All Three Major GOP U.S. Senate Candidates Make Primary Ballot

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By Matt Murphy

WORCESTER — Conservative, pro-Trump Republican Geoff Diehl won the U.S. Senate endorsement of Republican Party activists on Saturday after two rounds of voting, but all three main GOP candidates vying to take on U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren found strong pockets of support among the party faithful as they look to notch what would be an historic upset.

Diehl, who came to the state Legislature in 2010 amid the Tea Party wave and played a prominent role on President Donald Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts two years ago, cashed in on his popularity at Saturday’s convention among the party’s grassroots.

Many still remember the work he did to repeal a law indexing the gas tax to inflation.

“It’s not enough to just talk about values. … Taking action is what really counts,” Diehl said, highlighting that 2014 ballot campaign and his votes in the Legislature. The Whitman Republican has built his campaign around the themes of tax relief and stronger border security, but did not go out of his way to tie himself to the president on Saturday.

It took two ballots for Diehl to win the endorsement outright. On the first ballot, Diehl secured 47.7 percent of the delegates voting, followed by Lindstrom with 28.8 percent and Kingston with 19.8 percent. Diehl won 55.4 percent of the vote on the second ballot after about 600 delegates had gone home for the evening.

All three had enough support to qualify under party rules to appear on the ballot as a Republican.

Collectively, the GOP candidates painted Warren as a no-show senator more interested in building her resume for president than representing the people of Massachusetts. They also cast the Democrat as a divisively partisan figure.

“No one wants to work with a rock thrower. I am not a rock thrower,” Lindstrom said.

Warren, however, remains popular in Massachusetts politics with a loyal following and a robust campaign account with more than $15 million on hand. Since announcing her re-election campaign, she has been crisscrossing the state hosting town halls, and is revered among many Democrats for her opposition to Trump in what is expected to be a high-turnout year for Democrats.

The contest for the party endorsement played out in a convention hall at the DCU Center in Worcester where many of the more than 2,400 delegates in attendance represented a more conservative wing of the party than the one represented by elected officials like Governor Charlie Baker. There were scattered “MAGA” hats in the crowd.

The endorsement should give the Whitman state lawmaker a boost as the three-way GOP primary moves into a new phase, but questions remain over whether that support will translate into momentum among the broader primary electorate.

John Briare, a delegate from Dudley, said choosing a candidate in the U.S. Senate race was “one of the toughest decisions I’ve had in 30 years. Harder than any race for governor.”

Briare said he has known Lindstrom for years and worked on campaigns with her, but he has also donated to Representative Diehl in the past and appreciated his willingness to stand up for Trump in Massachusetts when many Republicans wouldn’t. He also said he was impressed with Kingston.

Leaning toward Lindstrom, Briare wished he could combine the strengths of all three to take on the “wicked witch of the west.” “Take Beth, who I think is by far the best candidate in the race in either party, and give her Geoff Diehl’s organization, that grassroots, and I think she wins overwhelmingly,” Briare said.

Lindstrom, who has worked in state government for Mitt Romney and ran Ambassador Scott Brown’s first U.S. Senate campaign, said she was not a “professional politician,” but pitched herself as a candidate who would be a foil to Warren as a Republican woman.

“This is my first time as a candidate. But I will say the same thing to you that I said to Ray Shamie, Chairman of the Party, when he first hired me three decades ago: ‘Give me a chance. You won’t be disappointed’,” Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom also called Warren an “extremist” who is out of step with Massachusetts residents. She said she supports legal immigration, but opposes the idea of sanctuary cities and backs the president’s call to build a wall on the southern border.

Kingston, a wealthy Winchester businessman, has argued for months that he is best positioned to have the resources to take on Warren, and repeated that message Saturday. Warren is a fund-raising powerhouse who has more than $15 million in her campaign account, but Kingston has already put $4 million of his own money into the race.

While he accused Warren of spending too much of her time writing books, supporting higher taxes, and challenging gun owners, Kingston said he would be a senator willing to tackle the national debt and combat, not contribute, to dysfunction in Washington.

“This race requires a leader with the vision, the resources and the will to win. My vision will unite Massachusetts behind our shared values,” Kingston said.

A January WBUR poll found that just 28 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts had a favorable opinion of Trump, while 64 percent viewed the president unfavorably. Among Republicans, Trump’s favorability climbed to 65 percent with 20 percent of GOP voters holding an unfavorable view of the president.

That same poll showed Warren’s favorability at 54 percent.

Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau sent an email message to the senators’ supporters as the convention was going on, stating that all three of Warren’s opponents oppose the Affordable Care Act and new gun restrictions. He also said they were open to cutting Social Security benefits, support tax breaks for the wealthy, and will stand with GOP leadership in Congress.

“No matter what happens, we can’t let a Republican – any Republican – beat Elizabeth Warren and win a Senate seat in Massachusetts again. The stakes for working families are just too high. That’s why we aren’t taking anything for granted,” Lau wrote.

State Representative Elizabeth Poirier of North Attleborough placed Lindstrom’s name in nomination.

“She has never walked away from our party,” Poirier said, highlighting Lindstrom’s long career in state GOP politics. The remark also appeared to be a light jab at Kingston, who at one point left the Republican Party and started a super PAC to oppose Trump’s march to the Republican nomination in 2016.

Former New England Patriot Fred Smerlas, his wife Kristine, and radio talk jock John Dennis were working their fellow delegates in support of Diehl. Describing himself as “pro-wall, pro-Second Amendment and pro-people,” Smerlas said Diehl had the “most consistent values” with his own and was “an honest guy.”

He drew a contrast between Diehl and Warren, whom he called a “liar” over her claims of Native American ancestry.

Kristine Smerlas said she was convinced by her interactions with voters while collecting signatures for Diehl that he could beat Warren in November, and also believes the GOP nominee will benefit from a sales tax reduction question moving toward the ballot for November that could draw fiscally conservative Republicans and independents to the polls.

“She’s the most vulnerable she’s ever been. People in her own party don’t like her,” Kristine Smerlas said.

Darius Mitchell, who challenged Republicans to compete in urban cities, and Heidi Wellman of Marlborough, failed to get the 15 percent they needed to qualify for ballot access. Mitchell wowed the convention crowd with a speech that brought many of the delegates to their feet.