By Alice Ferre
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in South Coast Today.
Republican gubernatorial primary voters in 10 municipalities in Bristol County and on the South Coast gave controversial Springfield pastor Scott Lively about 20.6 percent of the vote in the September primary, with Lively narrowly beating Gov. Charlie Baker in Fairhaven, 424-407, and coming close in Acushnet, Rochester, Freetown, and Westport.
Lively’s performance has sparked questions about Southeastern Massachusetts’ political scene: Could Baker have lost popularity among some GOP voters? Are Massachusetts Republicans less afraid to show their beliefs? Or are they becoming more conservative in the Trump era?
Peter Ubertaccio, founding dean of Stonehill College’s School of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of political science, said he thinks Bristol County Republican voters have not changed.
“I don’t think they are becoming more conservative, I think that they’ve always been fairly conservative and that the vote total for Scott Lively kind of represented a conservatism that exists in that part of the state and has existed there for a long time,” he said.
One of Massachusetts’ most visible Republicans is Thomas Hodgson, head of the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office since 1997. Hodgson has recently advocated for President Trump’s Mexican wall and immigration policies, in a state where the president has one of the lowest approval ratings in the nation.
Even though South Coast conservatives might have not drifted further to the right, Ubertaccio said the votes for Lively were in reaction to Baker’s political style.
“Charlie Baker is not very conservative, he’s fairly moderate and that conservative part of the Republican Party doesn’t favor Republicans working across the aisle with Democrats,” Ubertaccio said. “Scott Lively is not a viable candidate, and he represents a pretty radical fringe. Voting for him is a way to express displeasure for Charlie Baker.”
Peter Barney, a Republican activist from New Bedford, said there has been a dissatisfaction among the Massachusetts GOP with some of the governor’s policies.
One of the criticisms is the bill Baker signed in 2016, prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public places. The bill is back in the public discourse this year as Question 3 and faces potential repeal.
“I think there’s a great deal of issue with the bathroom bill, as it was called, a lot of people are very upset about that,” Barney said. “And they find that Charlie Baker just doesn’t seem to represent the right party anymore. He’s sort of very lukewarm.”
Lively, an evangelical, ran in the primary as a very conservative Republican. On his website, he quotes the Bible as the main reference for his political views while also defending gun rights and a pro-life agenda.
Lively said that votes cast for him were “a natural reaction to liberalism.”
“I think the primary reason for my showing was that I’m an authentic conservative, and it’s too rare a thing in Massachusetts because the Republican Party has been afraid to fly the colors in Massachusetts,” he said in a phone interview. “Right now, in the general election, there’s really no choice.”
“The conservatives are conservative, they haven’t changed,” Lively said. “They’re not more conservative now than they were before. When there’s someone to vote for, they vote for them.”
Chris McCarthy, a conservative radio host at New Bedford’s 1420 WBSM, said he believes the Lively votes were not only because of a discontent with Baker but also because of widespread misinformation or lack of awareness about Lively’s ideology.
“People walked in the voting booth, they knew Charlie Baker, and they were angry with him because he’s against Donald Trump,” McCarthy said. “They then saw another name and they voted for him, Scott Lively, without any idea of who Scott Lively was or what he stood for.”
Lively was sued in 2012 by a Ugandan civil rights group for crimes against humanity after addressing high profile Ugandan personalities in 2009 at a conference where the theme was “the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda,” as The New York Times reported in 2010.
Anti-gay rhetoric by Lively and two other Americans at the conference were blamed for government-backed violence against the Ugandan gay community, such as “a bill to impose death sentence for homosexual behavior.”
“I don’t believe that people knew how Lively felt about gay people in particular,” McCarthy said. “I think his positions on gay people are reprehensible, vile, and un-American, and I don’t believe people knew his positions really.
“Someone people must have known them obviously, but the vast number of people that I know who I’ve talked to had no idea he felt that way,” McCarthy said.
Lively’s strong showing could have also been a symptom of something broader than just irritation towards Baker.
Dartmouth Republican state committeeman Brock Cordeiro said that the town of Fairhaven, where Lively beat Baker, “has always been a conservative enclave.”
Cordeiro said he thinks that the surge in far-right votes in the Republican primary echoes the national renaissance of diehard conservatism seen across the country since the beginning of the Trump presidency.
“It’s being more acceptable to show your conservative nature and credentials,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing now especially now in the era of President Trump, that fear of expressing your conservative nature is fading away.”
In addition, Cordeiro said he thinks that there has been “a little bit of a push back” against Baker during the primaries.
However, Cordeiro, who said he does not agree with Baker on certain issues, such as abortion, added that the governor’s socially centrist style brings “a healthy diversity” in the Republican Party.
“If you look at our party platform,” he said, “we have a diversity of opinions in our party, from the centrist, the stereotypical Mass. GOP view that tends to be more moderate in its social views and more conservative in its fiscal views, to the more nationally minded socially conservative who’s a traditional pro-life voter.”
“There’s a section of a party that’s proud to be that pro-life, pro traditional marriage, traditional social agenda, and they will not be silent,” Cordeiro said. “And there’s no reason for them to be silent. That’s why we have debates on issues and on platforms, and we have conventions and primaries.”
“Charlie does not sit there, nor does the Mass. leadership GOP sits there, with an iron hammer pounding a rigid conformity on state committee members or activists,” Cordeiro said. “I think (Baker’s) popularity ratings show that.”