The race to be the Bay State’s Democratic nominee for governor—now down to environmentalist Bob Massie and former state Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez—will determine who will take on incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, the most popular statewide executive in the country.
It’s a massive task. And while the contest hasn’t made a lot of noise in headlines, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t gotten interesting. Or pointed.
“Today’s Republican Party doesn’t give a damn about the little guy,” Gonzalez said in a recent campaign speech. “Massachusetts has always been a leader, but we are not leading right now.”
In its efforts, the Democratic primary has followed a familiar formula, with an insurgent populist campaign (Massie) taking on a candidate with close party ties (Gonzalez). Still, while it’s convenient and cliché to conclude that said intraparty battle has devolved into a Sanders-Clinton-style proxy war, that description would be inaccurate.
Though there’s a palpable contrast between the Gonzalez and Massie campaigns, both have embraced the progressive energy spreading through Mass since 2016. Each candidate promotes the creation of a single-payer healthcare system in the state, debt-free college, criminal justice reform, an environmentally friendly energy overhaul, and ambitious infrastructure upgrades. With a relatively liberal Republican in the corner office, the contest to unseat Baker has been about which hopeful can push further left.
“I’m the only candidate here who voted for Bernie Sanders,” Massie said at a candidates forum. “I believe that the Democratic Party itself has to rethink many of its procedures in order to bring younger people and people with new ideas. … There are plenty of loyal, active, extraordinary people in the Democratic Party, but the system itself is broken.”
Massie often flaunts his early support for Sanders, and recently earned the backing of Our Revolution-Massachusetts, which had originally elected not to endorse in the primary.
“Bob will give Democrats the best chance to beat Baker in November,” the group said in a statement. “He can build a broad-based progressive coalition and implement real change for the future we deserve!”
Gonzalez is more subtle, but is sure to promote his proximity to politicians linked to Sanders. At the Mass Democratic Party convention in Worcester in June, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a prominent Sanders supporter who encouraged progressives to challenge incumbents and take over the centrist party, appeared in a video introducing Gonzalez, affirming his support for the candidate.
“I know that Jay is a strong supporter of civil liberties and social justice,” Eldridge says in the video. “Of economic rights for workers, policies like single-payer healthcare, and speaking out to protect immigrants across Massachusetts.”
That kind of support, including from state Reps. Mary Keefe and Paul Mark, who co-chaired Sanders’ 2016 campaign in the commonwealth, has come from familiarity and close relationships with Gonzalez, as well as an expressed belief that he is the candidate with the best chance to knock out Baker.
“I absolutely admire and greatly respect Bob Massie’s work and everything he stands for and everything he has done in his career,” said state Rep. Mike Connolly, an outspoken progressive in the Massachusetts House. “I think both candidates would be great. But just judging on the organizing effort of the campaigns, I think Jay is well ahead. And I think it’s important for us to have the strongest progressive we can to challenge Charlie Baker and all of his policies.”
That organization came through for Gonzalez at the June convention, where he picked up roughly 70 percent of the vote to Massie’s 30. Winning the convention, however, serves as little more than a glorified party endorsement, as was demonstrated in 2014 by former state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who went on to lose the primary to Martha Coakley after winning in Worcester. For that and other reasons, Massie and his campaign workers and vols are still at it.
“One of my friends who’s not voting for [Massie] told me he’s not voting for him because he’s too liberal, and he wants to vote for the more electable person,” said Paul Edelman, who serves as a Democratic Party delegate from Lakeville. “He wants to make the calculation that led people to vote for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. I think we’ve had opportunity to observe and learn the consequences of that kind of strategy, especially as it relates to things like voter turnout and enthusiasm.”
While Massie and Gonzalez broadly share positions, the contenders have tried to define their campaigns with notable differences. Listen closely, and you will hear Gonzalez call for Bay State voters to “aim high” and to help steer government down a progressive course. Massie, on the other hand, signals a more radical restructuring of systems, and hopes to upend a “rigged” society.
“Today we find ourselves trapped in a system that is rigged, broken, unfair, and cynical,” Massie said in his convention speech. “A system warped by privilege and corrupted by money. And there are too many people making excuses for this reality in both parties.”
Massie’s supporters sound a lot like those who are backing Gonzalez—he’s the right guy for the job, is well-equipped to challenge Baker, and, most of all, has the right progressive bona fides.
“From environmental protection to single payer health care, and modernizing our aging infrastructure, Bob Massie is on the right side of the issues, and has articulated specific, forward-thinking plans to address these challenges,” one establishment backer, state Rep. Dave Rogers, said of Massie in a statement.
Of the multiple dynamics shared by the campaigns of Massie and Gonzalez, none appear to play more prominently than the challenge waiting for them on the other side of the September primary. While there are hints that voters all across the country are turning against Republicans due to the regular offenses of President Donald Trump, one of the nation’s most liberal states has cozied up to its GOP governor—polls consistently show Baker with enormous leads over hypothetical opponents.
No matter who the Democrats nominate, they’re sure to face long odds going against him.
Assuming Baker wins his primary…
Things on the Republican side of the race for governor took a dark turn in Worcester at the state’s GOP convention in April, when the fringe candidacy of Scott Lively, a “100 percent pro-Trump” conservative who equates immigration with cutting in line at the RMV, got very real after he won enough party support to officially oppose Baker in the September primary. Among other positions, Lively supports waging a war on Islam, and co-authored a book linking homosexuality to the rise of the Nazis.
