Charlie Baker won a very close contest (by just over one percentage point) against Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2014. However, his moderate and managerial approach has won the Republican accolades from many Independents and grudging respect from his opponents. He has parlayed this into favorably ratings that most elected officials can only hope for. An April 2017 Morning Consult poll has Baker's overall favorability at a stratospheric 75%. Other recent polls have showed him at 70%. This should make him nearly untouchable even this far out from an election. However, Baker is a Republican in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. This coupled with the deep animosity toward President Trump's (his approval in Massachusetts is currently under 30%) makes 2018 a race where Baker has an advantage, but also vulnerability if things go south.
To negate this, Baker has very publicly separated himself from the president, both before and after his election. Baker's challenge will be maintaining that distance while maintaining his own brand of Yankee Republicanism. His socially liberal stances have disarmed some of the activist community, but his fiscal moderation is under attack from the political left who desire a more active state government role and progressive tax structure.
The Democrats will use Trump's unpopularity to tie Bake to the administration in Washington whenever possible. Additionally, they will use politically popular initiatives such as the proposed millionaire's tax (which will be on the ballot and is very likely to pass in 2018) and raising the state's minimum wage to motivate the progressive wing of the party to turn out.
As of now, Baker has three declared opponents:
- Jay Gonzalez, former State Secretary of Administration and Finance
- Bob Massie, nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 1994 and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012
- Setti Warren, Mayor of Newton and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012
All three are from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. I expect other people to get into the race, especially if the state's economy turns negative. As of now, Baker's popularity and fundraising prowess are keeping other prominent Democrats out of the race, although I suspect Attorney General Maura Healey may rethink her decision not to run if Baker appears vulnerable. Of the three declared candidates, I see Warren as having the best chance of being nominated as he is young, polished, and will do well within the minority community and suburban liberals.
Baker's strategy will be to use his "aw shucks" personality, active managerial approach, and not to pick any fights on social issues although the right wing of his base is deeply suspicious of him for being to moderate and has been given the dreaded RINO (Republican in Name Only) moniker by the more vocal folks on the right. He will face populist pressure on healthcare and taxes and will need to walk a tightrope on these issues.
To win re-election, Baker needs several things to coalesce:
- Keep the lion share of Independents, a group he overwhelmingly won in 2014.
- Stay competitive in traditionally Democratic blue collar communities, many of which he won by narrow margins. He will need to win about 25% of registered Democrats.
- Keep the Democratic victories in the cities and wealthy suburbs tight enough not to be overwhelmed on election night.
- Keep the GOP right wing from fielding a primary opponent which will create party division and drain resources. He needs to win 90% plus of registered Republicans.
- Most importantly, manage the state's economy (attract business, fix issues with healthcare, the MBTA, DHHS, etc.) to the extent that he can and avoid a fiscal crisis that will undermine his managerial assets.
- Stay on cool (if not cold) relations with President Trump. If the president visits the state, Baker would be well advised not to be photographed with Trump - this will be used in attack ads from the Democrats.
Advice for the Democrats:
- Tie Baker to President Trump at every opportunity. Rinse and repeat.
- Actuate the minority community to vote in greater numbers. These are reliably Democratic voters, but they turn out at relatively low rates.
- Play the populist game. Higher taxes on the wealthy and more state spending and services. However, this needs to be presented in a way that can't be portrayed as just tax and spend policies. Outline these proposals in a fiscally responsible way and couch them as investments and tax fairness.
- Tie Baker to Trump, did I say that yet?
Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states in the union, but has a tradition of not always giving complete control to one political party. Baker has been wise to promote himself as a check on the Democratic legislature whist working with the Democratic leadership at the same time on key issues. In an odd way, Massachusetts politics are relatively non-polarized when compared to the other areas of the nation. Voters seem to appreciate the parties minimizing their squabbling and getting things accomplished without excessive rancor and gridlock.
As today, I would give Baker about a 60% chance of retaining his seat in 2018, but as Larry Sabato says; He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass.