Last November, rank-and-file liberals picked up a much-needed and long overdue morale boost in the form of sweeping electoral victories for the Democratic Party in New Jersey and Virginia. Phil Murphy (NJ) and Ralph Northam (VA) exceeded expectations in dominant gubernatorial wins while the Dems made gains in each respective lower chamber. (Democrats came just a hat draw away from erasing a 32-seat deficit in the Virginia House of Delegates.)
Pundits were already saying that election was a harbinger of the 2018 midterms when the unthinkable happened — Democrat Doug Jones won the Alabama special election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the US Senate, ending a quarter century of Republican dominance in the state’s upper-chamber delegation.
For the blue team, who fared far better electorally through the first year of President Trump than Republicans managed through 2009 — Obama’s first year in office — the narrative was set: 2018 will yield watershed moments for the motivated opposition.
It’s pointless at this juncture to debate whether a national wave will materialize. What’s more important is to scope the state and local pieces. In Massachusetts , the so-called East Coast liberal epicenter, what’s to come of popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker?
Despite a public backlash against the larger Republican Party, Baker remains a hot item— he’s famously the most popular governor in the country. In a state where nearly 70 percent of voters rejected Trump in 2016, an excess of 70 percent approve of Baker’s performance. In hypothetical matchups against any of the three candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination — former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Deval Patrick-administration veteran Jay Gonzalez, and environmentalist Bob Massie — Baker blows the competition out of the water.
According to the latest WBUR poll, Warren has the best shot of the trio, with a 34-point deficit. (It should be noted that these numbers are certain to move in favor the Democratic candidates as their name recognitions increase. A majority of responders to the WBUR poll were unfamiliar with the candidates. That will change as we get closer to the conventions in June and the primary in September. But even so, the preliminary numbers are damning.) What’s worse for Baker’s challengers is that the governor’s margin of approval has actually widened through Trump’s first year.
Baker has done an exceptional job of wading through the repercussions his party has felt on the national level. He was an early critic of Trump’s candidacy, opposed the anti-Muslim travel ban and ACA repeal, projected negative takes on the tax cuts, and supported Jones over his Republican counterpart Roy Moore in the Alabama election. In short, Baker has maintained the not-so-difficult feat of being both a member of the Republican Party and a member of the #resistance. And Bay Staters have rewarded him.
Baker’s challengers have taken aim at the governor’s relatively watered-down conservatism. As Setti Warren has said, “He’s a Republican, he’s going to do Republican stuff … Surprise, surprise.” Gonzalez has said of Baker’s perceived decency, “When did the measure of if a governor’s doing a good job [become] that ‘he’s nice’ and ‘he isn’t crazy’?”
Of all the special elections across the United States through the first year of Trump’s presidency, Massachusetts was just one of three states to feature a Democrat-to-Republican seat flip, on the strength of Republican Dean Tran winning a state senate election in the Fitchburg area. Tran, while certainly a far cry from the mainstream conservatism of national Republicans, is to the right of Baker on abortion and LGBTQ issues.
Still the minority party in the state Senate, Republicans now control more seats in the upper chamber than they have at any other time since the 1990s. Meanwhile, in the Commonwealth’s major 2018 statewide race, progressive champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren will face a tougher path to re-election than Baker, according to polling. While holding a strong and steady lead over a significant field of GOP rivals, Sen. Warren’s 26-point advantage over Trump-aligned state Rep. Geoff Diehl is narrower than the gap between Baker and any of his opponents.
And Baker has history on his side. Despite controlling both houses of Congress for decades, Democrats have struggled to maintain occupancy of the corner office. Since 1960, Republicans have won eight of the 15 elections for the governorship and have owned the executive branch for 34 of the last 58 years. (While party membership and ideology is always shifting, the 1960s is widely considered the definitive point of modern party alignment.)
The biggest boon to the Mass GOP’s re-election efforts is that it appears all but certain that the Democrats won’t run their best candidate for the biggest office. Attorney General Maura Healey was popular even before Trump took office. On the same night that Baker won the governorship by less than two percentage points, Healey won the Mass AG job in a landslide, picking up nearly 62 percent of the vote (and over 200,000 more votes than Baker). Her star has only shone brighter as she’s repeatedly taken on the Trump administration, both rhetorically and legally. In limited polling, Healey’s the only Democrat in legitimate striking distance of Baker.
At a recent Democratic candidates forum in Brookline, the only statements from any of the men on stage to garner unanimous applause were attacks on Trump and references to Healey. “She’s suing Trump every five seconds,” Gonzalez said to the roaring crowd. Massie even claims Healey jumping into the race would “clear the field.”
“The only A-level candidate I’ve heard of is Maura Healey, who’s obviously not in the race,” state Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan told the Boston Globe last March. The AG has denied that she will seek anything other than re-election to her current post in 2018, and while it’s not too late for Healey to jump into the race, her candidacy will likely face a messier road to the nomination if she declares after local caucuses elect their delegates to the Democratic Convention.
This all points to the bigger speculative question of whether the Dems believe this is a race worth competing in. In other years, it would be a fair and reasonable position to concede that your moderate opponent is simply too popular. (Think Bill Weld’s re-election blowout in 1994, when the socially liberal Republican won with 71 percent of the vote.) But this isn’t other years. This is the age of Trump, and Democrats want blood—even if the president’s name isn’t on the ballot in 2018.
Despite the governor’s soaring approval ratings and seemingly unending piles of cash, there are some signs of vulnerability.
Tran’s victory in the December special election reflected Baker’s popularity and power as a campaigner in the Bay State, with Republican State Leadership Committee President Matt Walter stating the win “again shows that Republican candidates can be successful in traditionally blue states when they run on common-sense, fiscally-sound legislative solutions.”
“With popular governors like Charlie Baker, Republicans can continue to win tough races and flip legislative seats in states throughout the country,” Walter said in a statement.
But you can’t win the governorship by barnstorming one purple district, and the last time Baker campaigned on anything statewide, he was delivered a resounding and devastating defeat.
Question 2 — the ballot initiative proposing to expand charter schools in Massachusetts — became Baker’s prime target in an election cycle drowned in one of America’s most bizarre presidential contests. As a popular governor refusing to get behind his party’s unpopular presidential nominee, Baker traveled the Commonwealth supporting charter expansion, opined in local papers, and even flooded the airwaves in a TV ad encouraging voters to support the ballot question.
In the end, more people voted against the initiative than voted for Hillary Clinton on election day. That same election, Baker came out against the ballot question to legalize recreational cannabis. That initiative passed.
The defeats in the 2016 election show at least one thing: that Baker lacks the star power to win over Massachusetts voters on ideas—and that will likely be the opening the Democrats need to make this election competitive.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.