By Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief
On Tuesday, November 8th, 2022, Massachusetts will hold an election for the state governor, and our current governor, Charlie Baker, will not be running. Baker, a moderate Republican, is a case study in many things that are currently making politics interesting. Not only is he a conservative elected to one of the bluest states in the country, but his surrendering the seat of governor is part of a national trend of moderate Republicans being pushed out—or choosing to step out—of power. In an interview with NPR for their feature, All Things Considered, Baker said that this choice was made to allow him to focus more fully on guiding the state smoothly through the pandemic, and also in response to the “political grudge patches political campaigns can devolve into.”
Baker has always faced some challenges from more extreme members of the conservative party, but it wasn’t until Trump’s election in 2016 that this pushback became serious. The Republican party has, since Trump, become more radical, leaving moderates like Baker stuck between sticking with their beliefs, which are Republican-held beliefs, but moderate ones, and moving further to one side, be it left or right, to keep their seats. Baker abstaining from running in Massachusetts’ 2022 gubernatorial election is one action in a trend that can be seen nationwide.
Trump, the polarizing figure that he is, has managed to create a rift within the party that extends to the point of some more moderate Republicans talking of splitting from the GOP entirely, to form a new party. Some proponents of this idea include Evan McMullin, a former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference who is currently running for US Senate in Utah as an independent running on a platform of surpassing the party binary, and Miles Taylor, a former member of both George W. Bush and Trump’s administrations who quit his job for Trump, finding moral objection to some of his boss’ actions.
Talk of the party splitting was especially rampant after the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol building in 2021. While a sudden radical split is unlikely to happen, especially since we are (hopefully) unlikely to see something as drastic as the insurrection again, the current movement within the party points towards a distinct separation of ideals between those who are vocally pro-Trump, and those who are not.
Like divergence in a species as pressures cause the species to adapt, it is hard to see a future where the Republican party stays as it currently is. It may slowly split over time, or this more moderate wing may simply fade, failing to keep political seats as many powerful Republicans lash out at any politician who will not swear loyalty to Trump. Maybe it will be the more radical wing that will lose traction, although I think in our current era, where easy access to the internet and social media algorithms make radicalization easier than ever and where vaccines have become a partisan issue—when in the past, there was not a clear red-blue split over the issue of vaccination—this is unlikely to be the change the occurs.
In Bakers’ case, pressure from more conservative members of his party may be part of what has caused him to step down. Baker is a prevailingly popular governor, despite being a Republican in a Democratic state. Bipartisan support has kept him solidly in office since his election in 2015. However, he has gotten on the wrong side of the pro-Trump Republicans in Massachusetts.
One significant challenger, if not of his seat then of his authority, has been Jim Lyons, Republican Party Chair in Massachusetts. Lyons used to be more moderate, but his politics shifted to the right after losing reelection to the House of Representatives to Democrat Tram Nguyen. He leads the pro-Trump faction of the Republican party in Massachusetts, and is known for signing off his phone calls “let’s make Massachusetts great again”, an echo of Trump’s “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) slogan. While a politician as conservative as Lyon is now could never win election to governor in a state as blue as Massachusetts, he could challenge Baker’s chances by pulling further right voters. This is the phenomenon spreading across the country.
While none of the Republican contenders hold a real chance for the 2022 gubernatorial election, in swing states and red states currently represented by moderate conservatives, this trend could force the election of pro-Trump Republicans. Without making value judgments about Republicans vs Democrats, this trend does at least mean that the current balance will be upset, and radical conservative action in these states will be more likely to take place. After the recent bans on abortions in states like Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia—implemented by strongly conservative lawmakers and politicians—as someone with a uterus, it is hard for me to feel anything less than fear about the prospect of those kinds of politicians replacing ones like Baker.
It may seem odd that Baker, even though he is moderate, won the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts, not once but four times. How did a conservative manage this feat? With a heavy emphasis on bipartisan work and staffing. Baker’s politics break down almost equally Democrat and Republican. In fact, his support among Democrats is higher than his support among Republicans. In a recent poll, 65% of Democrats said they approved of him as a governor, while only 41% of Republicans said the same. Notably, 74% of those who self-identified as moderate when taking the poll gave their approval.
