Charlie Baker is among the most popular governors in the country and the top Republican in Massachusetts.
But there's a core group of conservative Republicans who literally celebrated Baker's decision not to seek a third term.
"What a great week," declared Geoff Diehl, a pro-Trump Republican running for governor, to cheers at a fundraiser in Waltham.
Baker's announcement last week puts Diehl in prime position to capture the Republican nomination for governor and avoid a fight with a more moderate incumbent. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, long considered Baker's most likely successor, also announced last week that she won't run for re-election or for governor.
But the move also raises questions about whether a conservative Republican can win a statewide race in a deep blue state.
Diehl is running against what he calls "reckless spending on Beacon Hill and in Washington." He's been endorsed by Trump and has embraced the former president's position on a number of issues, such as immigration and the need for strong voter ID laws.
Asked if he believes Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election, Diehl paused and said carefully: "I think that if all the states had conducted themselves correctly [the election would have been] a lot closer. It's hard to tell."
Still, Diehl acknowledged that Congress certified the election and said: "You have to move on from there."
Diehl is something of a happy warrior with a smooth voice and easy smile. But he faces a difficult question: How does a pro-Trump candidate became governor in a state that voted 2 to 1 against the former president.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren easily defeated Diehl in 2018. And yet the state GOP is pinning its hope on him to keep the governorship in Republican hands.
The party faces other challenges, as well, including complaints about the party's leadership. The party couldn't even muster enough members to reach a quorum at a recent meeting.
"We have rampant in-fighting, conflict, chaos inside our own party," said Anthony Amore, a Republican activist who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2018.
There are no Republicans in the state's congressional delegation — and only a tiny minority in the state Legislature. The party is so strapped for cash that it might be unable to hold a party convention. And now that Baker has decided not to run for re-election, some say Republicans risk being shut out from state-wide office.
"I don't believe that there's any chance for someone who attaches himself to Donald Trump winning state-wide office, let alone the governorship in Massachusetts," Amore said. "And I think we're going to pay for it the next election."
The party's pro-Trump wing is headed by state GOP Chairman Jim Lyons, who's been feuding with Baker for years. Lyons has suggested that the governor is too cozy with Democrats and out of step with most Republicans.
Lyons did not respond to WBUR's request to talk about the future of his party. But many of the Republicans who showed up at Diehl's recent fundraiser were pleased that Baker isn't running — and want the GOP to move in a more conservative direction. Among them was Joyce Cutler, of Waltham, who said Baker is too moderate and "not really on the Republican side."
"I'm looking for a change from Baker," Cutler said.
So is Louis Murray, a Republican from Boston who supported Trump. Murray acknowledged that membership in the state GOP is low, but says the party's best chance to attract new members is to embrace Trump — and the issues that galvanize his followers.
Murray contends lots of independents — Massachusetts' largest block of voters — are fed up with over-bearing COVID restrictions, inflation and what he calls Biden's "socialist agenda."
"The Massachusetts GOP is a growth stock — buy with both hands," Murray said.
Murray said people are electing Republicans all over the country. For instance, he notes, Virginia just elected a conservative Republican, Glenn Youngkin, to be the next governor.
Still, Massachusetts is a very different state than Virginia, with a long tradition of electing moderate Republicans to state-wide office — from Henry Cabot Lodge to William Weld to Charlie Baker. Some Republicans worry that a conservative like Diehl can't win state-wide office here.
But Jennifer Nassour, a Republican moderate and a former state party chair, said there is still time to convince other Republicans to get in the race.
"We need to pull together and find candidates who are going to make a great slate in 2022," Nassour said recently on Radio Boston. "It is incumbent upon us."
Nassour predicted moderate Republicans will jump into the race for governor and battle Diehl for the nomination.
If so, it will be contest for the soul of the state's Republican party and a bet on its future.
This segment aired on December 9, 2021.