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Moderates once dominated the Mass. GOP. Now they're struggling to find a candidate for governor

Republican Geoff Diehl stands with protesters during Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's press conference at City Hall, to discuss the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Boston on Dec. 20, 2021. Wu announced a vaccine mandate to enter businesses in Boston.
Pat Greenhouse
WBUR / The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Republican Geoff Diehl stands with protesters during Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's press conference at City Hall, to discuss the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Boston on Dec. 20, 2021. Wu announced a vaccine mandate to enter businesses in Boston.

In the race for Massachusetts governor, Republicans are searching for a candidate who can win. Many of them say they are worried that Geoff Diehl, who’s been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, is unelectable in deep-blue Massachusetts.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision not to run for a third term has Diehl, the former state representative from Whitman, well-positioned to win the party’s nomination. That’s because most of the state’s registered Republicans are Trump supporters — and Diehl is working hard to win them over.

In a recent fundraising appeal, for example, Diehl took on a favorite target of many conservatives: vaccine mandates.

“Firing public servants who refuse to submit to medical treatments they don’t want — that’s just plain wrong,” Diehl says in a campaign video spot.

But if Diehl wins the nomination, he faces a much bigger question in a general election: How does a pro-Trump Republican win in a blue state that voted 2-to-1 against Trump?

Virginia gives you one little glimpse of states that are blue that have Trump-supporting governors that win,” Diehl said at a recent fundraiser in Waltham.

Many Republican Party leaders in the state argue a pro-Trump agenda is the best way to excite the grassroots and win elections.

But Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Republican consultant who worked for former Massachusetts governor and  current Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, insists that it won’t work in the Bay State. Fehrnstrom said for a long time, the state GOP nurtured a successful model of Republican governance in a largely Democratic state, putting moderates like Romney, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Baker in the governor’s office.

Fehrnstrom said the party has since rejected that model.

“The leadership of the party here is more interested in the spectacle of setting themselves on fire instead of rallying behind an incumbent who can actually win,” he said. “They have instead adopted a pro-Trump template that cannot win in Massachusetts.”

Fehrstrom said it would be equally challenging for a Baker-like moderate to win the nomination because “if they’re not Trump enough they lose their primary.”

“So, it might be easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than getting a moderate through a Republican primary,” he said.

The result, according to Ferhrnstrom, is that Republicans — who now represent less than 10% of Massachusetts voters — will be locked out of statewide office for the foreseeable future.

But another moderate Republican, former state GOP chair Jennifer Nassour, has a different view.

“A moderate Republican in the old New England fashion could absolutely win a primary,” Nassour said.

Nassour believes a moderate candidate could prevail in a nomination fight by appealing to unenrolled voters — by far the state’s largest block — who can cast ballots in either Democratic or Republican primaries. Nassour said there’s still time for another Republican to get in the race — and she thinks someone will.

“It would be someone who is a fiscal conservative,” Nassour said. “And I think if you get someone who is a good fiscal manager, I think that’s the person who’s going to win.”

It’s not clear who that would be. One name that has emerged is Chris Doughty, an investor and partner with Capstan Industries, which produces precision metal parts in Wrentham. Doughty, who comes from Utah and attended Harvard Business School, did not respond to a WBUR inquiry. But there are a number of recently registered web domains with his name, including “Doughty-for-Mass.com.”

If a political outsider with no name recognition does jump in, they will have their work cut out for them, according to Anthony Amore, a Republican activist who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2018.

“It’s just so daunting to say, ‘I’m going to try to get by Geoff Diehl in a primary,’ ” he said.

According to Amore, the general election would represent an even bigger challenge — particularly if Attorney General Maura Healey jumps into the race on the Democratic side as expected.

If Healey does run, she’ll join two other major Democrats already in the race: State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. But, as Amore suggested, a Republican challenger will first face a Republican electorate that overwhelmingly embraces Trump, including his false claims about a stolen election.

That’s hardly hospitable territory for a moderate.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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