I was learning a lot from those conversations. A lot about life experiences, professional experiences, different points of view. I was listening a lot more than I was talking.”

Baker said the campaign changed him. “Some of it was tone and some of it was substance. It was both,” he said. “It made me a way better candidate, but it also made me a better governor and gave me a much broader aperture around a lot of things.”

His attitude shifted on climate change and somewhat on offshore wind. He pressed for an increase in the earned income tax credit. And he hired Jay Ash, a Democrat who served as Chelsea’s city manager, as his housing and economic development secretary. Ash became a Baker administration emissary of sorts to the heavily Democratic Gateway Cities where he had campaigned.

Baker’s migration toward the political middle followed voters who were doing the same. In his Harvard lecture, Baker noted a major shift in the political landscape since around 2007.

In 1988, Baker said, Gallup polls indicated 37 percent of voters identified as Democrats, 32 percent as Republicans, and 31 percent as independents. In 2007, the numbers began to shift and since 2012 independents have accounted for 44 to 46 percent of the electorate, Democrats 29 to 30 percent, and Republicans 24 to 25 percent.

The Massachusetts percentages are different, but the trend lines are the same, Baker said. In 1988, Democrats represented 48 percent of the electorate, Republicans 13 percent, and independents 41 percent. By 2021, independents were 58 percent of the electorate, Democrats 32 percent, and Republicans 10 percent. Baker said independents probably topped 60 percent in 2022.

“This is an odd dynamic,” Baker said in his Harvard speech. “As the two largest political parties became more ideological, they became smaller.”

In 2019, Jim Lyons, a conservative, anti-abortion maverick who served in the Massachusetts House from 2010 to 2018, was elected chair of the state’s Republican Party. He aligned the party with Donald Trump and rejected Baker’s move to the middle. Many of Lyons’s backers said they wanted to remain true to their conservative values, even if it cost them votes in the short term. They called Baker a RINO – a Republican in name only.

The state Republican Party and Baker went their separate ways. Before he decided not to seek reelection, many pundits wondered whether the highly popular governor could win a Republican primary for governor in Massachusetts.

The November election was disastrous for the Republican Party. Democrats maintained their control of the state’s congressional delegation, won all the statewide offices, and strengthened their already dominant hold on the Legislature.

The party will hold an election for party chairman in January. Lyons has not said whether he will seek reelection, but other candidates are already jumping into the fray.

Baker, heading off to his new job with the NCAA, has shown little interest so far in the party fight, but in the State House interview he made clear where he stands.

“The point behind a political party is to win elections,” he said. “You win elections on your core values and beliefs and your ability to bring that growing independent population – 60 percent of the electorate in Massachusetts – to bring them on to your team, or as many of them as you can get.”

Baker said the party needs to broaden its reach, just as he did in the 2014 election. “On economic issues, many criminal justice issues, issues that matter to the broad population, there’s a lot of common ground within the Republican Party and among those independents who vote in Republican primaries,” he said. “There may be shades of gray, but there’s not really big differences. Whether or not Donald Trump was suited to be president, yes, there’s differences there. How to handle a woman’s right to choose, definitely a difference there. But even there a significant minority of pure Republicans and probably a majority of Republican-leaning independents who vote in Republican primaries support a woman’s right to choose. The question there comes down to the old Ronald Reagan maxim that if someone is with you 80 percent of the time, the 20 percent is relevant but it shouldn’t be game-deciding.”

Baker made clear that he has little patience for Lyons’s approach, with its devotion to conservative ideological purity.  “You can’t govern if you can’t win. It’s not supposed to be a debating society,” he said.

“If you don’t have a party that can raise money and field candidates and compete, then what you really do over time is abdicate the opportunity to engage in the act of governing, which I think is hugely problematic for Massachusetts, and I would argue would be problematic in a state where there’s no Democratic Party,” he said. “One-party government, one-party rule, loses the value and the balance and the purpose that comes with democracy. There’s no accountability there. Who’s going to hold anyone accountable in that environment?”

Baker said he is not saying conservative Republicans should change their values. “I’ve never asked them to accept all of my points of view on issues. There are a number of things that Jim Lyons and I, before our falling out, we’re completely aligned on — fiscal discipline, no new taxes, heavy investments in addiction and recovery services,” he said.

“I don’t think someone has to agree with me 100 percent of the time,” Baker said. “I just don’t, and I never have because it’s a democracy.”

It’s not clear what role Baker will play in state Republican circles during the upcoming party fight or in the future.

“I certainly am going to try to help the party if the party gives me comfort and confidence that it wants to win races, sure,” he said.

Baker also isn’t sure whether he will continue to help raise money for the Massachusetts Majority super PAC, which has spent heavily in support of mostly moderate Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s going to depend on my time. I don’t exactly know how this next act is going to play out logistically,” he said. “I certainly support the concept [of the super PAC]. I think supporting moderates no matter what their party affiliation, independent, Republican, Democrat, that’s where I think the heart of opportunity for politics generally is.”