Charlie Baker’s Party Problems

The presumptive 2014 Republican nominee for Governor, Charlie Baker, will have to campaign hard to win in November simply because the state of affairs in the Bay State is pretty good and the outgoing Democratic governor, despite concerted efforts by rightwing pols and pundits, will exit the stage to general applause. Unfortunately for Baker he has the additional burden of his political party’s very unpopular brand in Massachusetts.

In the past week, we got a couple of reminders of why the GOP brand is not popular in the state courtesy of the state GOPs decision to include support for “traditional marriage” in the party platform and the appearance of Governor Bridge-gate himself, Chris Christie, at a Boston GOP fund raiser. These sorts of things are to be expected when you are running for statewide office in Massachusetts as a Republican and while they are inconvenient and unnecessarily distracting, they certainly will not do lasting damage to Baker’s candidacy.

Hiccups like a visit from Christie or a wingnut plank in the GOP platform are short-lived reminders of the highly polarized politics of Washington and of the fact that according to the average Bay State voter, Baker is a member of the party on the wrong side in that high stakes, high tension battle. On this his second go around as the Republican ticket topper Baker knows how to deal with these types of things. However, there is a potential land mine in the offing that could present Baker with a more persistent headache in this race. It is the possibility of another high profile statewide race in which the national partisan debate will be unavoidably front and center throughout.

Baker has to share the ballot this fall with a U.S. Senate race. These days even popular incumbent Republican governors in blue states don’t want to share a ballot with U.S. Senate candidates; just ask Governor Christie, who thought that fate so dangerous that he forced New Jersey voters to make separate trips to the polls last year. To be clear, the 2014 U.S. Senate race in our state is not going to be competitive on Election Day, but because the incumbent is a brand new “specially elected” Democratic senator, it’s going to be very hard to suppress the urges of the state’s small but stubborn rightwing community, and of the political reporters and pundits who cover Bay State elections, to make a lot of noise about this race. A loud U.S. senate race would be a VERY serious problem for Charlie Baker. It would not only suck some of the oxygen from the governor’s race, it would also force Baker to have to deal with highly unpopular pols and policy positions on the campaign trail. If the national partisan narrative dominates the fall campaign, Baker’s chances of victory plummet.

To his credit, Baker has already shown skill in navigating this type of political weather. While GOP congressional candidates (and would be candidates) have been leaning heavily on attacks against “Obamacare,” Baker has deflected the fall out by focusing on President Obama’s refusal to grant the state waivers to the Affordable Care Act so that our already highly functional version of healthcare reform can continue to be successful. Unfortunately, a loud U.S. Senate race would make such delicate maneuvers increasingly difficult.

How can Baker mitigate the harm of Senator Markey’s re-election battle to his own chances of election? What can he do to discourage GOP investment in and enthusiasm for Markey’s Republican challenger without creating a backlash against himself that could result in reduced support from the GOP base? What could he do to steer Markey’s challenger toward a candidate-centered campaign with minimal invocation of the national Republican narrative?

The campaigns of Scott Brown and Gabe Gomez clearly illustrated the futility of candidate-centered campaigns for the US Senate in Massachusetts. Unless a high profile, charismatic Republican candidate manages to win the GOPs approval to fall on his sword in a candidate-centered campaign against Markey, it is very likely that the GOP nominee in this race will be a long shot candidate of the ideological variety, which means a candidate that has to rely on a conservative base-building strategy. Such a strategy involves highlighting everything about the GOP agenda that Charlie Baker needs to suppress. Since Baker hasn’t even been able to persuade his party’s Tea Party wing to “play ball” in his own race, it seems unlikely that these folks will be moved to forgo a shot at what they believe is a vulnerable Democratic Senator.

Let’s face it folks, being a Republican pol is Massachusetts is tricky business.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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