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Charlie Baker angers conservatives with Planned Parenthood decision





Conservatives have bristled against Governor Charlie Baker’s pledge to replace Planned Parenthood funding with state dollars if Washington pulls its support for the program. But even the most disappointed do not expect Baker to face a primary challenge from the right next year.

Baker’s Planned Parenthood announcement last Friday has won plaudits from Democrats, the latest overture toward the center that has chilled the opposition across the aisle. But it has also irked those on his party’s right wing, long leery of the governor’s moderation. Grass-roots activists warn that Baker will not have their support if, as expected, he runs for reelection next year.

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“Conservatives are not happy,” said Mary Lou Daxland, president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, which bills itself as “the Republican wing” of the state party. “It’s one more nail in Governor Baker’s coffin. I can tell you right now, the conservative base did not vote for him in [2010], he barely won in [2014], and he’s not going to win in [2018].”

She added, “He’s in a big fat mess.”

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On Wednesday, antiabortion activists demonstrated at the State House in protest of the governor’s Planned Parenthood decision. Baker said last week that he would use state funds to offset cuts to the organization if Republicans in Washington follow through on a proposal to effectively prevent Medicaid patients from receiving Planned Parenthood services, such as contraception, cancer screenings, and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Chanel Prunier, who was the state’s Republican national committeewoman until Baker allies unseated her last year, said she was surprised that, amid budget cuts and legislative pay hikes, the governor would commit tax dollars to Planned Parenthood.

“I see tremendous energy and excitement from Republicans, conservatives, and independents for real conservative change in government, and I would hope [Baker] would see and respond to that,” Prunier said in an e-mail.

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Steve Aylward, a Watertown activist who lost a challenge last year to state party chair Kirsten Hughes, Baker’s preferred candidate, said Baker’s efforts to shift toward the middle, such as the Planned Parenthood announcement, would “discourage the base” from backing him next year.

“The governor’s policies are a lot more moderate than a lot of Republicans in this state,” Aylward said.

Baker led a successful effort last year, bankrolled by undisclosed political contributions, to oust conservatives from the state party committee and replace them with loyalists.

Still, Baker’s conservative critics do not expect him to draw a noteworthy intraparty challenge in 2018. The governor still enjoys reasonably high approval ratings in public opinion polls and, at the end of last month, sat on a campaign war chest of more than $4.8 million. He will probably also be able to count on ample outside funding from Republicans looking to retain a governorship in one of the nation’s most liberal states.

“If he gets primaried, it will be by someone who is very, very, very much an unknown,” Aylward said. “Any of the stronger Republicans who might primary him don’t really have an interest. Charlie’s got a lot of money, and he’s still very popular. I don’t think it would be a smart move.”

State Representative Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican who helped lead President Trump’s campaign in the state last year, even as Baker criticized it, suggested that the Planned Parenthood announcement was timed in advance of a weekend rally in support of the organization, and that Baker was trying to “get out ahead on the issue.”

“It seems like it was a statement that was kind of a solution looking for a problem. It hasn’t been an issue to date,” Diehl said.

Diehl, who discounted rumors that he might run against Baker, said it was “hard to say” whether Baker could face an intraparty race next year, adding, “Who knows if somebody is going to run that I’m not aware of right now?”

Some Baker advisers believe that attacks from the right serve only to burnish his image with the state’s large bloc of moderate voters, who helped tilt the 2014 election Baker’s way against then-attorney general Martha Coakley. He won by slightly more than 40,000 votes, the narrowest margin of victory in a gubernatorial election in a half-century.

Baker political adviser Jim Conroy declined to comment directly on the restiveness among conservatives, but said, “Protecting access to high-quality health care for every woman in Massachusetts has been, is, and always will be a top priority for the governor.”

After losing to then-governor Deval Patrick in 2010, Baker faced a conservative opponent in the 2014 primary, Mark Fisher. At the party convention, following a lengthy delay while votes were being counted, Fisher was initially denied access to the primary ballot. But he sued the state GOP committee and was eventually granted a spot on the ballot. Baker beat him with 74 percent of the vote.

There are, however, no Republican challengers to Baker looming in 2018, and even his critics within the party concede that the trappings of incumbency would make such a mission difficult.

“You couldn’t win; you couldn’t beat Charlie in a primary,” Aylward said.

Conservatives, though, could sit on their hands rather than help Baker in the general election against whichever Democrat emerges from a still-nebulous field of candidates.

“You want us to put signs up? Find somebody else. You want us to make phone calls? Find somebody else,” Daxland said.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.


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