A Name Mass. GOP Candidates Can’t Ignore -- Trump

October 14, 2018 GMT

When Gov. Charlie Baker gave his endorsement last month to Massachusetts Republicans all the way down the ballot, he backed candidates who, despite sharing a political party and agreeing on a substantial number of issues, position themselves within national politics in vastly different ways.

Baker continues to carve out space as a Republican who is willing to speak out against party leadership and President Donald Trump. But that strategy is not shared by congressional hopefuls. State Rep. Geoff Diehl, running against U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has a much clearer history of supporting the president, while 3rd Congressional District candidate Rick Green voted for and donated to Trump has preferred to avoid the topic on the campaign trail.

The diverging strategies the three are deploying this cycle -- a key midterm election in the term of an unpopular president -- underscore a familiar point: It can be tricky to run as a Republican in one of the bluest states in the country.

“I think the three candidates’ approaches are a little like thee Three Bears fairy tale,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist and commentator, referring to the story of Goldilocks. “Is the Trump porridge too hot, too cold or just right?”

Neither Baker, Diehl nor Green come across as eager discuss Trump and congressional Republicans much while campaigning. All prefer to focus on less thorny local issues, but they do often face questions on such larger topics -- after all, Trump is the ostensible leader of the modern GOP, and Diehl and Green, if elected, would both have to work with him and serve as a check on his executive branch’s power.

The contrasts between the three highest-profile Massachusetts Republican candidates are sharp.

In 2016, Baker cast a blank ballot in the presidential election, a rebuke to Trump after declining for months to support the Republican nominee. He publicly opposed Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, after multiple allegations of sexual assault emerged against the judge, and continued to voice disagreement after Kavanaugh had been confirmed to the highest court. The governor voiced opposition to Trump’s travel ban, to the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and more.

Asked how he finds the right balance to connect with voters without alienating his party, Baker, a self-identified moderate, points to public polling showing Republican governors in typically pro-Democratic states as among the most popular in the country. Baker tops several of those polls.

“I think there’s a message in there, and for me, the message is what most people want -- not just the partisans -- most people want their elected leaders, whatever their political party might be, to focus on the work, to seek to compromise when they can and make the best decision,” Baker said. “I think most voters are practical and pragmatic. I don’t think they’re inherently partisan.”

Diehl has a different track record. The state representative co-chaired the Massachusetts branch of Trump’s campaign in 2016, supported the Kavanaugh nomination and continues, in his run against Warren, to speak in positive terms about Republican leadership. He blames Democrats for growing “division” in Washington, and when pressed on whether he believes Trump’s rhetoric also plays a part, answered simply that he has a different style than the president.

“I think (Trump) has been delivering on all the promises he’s made, whether it’s preventing drugs on the southern border, stemming the crime in cities,” Diehl said. “You wonder where the negative talk originates from. It’s from people who seem to be unwilling to let go of partisan attacks and actually try to think about bringing our country together, bringing both sides of our aisle together to find solutions.”

Green’s campaign has existed partly between the other two and partly avoiding the partisan scale entirely. He supported John Kasich during the 2016 Republican primary but got behind Trump in the general election. Green donated $5,400, the maximum an individual can give, to Trump’s campaign in July 2016, and he cast a ballot in his favor that November.

But since his congressional campaign has started, Green has been hesitant to talk much about the president or even about Republicans in Congress. When asked for his thoughts, he often declines to answer and says he is only focused on the 3rd District. At a debate this week, Green accused WBZ Nightside’s Dan Rea of a “circus question” for asking who he would support as speaker of the House, and blamed the media for inquiring about Trump.

“No one asks me these questions on the trail,” Green said at the debate. “No one. But when I step up here, it’s the only question members of the media want to talk about. You can’t wait to get to it. The folks don’t care.”

In Gray’s view, the differences carry with them reasonable strategies. Diehl, who in his campaign against Warren is running against both a frequent critic and a frequent target of the president, Diehl may see a connection to Trump as a way to energize a core Republican base. Baker has already found success with his degree of distance -- public polls show him with a sizable lead over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez. Green may see a race between two candidates as more winnable than a race between a Democrat and a Republican in a district that has not elected the latter in 25 years.

Trump is a particularly unpopular figure in Massachusetts. In a UMass Lowell-Boston Globe poll released last week, 67 percent of likely voters rated the president unfavorable compared to just 30 percent favorable. Despite those figures hanging over the November elections, though, the trends are older.

Former U.S. Reps. Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen were elected in 1992 and served as relative moderates, but lost in 1996 in what Gray described as a backlash to national Republican leadership under then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Bill Weld and Mitt Romney, both previous Republican governors in Massachusetts, faced questions in future campaigns over their support, respectively, for Gingrich and President George W. Bush.

“It’s an age-old issues for Republican candidates as the commonwealth of Massachusetts has become less Republican over the last 30 years,” Gray said. “It’s a problem for candidates all around the country, for Republicans running in blue states and Democrats running in red states. Do you support the national leadership of your party even though it’s diametrically opposed to how the voters feel in your home state?”

Perhaps November will bring an answer.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.