It should, however, be noted that his neutral or moderate stances and need for bipartisan popularity mean that he caters to the moderate and often slows the rate of change in MA. Baker often moves on issues after the large majority of people already support them. He recently signed a bill to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 on January 1st of 2021. This move was widely supported in Massachusetts—because it already had full support before he passed it. Baker is not a risk-taker. He makes the safe choice.
However, this alone didn’t get him elected. His election and reelection is part of a national trend. Baker is not alone among Republican governors elected to very blue states. Since 1984, almost 40 years, Massachusetts hasn’t voted for a Republican president once. 2% of Massachusetts senators have been Republican. Yet in this same span of time, 67% of Massachusetts governors have been Republican. Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Jersey all have Republican governors but are considered blue states. If you keep up with politics, you may have heard of Republican Mitt Romney. If you don’t, Google him, and you will find article after article about this moderate Republican frustrating Democrats as he acts like… well… a Republican. He is also a former governor of Massachusetts. So why do states that consistently vote for Democrat representatives and presidents go red so often when it comes to their governors?
Some of this disparity comes from the fact that when acting in the interest of just the state they are elected to, they don’t have to do what Mitt Romney is currently doing, and caucus with other Republicans. Within their states, they tend to act more liberally. Charlie Baker, in his role as governor of Massachusetts, is a caucus of one. In political speech, a caucus is a meeting of members of a political party, where they discuss and declare their position on an issue. When politicians like Baker are not forced to side with the opinions of other Republicans the way he would as a senator. Instead, by taking liberal stances as often as he does conservative ones, Baker secures bipartisan support, which is what he needs to get reelected. When casting their ballots, many Massachusetts voters understand this.
Another contributor to this phenomenon is the election schedule of gubernatorial and presidential elections. In most of the blue states with Republican governors, elections are held every four years, in presidential “off” years. In other words, when citizens go in to vote for president, they do not also vote for governor. This in turn means that the presidential election is not a draw for citizens to go out and vote for governor. The turnout is lower as a result and is also skewed towards an older, whiter population, more likely to vote conservative (or moderate). In Massachusetts, we vote for governor every two years, so every other election, gubernatorial elections are held in an “off” year. In states that hold both elections in the same year, the state party vs governor party split is not as significant. If states like MA, MD, IL, MI, WI, and NJ were to have presidential and gubernatorial elections in the same year, their governors may be chosen by a more representative group of the electorate.
So what does this Baker not running in the 2022 election mean for us? In Massachusetts, it is unlikely that a Republican will become governor again this year. The most prominent Republican candidate is currently Geoff Deihl, formerly co-chair of President Trump’s campaign, who believes in “building the wall” and opposes healthcare aid, gun restrictions, and protections on the basis of gender. We are likely to get a Democrat. Though Baker himself is moderate, holding nearly as many left-leaning positions as right-leaning ones, his firmly moderate stance has slowed Massachusetts’ pace of change.
Many of his liberal policies are socially liberal: he supports marriage equality, strong gun control policies, and protections for DREAMers. His conservative policies tend to be economic: he is soft on corporations, has reduced taxes (thus reducing the amount of aid the government can give), pushed to privatize social security, and supported public charter school alternatives. In my opinion, holding socially liberal but fiscally conservative positions is a recipe for inaction. Without the funding to levy social change, all you can do is say you support it happening.
Regardless of your feelings on this, some of his policies are hard to make sense of. For example, he believes that we should reform prisons… and one of the ways he hopes to do this is by charging prisoners for their stay in prison. Like rent. Until 2014, he questioned whether climate change was human-caused. He himself admitted to smoking marijuana many times, but strongly opposed legalizing it—though he has enforced its legalization.
When Charlie Baker announced he would not be running for governor in 2022, my knee-jerk reaction was excitement. I knew that without him acting as a moderate stronghold, the primarily Democratic lawmakers and activists in Massachusetts would be able to take action in areas like climate action, prison reform, and protections for LGBTQ+ people more swiftly. However, looking into the reasons behind his resignation, and discovering national trends of moderate Republicans leaving their political seats, or simply losing popularity and traction, made me grow nervous. Here, he will be replaced by a Democrat. In other states, the shift may be further to the right. If you do not know me, I consider myself strongly progressive. Shifts in the political landscape make me fear for my human rights, and even more so, those of people in more vulnerable situations. All I can hope is that this unrest in the Republican Party does not continue to slip towards radicalization.