Trump got involved back when it seemed like his Massachusetts nemesis, the popular GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, was going to run for a third term. But Baker, who doesn’t have an heir apparent, has stayed out.
Instead, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, one of the few moderate New England Republicans left standing, crossed the border to fundraise for Doughty this week. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally who’s again being advised by Lewandowski after a brief split, is expected to stump for Diehl in Boston next week.
“This is about the future of the Republican Party as much as anything else,” Patrick Griffin, a Republican consultant who’s advised presidential campaigns and Sununu’s 2016 gubernatorial run, said in an interview.
“Kristi Noem’s got plans. Chris Sununu’s got plans,” he said. “This is all about standing up for where the party’s going and trying to direct it in a way or lead it in a way where we can win more elections, not less.”
But this is as much a battle for the future of the Republican Party as it is one for attention heading into 2024.
While Sununu gets plenty of play in his home state, fly-in politicians can get exposure in New Hampshire just by showing up in Massachusetts. The state is a media and money gateway to the first-in-the-nation primary state, offering would-be presidential hopefuls the chance to get on television screens in voter-rich southern New Hampshire and connect with deep-pocketed Massachusetts donors without the direct scrutiny that comes with stepping foot in the Granite State.
“There’s no sense in investing in lost causes,” said Colin Reed, who managed former Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s New Hampshire U.S. Senate campaign and worked on the 2008 presidential campaigns of Romney and John McCain. “But if you can use it to make a mark or increase your own name ID in a critical part of the country, as they say: there’s no interest like self interest.”
Massachusetts presents a political conundrum for Republicans: Its voters handed Trump some of his biggest losses in both of his presidential bids. Yet the same Democrats and independents that resoundingly rejected Trump have repeatedly sent fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republicans like Baker and Bill Weld to the governor’s office for the better part of 30 years.
The state GOP seems to be done with that, and has become increasingly pro-Trump under conservative Chair Jim Lyons. Polls showed Diehl could have beaten Baker, who’s more popular with Democrats and independents than among members of his own party, in a Republican primary.
After initially veering away from Trump, Diehl largely embraced the former president and his rhetoric, going so far as to falsely claim the 2020 election was “rigged.” Diehl went on to win the party’s endorsement for governor at its spring convention — where Thomas Homan, Trump’s former border czar, was a featured speaker — by an overwhelming 71 percent. And he leads Doughty by comfortable margins in the few Republican primary polls available.
Republicans make up less than 10 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts. And Trumpism has proven a hard sell to independents, who make up 57 percent of the state’s voters, and Democrats, who comprise 32 percent.
Diehl promotes “an extreme conservatism” that “just isn’t going to connect with independent voters,” Sununu told reporters after fundraising with Doughty at a hotel in Peabody Wednesday night. “I don’t think voters are going to believe that he can really work across the aisle in the effective way that you need to with the Democrats [that control] the Legislature.”
Sununu and his team insist that his support for Doughty has nothing to do with the fact that Trump, with whom the New Hampshire governor has a complicated relationship, endorsed Diehl. Or that Lewandowski, who called for Sununu’s ouster, is advising Diehl’s campaign.
Trump’s endorsement, Sununu contends, “doesn’t really matter to voters.”
Wendy Wakeman, a Republican strategist in Massachusetts who’s working on a GOP-led ballot initiative and is neutral in the primary, disagrees.
“Trump’s endorsement matters to Republican primary voters,” she said in an interview. “Those are the people that both Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty need to be concerned with in August.”
In the war over whether Trumpism should be the Republican Party’s past or its future, Sununu represents the former and Noem the latter.
The South Dakota governor — who, like Sununu, is up for reelection this year — hasn’t ruled out a 2024 presidential bid if Trump doesn’t run. And if he’s in, she’s considered a potential vice presidential pick.
It was Lewandowski, Trump’s longtime adviser, who connected Diehl and Noem for next week’s fundraiser and campaign events, Diehl’s campaign manager, Amanda Orlando, said.
Noem, in a statement, called Diehl an “exciting candidate who offers a unique blend of conserative credentials, credible legislative experience and practical work in the private sector.”
Diehl in turn praised Noem’s handling of the pandemic, calling the governor who resisted lockdowns and rebuffed mask and vaccine mandates “one of the few leaders in our nation to keep her people safe and keep her state open for business.”
For all the big-name support they’re attracting, both Republicans vying for governor would face an uphill battle against Healey, who leads both men by more than 30 points in polls of hypothetical general-election matchups.
Sununu is still holding out hope.
“This isn’t a state that’s afraid to elect a Republican governor,” Sununu said. “But it has to be the right Republican governor.”