I expect Charlie Baker to be a much better candidate in 2014 than he was in 2010, and at this point, I think his chances of winning are pretty good regardless of who the Democrats nominate.
Having endured two high stakes US Senate races in three years, the 2014 race for the corner office in Massachusetts is not likely to measure up in terms of excitement. It should, however, be a very competitive race just the same. Democrats will have to really earn this one because neither their built-in party registration advantage nor the relative success of the Democratic governor they hope to succeed will help their nominee as much as many assume. The popularity of Governor Patrick and the relative good health of the state’s economy would be a clear asset to the Democratic nominee if he or she were able to frame the race in partisan terms, but with Baker as the Republican nominee I don’t see how that frame sells.
The simple fact of the matter is that gubernatorial races in Massachusetts have very low partisan stakes, thanks to secure Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The prospect of a Republican governor can only be spun into a calamity worth avoiding if the Republican nominee is scares Baystate voters, and while the Republican “brand” is definitely scary right now, there’s nothing scary about Charlie Baker. Mr. Baker’s early stump speech seems to indicate that his campaign understands this dynamic pretty well. “Economy, education and equality” is a message that I think will hit the sweet spot as well as any and seems to indicate that Baker’s campaign intends to keep the state’s small but feisty Tea Party crowd at arms length.
Scott Brown’s decision not to challenge Charlie Baker for the Republican nomination was, in my opinion, a bad break for the eventual Democratic nominee. In his 2012 loss to Elizabeth Warren, Brown made quite a few unforced errors. He would have been easier to beat than Baker. In addition to stepping aside for Baker, Brown also provided the 2014 Republican nominee with a pretty good strategic roadmap for the campaign. Brown’s campaign strategy in 2012 was a train wreck for a U.S. senate race, but as a blue print for a Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, it wasn’t bad at all.
For example, when Brown was running in 2012, he generated support from Democratic pols and community leaders by essentially misrepresenting both the extent of his own partisanship and the functional partisan differences between the job of a US Senator and that of a state office holder. He essentially approached the task of cultivating Democratic support as if he were running for governor, not for the US Senate. Because of the clear partisan stakes of that race, Brown wasn’t able to recruit nearly enough “Democrats for Brown,” making the effort little more than window dressing designed to attract moderate, low information voters. Not only were their too few Democratic pols willing to sign on, the one’s who did couldn’t deliver anything meaningful capital to the campaign. Former mayors like Ray Flynn of Boston and Charlie Ryan of Springfield had long since surrendered their influence over potentially useful constituencies.
In 2014, with no real partisan stakes, the “Democrats for Baker” effort should be a higher quality and a higher quantity operation that will benefit from the connections Scott Brown created with Democrats across the state. When’s the last time a Republican gubernatorial nominee in this state had the benefit of a effort by a fellow Republican to cultivate statewide Democratic alliances only two years earlier? Furthermore, “Democrats for Baker” will have much less difficulty translating their personal support into campaign resources and votes.
At this point, the road ahead looks pretty promising for Charlie Baker. In the meantime, the Democrats will have to settle on their own nominee.