Charlie Baker Can’t Have It Both Ways

(Meredith Nierman/WGBH-TV via AP)

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker Faces Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez during a debate on October 17, 2018, in Boston.

If moderate Republicans ever coalesce around a standard-bearer determined to draw a bright line between Trumpism and difficult issues on which people of good will can disagree, that person could emerge as an important force in a country in dire need of healing and leadership.

Governor Charlie Baker could have been a contender for such a spot. Running for a second term, the Massachusetts Republican has bipartisan appeal in a Democratic state that likes its Republicans reasonable. On the national scene, the former health-insurance industry executive emerged as a behind-the-scenes point-person, working with other governors to protect the Affordable Care Act. Bay State voters also have long supported fiscal conservatives/social liberals like Baker to serve as a counterbalance to the state legislature’s longstanding Democratic supermajority.

But Trumpism has seeped into body politic in the so-called liberal bastion of Massachusetts. Baker’s attempts to stage-manage this political moment won’t likely hurt his re-election chances, but they do underscore how moderate Republicans remain conflicted about their party and its takeover by one of the most pernicious demagogues in American history.

In the second debate of the campaign between Baker and Jay Gonzalez, his Democratic challenger, the moderator asked Baker about his support for the Republican Senate candidate, Geoff Diehl, who is challenging Elizabeth Warren, the incumbent. Baker had endorsed Diehl, a state representative who chaired President Trump’s 2016 Massachusetts campaign, but had not indicated how he personally planned to vote. After failing to give a straight yes or no answer on air, Baker found himself in a post-debate scrum of reporters demanding responses and finally fessed up that he planned to vote for Diehl.

In this comparatively quiet campaign, the episode, helped along by Gonzalez, garnered plenty of attention—and in a more competitive race that kind of exchange might have peeled off some voters. But although Gonzalez, former Governor Deval Patrick’s budget chief (who has endeared himself to metro Boston voters with gestures like using the region’s abysmal public transportation), he is fighting an uphill battle against his own weak name recognition and Baker’s general popularity.

Baker’s slip-up probably won’t make a significant dent in his lead. Democrats just like Baker: A September WBUR/MassINC poll of likely voters found that Baker had a 20-point lead over Gonzalez among Democrats, and a crushing 66 percent to 22 percent lead among all voters.

But in the Bay State as elsewhere, the voters who like Trump really like him. Baker hasn’t gone out of his way to endear himself to hard-core Trump supporters—and his Democratic appeal has not helped him with the most conservative GOP voters. In 2016, he famously “blanked” the presidential race. Baker has made the calculation that he can keep Democrats happy with regular displays of his independence from Trump in areas like transgender rights, abortion, and the fight against repealing the Affordable Care Act. But for the most part, he keeps his head down like everyone else trying to avoid being collateral damage in the Trump administration’s endless barrage of non-stop scandals, dangerous rhetoric, and poisonous decision-making.

His record in Massachusetts is a toss-up. During his first run for governor, Baker said that he would not raise taxes and fees. But new fees are in place along with a major new tax program. To stave off three certain-to-pass ballot questions, Baker signed what has become known as the “grand bargain,” an $800 million payroll tax increase that includes a $15-per-hour minimum wage, guaranteed family and medical leaves, and an annual sales-tax holiday.

Baker established a control board to deal with the dysfunctional Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, metro Boston’s dilapidated transit system, but he has said that the system does not need new revenues, a stance that baffles subway and bus riders and transit advocates. The governor has pushed to get homeless peoples out of motels, though the state lawmakers had to beat back to his attempt to change eligibility criteria.

But the grand bargain was a risky bit of political business that earned him the electoral equivalent of a brush-back pitch from rightward-marching Bay State Republicans. Many Bay State conservatives just don’t find Baker conservative enough. In the GOP September primary, Baker faced Scott Lively, a far-right minister who caterwauls against abortion and LGBTQ rights. Lively surprised veteran state political observers by capturing nearly 40 percent of the vote.

Often accused of being a RINO by conservative Republicans for his willingness to work with Democrats to do the people’s business, Baker doubtless wants to bolster his credentials with the roughly 100,000 Republicans who broke for Lively and are wild for Trump and the popular Diehl.

That calculation means Baker is more than willing to play the Trump card where it counts—in the fundraising arena. Baker has shoveled millions into the Republican National Committee (RNC) coffers through a federal fundraising mechanism that allows very wealthy donors to contribute as much as $43,800 annually to the Massachusetts Republican Party and the RNC—which gets 40 percent of those donations.

The Boston Globe called this set-up “a clever way to make an end run [around] the $1,000-per-year state donation limit.” Under this arrangement, Baker’s “Massachusetts Victory Committee” has contributed millions to the RNC, which means those funds, $1.4 million since April alone according to Federal Election Commission records, benefit the president’s agenda and Republican stars like Ted Cruz of Texas, and Roy Moore, the failed Alabama Senate candidate, among others.

Consider that lineup for a moment and then consider that Baker’s campaign-finance arrangement looks more like a ploy to stay in the good graces of the national party stalwarts (2024 anyone?) while making nice with Democratic voters. He can appear to be tough on Trump when it suits his designs, but then back off when the going gets tough, or worse, when the national campaign coffers demand re-upping. Baker and other moderates can ignore that the Republican Party they knew is dead, captured by ideological purists standing in awe of the anger and violence they’ve unleashed or they can be loud and proud about their opposition. What they can’t do, is, like Baker, have it both ways. Otherwise, being a moderate Republican is, as a notorious fictional villain once put it, just a “dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.”

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