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With Baker out, 2022 Massachusetts election enters a new phase

Governor Charlie Baker speaking in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in March 2020.
Jim Levulis
Governor Charlie Baker speaking in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in March 2020.

Ending months of speculation, Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced today that he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito will not seek a third four-year term. First elected in 2014, the former healthcare CEO has maintained an enduring popularity in a deeply blue state even without the support of his own party nationally. A moderate, Baker was critical of Donald Trump even as the Massachusetts GOP embraced the president. WAMC spoke with Western New England University Professor of Political Science and pollster Tim Vercellotti today about what Baker’s announcement means for next year’s race.

VERCELLOTTI: True to form in terms of his timing, in 2018, he waited until the week after Thanksgiving as well to reveal his plans for the next election. This brings to a close one of the most popular parlor games in Massachusetts politics of the last few months- Will he or won't he? We know now that Governor Baker will not try to make history by serving three four-year terms as governor.

WAMC: Now, what do you make of that decision? What informed, from your perspective, the governor's decision to essentially play it safe and not press his luck and go for that historic third term?

Well, [in] his announcement, he cited the pandemic as one of the reasons that he didn't want to take away from the state's continued efforts to respond to the COVID pandemic by engaging in a bruising political campaign- And it would have been bruising, particularly in the primary. It may also be that he concludes that eight years is enough, that he has had an opportunity to make some changes in state government, perhaps to make it a bit more efficient and responsive, and that he has had his time serving as a counterbalance to the huge democratic majorities in the State House and Senate. It's also worth noting that this would have been the fourth cycle where he would have run for governor. He ran unsuccessfully in 2010, and then successfully in 2014, in 2018. He might simply have decided he's had his shot and it's time to let someone else take the reins.

What does this mean for the Massachusetts GOP? The party seems largely at odds with the centrist Baker. Certainly, Geoff Diehl, the candidate of the party who is moving forward into 2022, is far to Baker’s right. What does it mean for that party moving forward?

It sets up a very interesting dynamic here. I mentioned that one parlor game had ended- I wonder if another will begin? Will anyone emerge to pose a credible level of competition to Geoff Diehl for the Republican nomination? It's worth noting that in terms of voter registration, the Republican Party in Massachusetts is pretty small. The numbers hover around 10% or 11% of registered voters. We do, however, have open primaries, and it is possible for unenrolled voters – which make up more than a well over 50% of the electorate – it is possible for them to vote in a Republican primary. So it raises the question, is there a moderate Republican out there who might emerge to challenge Diehl for the nomination? It's hard to say. It's a pretty thin bench right now, if you look at the traditional sources of candidates for statewide office, in particular members of the state legislature. So it might be someone coming out of private industry or academia. It will be very interesting to see whether Geoff Diehl has a clear path to the Republican nomination.

As far as immediate impacts on the race, there are some big names that have been speculated about yet to make their intentions clear for next year- I'm thinking of Attorney General Maura Healey. What are you looking for at this point now that Baker has made his intentions fully clear?

Well, I think it's time for the Attorney General to make a decision as well. She has a fair amount of campaign money set aside, well over $3 million. She used position, having run two successful statewide campaigns for the Attorney General, she has her network in place. Now what remains is for her to make a decision. And she'll need to make it soon, because the way the Democrats choose nominees for statewide office, they begin by holding caucuses in each of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts fairly soon after the New Year, typically beginning in February, and the other three declared candidates for the Democratic nomination will be doing field work to turn people out in those caucuses, which elect delegates to a state Democratic Convention that will then weigh in on who the party's nominee might be. So Maura Healey has to make a decision fairly soon.

Inside the Democratic Party, where do you think conversations are going to go during the primary? Obviously, running against Charlie Baker and against his record has been a lot of what we've seen from candidates. Does this change that conversation internally for the Democrats?

In a way it opens it up a bit for the field to really lay out a clear vision for the future of the State of Massachusetts. And we've seen some initial rhetoric in that area from the three declared candidates for the Democratic nomination, where they talk about equity and how although pre-pandemic, the state had a fairly low unemployment rate and the state's budget is in pretty good shape, the argument will be that not everyone in Massachusetts is enjoying the benefits of the state's economy and the state's pre-pandemic prosperity. So I would look for the candidates to lay out ideas in the areas of transportation, for one. That has been a huge issue during Governor Baker's two terms. Also education and also job training and child care and support for making affordable child care more accessible so folks can get into the workforce or get the training they need to advance. Those sorts of advantages are not distributed evenly across the state, and I think the party, the Democratic Party, is poised to have an interesting and thorough and vigorous conversation about equity now.

What do you expect the political legacy of Charlie Baker to be now that we know he's entering his final year in charge of the Commonwealth?

These kinds of things, legacies, emerge in retrospect. It's hard to write them as they're unfolding. But I think early on, it is likely that people would look back on these years as ones where Baker tried to improve the functions of state government. Tried to make, for example, the Registry of Motor Vehicles more efficient, tried to improve the child welfare system, try to improve the transportation infrastructure, particularly commuter rail and the T in Eastern Massachusetts- Not always entirely successfully. But that was always his calling card, that he had come from government and then worked in the private sector, and could do things efficiently with managerial expertise. But I think what he’ll also be remembered for is being one of the most popular governors in the country in a party that was lurching significantly to the right during this time. In a funny way, I think Governor Baker actually benefited from being a Republican in the era of Donald Trump- The contrast between the two in terms of ideology, governing philosophy, just their very demeanor and how they carry themselves and present themselves in public. I think it benefited Charlie Baker significantly, and a lot of moderate voters, unenrolled voters look to him as the kind of Republican that a lot of voters would like to see in a divided government as a counterbalance to a heavily Democratic state legislature.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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