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In Massachusetts primary, the view left is a lonely one

Party leadership are seeing a growing rift with their rank and file, reflecting a national trend in Republican and Democratic races alike.

BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts primary voters on both sides of the political divide appear poised to choose candidates whose views are to the right of their party’s leadership.

That’s dramatically true on the Republican side, where a Trump-backed gubernatorial contender has surged to a huge lead over a centrist rival who is more in the mold of retiring Republican Governor Charlie Baker and past Republican governors such as Mitt Romney.

But even among Democrats, polls show progressive candidates who were popular among activists at the state party convention trailing more moderate, establishment figures in the run-up to the vote on September 6.

In the Republican governor’s race, former state Representative Geoff Diehl has opened up a 52%-16% lead over businessman Chris Doughty, according to a University of Massachusetts poll, despite — or because of —Diehl’s being endorsed by President Trump and advised by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Diehl has been a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates and his unofficial running mate, former state representative Leah Cole Allen, is unvaccinated. Diehl promised to rehire the roughly 1,000 state workers who were fired by Baker for not getting the vaccine.

“I’m going to hire back every single one of those fired state employees on day one,” Diehl said during a debate. “And on day two, I'm going to make sure that nobody is in my administration that thought that was a good idea.”

Diehl’s right-wing positions are “well outside the mainstream” in Massachusetts, said Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester. Diehl has a 100% rating from Massachusetts Citizens for Life and a 92% rating from the NRA and has called the 2020 election results “highly suspicious.”

Diehl’s popularity shows that “the institutional Massachusetts GOP is wildly out of step with the party’s voters,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“The party apparatus, the volunteers, the party workers and the state convention attendees are no longer representative of what Republican voters want,” she said. “You’re seeing a hostile takeover of the party. It’s wild.”

Diehl’s lead in the polls appears to reflect genuine ideological fervor among the state’s registered Republicans — who make up less than 10% of the state’s voters — rather than massive ad spending. The candidate reported having only $15,000 in campaign funds on hand in June, while the largely self-funded Doughty had more than $880,000.

But that fervor might also amount to electoral suicide in a liberal state.

It’s not that Republicans can’t win here; in fact four of the last five governors have been moderate Republicans and the current officeholder, Baker, is the most popular governor in the country with a remarkable 74% approval rating. But a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll showed Diehl losing to the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Maura Healey, by more than 30 points.

Diehl is “running a campaign that's targeted to Alabama voters," Doughty argued in the debate. "We are in Massachusetts, so he's going to lose.”

Diehl responded by accusing Doughty of voting for Hillary Clinton.

“The state’s Republican Party has experienced a massive shift in the past year,” said Tatishe Nteta, a professor of political science at UMass Amherst.

Jesse Rhodes, another professor at Amherst, sees a national pattern. “Diehl’s popularity with Republican primary voters shows that the Trumpification of the GOP is happening even in an arch-liberal state like Massachusetts," Rhodes said.

It’s a trend that’s been seen this year in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Georgia where Trump-backed U.S. Senate candidates won their primaries but are struggling in the general election.

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The ascent of the Trumpian wing in Massachusetts has rattled the party leadership. Despite Diehl’s huge lead in the polls, Baker — whom Trump has derided as a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only — hasn’t offered an endorsement.

“I don’t know,” Baker said acerbically when asked if he’ll endorse a candidate to succeed him. “I have a lot of work to do and I have a day job.”

Moderate Republican Governor Chris Sununu of neighboring New Hampshire waded into the battle to endorse the more centrist Doughty. At a recent Gridiron roast, Sununu joked that Trump was “fucking crazy” and referred to the MyPillow products of Trump cheerleader Mike Lindell as “absolute crap.” “You only find that kind of stuff in the Trump hotel,” he added.

Meanwhile, Trump-supporting South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem traveled to Boston to endorse Diehl. (Noem has presidential ambitions and appearing in Boston media is a good way to raise visibility in nearby New Hampshire.)

On the Democratic side, the theme appears to be moderates leading in the polls over progressives favored by party activists.

Healey became the gubernatorial nominee-apparent after her rival, state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, withdrew due to lack of support. Chang-Díaz had attacked Healey from the left, accusing her of taking donations from fossil fuel interests, shortchanging people who use public transit, not supporting police reform and ignoring “racial equity.”

Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey. (Campaign image via Courthouse News)

Healey “is running a very conservative race,” said Anne Quirk, a member of the Belmont, Massachusetts, Democratic Town Committee. “She’s the frontrunner and she doesn’t want to screw that up. She’s not even denouncing Charlie Baker.”

In the contest to succeed her as attorney general, Healey endorsed former Boston City Council member Andrea Campbell, who is leading in the UMass poll — despite the fact that the state party convention favored Commerce Department lawyer Quentin Palfrey, who is more progressive. Unlike Campbell, Palfrey supports Medicare-for-all, safe injection sites and a cap on charter schools.

A third candidate, Shannon Liss-Riordan, is a class-action lawyer known for suing Uber and Lyft to get them to classify their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.

The state convention also threw its support behind NAACP official Tanisha Sullivan for secretary of state, a slap in the face to 71-year-old incumbent William Galvin who has held the office since 1995.

Galvin’s leadership “is a threat to the advancement of voting and abortion rights, economic and racial justice,” the progressive Sullivan told the convention.

But once again the voters are leaning toward the more mainstream candidate, with the UMass poll giving Galvin a 6-point lead.

Quirk, who calls herself a “machine Democrat,” said “it’s modest, but there’s a disconnect between party activists and the rank and file. The activists want to shake everything up, to have a whole new way of governing. The rank and file are saying, ‘No, things as they are are working for me.’”

Arguably there’s a national echo here as well, two years after 29 Democrats ran for president and voters selected the candidate who was widely viewed as the most moderate.

The Massachusetts races reflect a national party battle over “how woke we are,” O’Brien said.

While the Democratic split in Massachusetts is far less dramatic than the one on the Republican side, it nevertheless shows that the rise of progressives has weakened a state party that used to exercise very tight control over who could run, O’Brien added. Normally parties are undermined by external challenges, she said, but in this case “the threat is coming from inside the building.”

As for the Republicans, it’s tempting to believe that after decades of moderation the state’s GOP voters have suddenly swung hard toward Trumpism, but Boatright thinks that’s a misreading.

The state’s Republican voters have always been conservative, he says. But the party organization has been weak for a long time, and it’s been easy for well-funded centrists to walk in and grab a nomination without working their way up through the system.

Romney, Baker and Bill Weld were all wealthy outsiders who had never held political office before running for governor (apart from Baker’s three years on a town board in Swampscott). In a state where Republicans are heavily outnumbered and the party organization isn’t powerful, they faced little organized opposition even though they often professed liberal views.

This year, Boatright said, there are no such outsiders, and the party is reverting to the norm and showing what happens when voters are left to their own devices.

Trump gave the state’s GOP voters a “cognitive liberation” and allowed them to feel that they no longer have to back liberals, according to O’Brien.

“They’re not afraid to lose because they feel like they already lost with Baker” who governs like a Democrat, she explained. “They figure, ‘We’re already dead, so why not just express what we really believe?’”

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