Bake-Off: The Northeast GOP’s Quest for Fake Moderates

How do you reach for something that doesn’t really exist?

In Connecticut, the state Republican Party is trying to figure out a way to pull off the same con Massachusetts Republicans pulled off nearly four years ago:

Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is the most popular governor in the land, a wonky Republican with a business background presiding over one of the nation’s most liberal states.

Now some Connecticut Republicans are looking to their neighbor to the north for a template of how to win the governor’s race in 2018. And Baker, the telegenic Ivy League grad with a fiscal focus and an aversion to picking fights on social issues — not to mention a willingness to work with Democrats and buck President Trump on occasion — is providing an appealing model.

“There’s no question Charlie Baker has done a tremendous job,” said JR Romano, the chairman of the Republican party in Connecticut. “He’s shown massive amounts of leadership and people have responded.”

Romano noted that the political dynamics in each state are different and that it’s too soon to say who among the vast field of Republicans running for governor of Connecticut will emerge as the party’s nominee. But several candidates, including hedge fund manager David Stemerman, are pitching themselves as Baker-style moderates with the business skills to reign in the excesses of a Democratic legislature.

Apparently, Romano has forgotten that Baker won the 2014 Massachusetts gubernatorial election by only about 40,000 votes—in other words, his victory was a fluke win over a long-demonized Democratic opponent. Baker’s popularity in Massachusetts is based on his ability to blur the lines between himself and Massachusetts Democrats; former Governor William Weld, Baker’s mentor, demonstrated the same talent for most of the 1990s. Of course, when Weld tried to use this skill in his 1996 challenge to then-Senator John Kerry, Bay State voters actually remembered that Weld was still a Republican, and would inevitably face intense pressure to surrender to the wingnut agenda. Weld lost that race, and stepped down as Governor less than a year later.

Just because Baker is popular now doesn’t mean his re-election is guaranteed. By the time November 6 rolls around, Bay State voters may decide that Baker, while a nice enough guy, is not the figure to represent full-on state-level resistance to the Trump agenda. Connecticut voters may decide the same thing when it comes to the candidate who secures the Constitution State’s GOP gubernatorial nomination:

Still, given President Trump’s deep unpopularity, many pundits believe 2018 will be a brutal election cycle for Republicans around the nation. A newly energized liberal base is expected to make life challenging for Republican candidates on every level.

The Democratic Governors Association has blasted Baker for raising money for the Republican National Committee, which supported accused sexual predator Roy Moore of Alabama for U.S. Senate.

The DGA also has a message for those in Connecticut who seek to emulate Baker’s approach: the moderate positions and bipartisan approach that play well in a general election in blue states aren’t necessarily the positions that can boost a candidate in a Republican primary.

“Every Republican candidate in a primary is racing to out-Trump the next guy, to be the Trumpiest guy on the block,’’ DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said. ”Connecticut voters will be looking for someone to stand up to the excesses of Washington. Anyone with an R next to their name is going to have to answer for Trump.”

If Baker loses, it won’t be surprising if he sheds crocodile tears in front of those who have embraced him as an symbol of rationality in the Republican Party, claiming that he was defeated by voters who recognized no difference between him and Trump. However, at the end of the day, he’s still a member of a party that believes in massive tax cuts for the one percent, elimination of environmental regulations, the savaging of the social safety net and the glorification of the 1950s, if not the 1750s. A defeated Baker will undoubtedly claim that he was the victim of guilt by association. If so, it will prove that he never learned a timeless lesson: you are judged by the company you keep.

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D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.