With the prospects of Donald Trump winning the Massachusetts GOP primary tomorrow, it is hard to imagine a worse time to try and bring some common sense to the Republican State Committee.
The 80 members of the GOP state committee are elected every four years during the Republican presidential primary. Even in ordinary years, a popular Governor trying to shape the state committee encounters difficulties. And 2016 is hardly an ordinary year.
Not only might the timing be off, but the scope of this intra party conflict doesn’t help Governor Baker. E.E. Schattschneider might have been of some use here.
Schattschneider is the political scientist who bequeathed to us the famed “scope of conflict” analysis. Typically the losing side in a political fight will try to expand the scope of the conflict in order to gain additional support. The other side tries to narrow the scope to maintain their advantage.
The Governor once had the advantages of popularity and access to deep funds in this narrow, hidden skirmish. Then a series of articles and commentaries opened up the conflict to the greater public and the Governor himself got caught in the crosshairs of the noxious race for his party’s nomination as his preferred candidate dropped out and endorsed Trump.
To recap: Governor Baker is hoping to shape the state committee into something reflecting the only values that have ever helped Republican candidates win statewide elections in Massachusetts: center-right, managerial conservatism espoused by people who are not anti politics, work with Democrats, and are a bit libertarian on social issues.
The Governor waded into the state committee elections, working on behalf of a Baker/Polito slate of candidates. He has endorsed in 52 of the 54 contested races but about half of those are incumbents. The rest are challenging incumbents.
Of course, the hard right finds this to be a “war on conservatives.”
Nevermind that among those not being challenged by the Governor include noted conservatives Rep. Jim Lyons in Andover and Senator Vinny DeMacedo of Plymouth.
In my neck of the woods the Governor has endorsed the incumbent Fran Manzelli. Some activists howl because among the alleged sins of Manzelli is the honorable fact that he didn’t support the 2014 GOP nominee for state senate running against Democratic incumbent Dan Wolfe.
That candidate, local activist Ron Beaty, spent time in federal prison for threatening to assassinate the first President Bush, and is now Manzelli’s challenger.
Any reasonable person would welcome Baker's endorsement of Manzelli.
Still, those with long memories in GOP conservative circles might believe the ghost of Frank Sargent is haunting Charlie Baker on those dark evenings in the Corner Office. Sargent was utterly dismissive of the state party apparatus, essentially shutting it down as an alternative source of Republican party power in the state.
Baker is not attempting a repeat of Sargent’s efforts but he’s still facing headwinds.
For one, history is not on the Governor’s side here. Political party organizations developed, in part, to contain Chief Executives. They are not mere extensions of gubernatorial power.
Parties in Massachusetts also exist in multiple segments and they don’t always coordinate, agree, or even play nicely.
The Republican Party, for example, has multiple centers of power: the Governor’s office, the caucuses in the House and Senate (small as they are), the state committee, the local and regional committees, candidate campaign committees, consultants and fundraisers, affiliated groups, and party activists and voters.
The second obstacle to the Governor’s plans is that latter group of activists and voters, which includes the last vestiges of the yeoman. As Edgar Litt might have told the Governor, it’s hard to move Massachusetts yeoman. Consider Professor Cunningham's description:
“The yeomen to Litt were small town lower-middle and working class Protestants and Republicans, often small business men, parochial in their outlook and aggressively opposed to change. They are conservative across a range of social and fiscal issues, and deeply suspicious of corporations and unions.”
The yeoman have dwindled but never left and found a new lease on life with the rise of Tea Party politics. And the hard core base of the GOP descends from the yeoman. They are active and perpetually angry and they ‘re largely successful, electorally speaking, in small settings. They show up at your local town meetings—mostly to vote no—and in primary elections, particularly if state committee slots are on the line.
The yeoman have little use for Charlie Baker’s middle path. They might support him in a general election campaign against a Patrick or a Coakley, but when you attempt to seal off their tiny room of power, they man the barricades.
In the end, the biggest obstacle for Charlie Baker is this: he’s hoping for sanity among a party base that looks poised to give Donald Trump a victory tomorrow. If that comes to pass, the Republican party here has a much bigger problem on its hands than its tiny semi-resurgent yeoman base.