“I’m here to represent the full-spectrum conservative perspective of Republicanism,” Lively said in his convention speech. “Charlie [Baker], you were taking a lot of credit for a lot of positive economic changes that are taking place here in Massachusetts. But I’m telling you there is only one man in this nation that’s responsible for the economic miracle that we’ve experienced since the election of 2016. That’s our president, Donald Trump.”
It’s beyond unlikely that Lively will pose a credible challenge to Baker, especially with the open primary system that allows unenrolled voters—independents who are not registered under a party designation, and who in Mass typically lean more moderate than the staunchly conservative convention delegation—to participate on either side of the primary. But it’s nevertheless noteworthy that someone who is unknown beyond hard-right circles pulled in nearly 30 percent on the convention floor.
As far as precedent goes, in the 2014 gubernatorial election Tea Party activist Mark Fisher fell just short of the 15 percent threshold at the convention to get on the GOP primary ballot and only gained access upon a rule challenge. Polling leading up to the primary showed Fisher with support straddling single digits among likely Republican voters. But on election day, Fisher’s numbers skyrocketed. In the end, 40,240 voters pulled the lever for the right-wing insurgent over Baker, good for 25.7 percent of the vote. It wasn’t enough to keep Baker from claiming the nomination, but in hindsight it was a logical precursor to 2016, when more than 60 percent of Massachusetts Republican primary voters opted for right-wing presidential candidates.
This year, Lively doubled Fisher’s convention numbers, and did so up against a governor with far more institutional support than he had four years ago.
It will be tough to gauge support for Lively as the primary nears. In May, he told supporters to “boycott [polls] completely because we want the media and the Baker Backers think we have NO CHANCE,” according to Politico. Additionally, an online poll floated by the Massachusetts Republican Party left Lively off as an option altogether.
But it’s more than a lack of polling that’s convinced most in Bay State politics that Lively has no shot in this election. His positions, driven by a right-wing interpretation of Christianity, are simply out of sync with the electorate. Massachusetts, home to the second largest LGBTQ population in the nation, was the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004. Two years ago, Baker signed a bill into law that set up broad anti-discrimination measures to protect members of the transgender community. An initiative to repeal that law will be featured on the 2018 ballot; limited polling shows potential for a close contest, but with a strong plurality in outright opposition to repeal.
“They say he’s anti-homosexual,” said Randy Gray, a Lively supporter. “He’s not anti-homosexual. He disagrees with homosexuality, but he’s not against the people that do that.” Lively himself writes that he’s “deeply concerned for those who self-identify as homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender because the Bible warns that they will suffer great harm, both physically and spiritually.”
“I just want to say, I’m also a person of faith,” Massie said to Lively at a recent debate. “What I don’t understand is your hardness of heart. … I would ask you to reconsider some of your positions in light of guidance that I think many of us share. That we should be doing justice in the world and not nailing people for the failures that you decided are inexcusable.”
Beyond the fact that he’s still the most popular governor in America, enjoying 69 percent of the state’s approval, Baker has a lot of what Lively doesn’t: money. The most recent filings show Baker with millions ready to be unleashed on this race, with a lot of that slated to be poured over the airwaves leading up to the primary and then the general election.
Lively, even after a convention bump, is lucky to get above $20,000.
“I’m more interested in the 70 percent of the delegates who supported my message and have supported my administration,” Baker said following the convention vote. “There’s no place and no point in public life—in any life—for a lot of the things Scott Lively says and believes.”
The pushback against Baker from the right, meanwhile, coincides with a rise in his popularity on the left. According to a recent WBUR poll, just 10 percent of Democrats view Baker unfavorably, compared to 20 percent in the GOP. About two-thirds of both constituencies have a favorable view of the governor.
“I like Charlie Baker as a person,” said Venessa Pendexter, a Gonzalez supporter. “He’s a very genuine, sincere, nice guy. But I want him to do more than he’s doing.”
Nationally, voter turnout has risen across the board in 2018. Both major parties have seen a spike in primary participation, with an especially high uptick on the Democratic side. Despite the fact that we are in the final stretch of primary season, though, there’s still little data out of the northeast, with Maine being the only state in New England to go to the polls as of early August. Compared to 2006—the last time both major parties featured competitive gubernatorial primaries in Maine—turnout surged, with Republicans casting almost 20,000 ballots, and Democrats more than doubling their totals. Turnout also increased dramatically in New Jersey’s 2017 governor election.
Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said that participation at the state caucuses in 2017 and 2018 increased, but there have been no larger, bellwether elections at the local level to indicate trends that could carry into November (though some smaller special elections have shown Republicans potentially gaining ground in the Bay State since 2016).
In any case, many questions about this race will be answered in a few short weeks: Who will win the Democratic nomination? How strong of a showing will Lively have? What effect could the GOP’s hard-right candidates for senate have on the Baker-Lively showdown? After four years, how effective will Baker be at turning out voters? How organized is the Gonzalez campaign? Can the Democratic Party’s progressive base push Massie to victory?
Perhaps most significantly, following the primary we’ll know a lot more about the Mass electorate. Voters have options from virtually every corner of the American political spectrum on the ballot, and this is the first time in two years that they’ll step into the booth on the same day.