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A Republican to the Rescue?

Charlie Baker isn’t exactly an outsider, but in a one-party state, he sure looks like one.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014
Photo courtesy of Debra Boronski

If you don’t know who Charlie Baker is, you probably don’t follow politics.

I can’t say I blame you; I often get the impulse to tune it out myself.

But before you turn your attention to something more appetizing, please indulge this wee prediction: unless you’re planning to be out of the country for the next three and a half months, you definitely will know who Charlie Baker is by the first Tuesday in November.

It’s been almost a quarter-century since Baker, the Republican likely to prevail in next month’s gubernatorial primary, made his first big splash in state politics. A key member of former Gov. Bill Weld’s winning team in 1990, he served as Secretary of Administration and Finance under Weld and continued under Weld’s successor, the late Paul Cellucci.

A Harvard grad with an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Baker further made a name for himself as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, the nonprofit health benefits company he’s widely credited with rescuing from the brink of insolvency.

Of course, you don’t have to go that far back to find Baker in the thick of state politics. He ran for governor four years ago, winning 42 percent of the vote against a not particularly popular incumbent. Despite perceptible discontent among voters at a time of high unemployment, Gov. Deval Patrick beat Baker with 48 percent of the vote.

Given that Baker’s spent most of his adult life in politics, garnering a ton of media coverage over the years, what does it say about Massachusetts politics and the electorate that, according to recent polls, only slightly more than half of likely voters in Massachusetts know who he is?

To me, Baker’s surprising lack of name recognition is testament to the dominance of the Democratic party in Massachusetts, as well as the failure of state Republican leadership in recent history to build its party. Rather than recruiting candidates to oppose Democrats in all legislative races, for example, the Republicans here typically focus most of their energy and resources on big races, often with support from the national party. (In fact, a super PAC—a political action committee that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and labor unions—backed by the Republican Governors Association as well as several of Mitt Romney’s top aides launched a TV blitz on Baker’s behalf last week.)

Despite the popularity of Weld—who was accepted by voters and on Beacon Hill as a social liberal and fiscal conservative capable of providing a check on the Democrats—and what turned out to be 16 years of Republican occupancy of the corner office, there are only a few big-name Republicans in the state, with former governor and one-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney surely the most recognizable among them.

In another situation, Baker’s lack of name recognition might be a problem, but in the coming election, it won’t hurt him a bit. If anything, the four out of 10 likely voters who aren’t familiar with him represent an opportunity: as folks who clearly don’t pay much attention to politics—at least not until after Labor Day—they’re most likely undecided voters.

For Baker, a handsome and charismatic politician like Mitt Romney but with a greater track record of supporting abortion rights and gay marriage than the former governor, as well as legitimate status as a Massachusetts native (born and raised in Needham), the sudden awakening of more than half the electorate in the post-primary season should play to his advantage.

Baker will step into the real campaign season to face whichever Democrat survives the Sept. 9 primary, and except for state Attorney General Martha Coakley, none of the Democrats enjoy greater name recognition than Baker. Coakley showed no particular ability to connect with voters in her failed U.S. Senate bid against Scott Brown in 2010, while the other Democrats in the field, state treasurer Steve Grossman and former Medicare and Medicaid director Don Berwick, remain untested in so high-profile a race as the contest for governor.

Although whichever Democrat makes it past the primary will have the arguable advantage of not being Deval Patrick, it’s hard to imagine any candidate from the state’s predominant party counting him/herself fortunate to be running as successor to the sitting governor. Whatever credit voters give Patrick for some of his initiatives on the environment and higher education, his tenure has been marked by a number of controversies—the Department of Children and Families losing a little boy; patronage scandals in the Probation Department; overwhelming public opposition to Patrick’s push for biomass; and growing opposition to casino development—that have made his administration, and the Democrats in general, look incompetent, self-serving and, at times, downright dishonest.

The recent scandal in the state Probation Department is being seen by many political observers, including Baker’s top campaign handlers, as high-octane fuel for the kind of campaigning earlier Republicans found very successful. The well-publicized trial that resulted in the conviction of former probation commissioner John O’Brien on racketeering and conspiracy charges showed a department being run as a patronage haven for legislators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

Of course, voters likely to be offended by revelations that a bunch of politicians were doling out jobs to friends and supporters over more qualified candidates are already following politics, and may already have some idea of whether Baker represents, as Weld, Cellucci and Romney all once did, a check on the excesses of one-party rule in Massachusetts. But what about the 40 percent of voters who, at best, only tune into politics on occasion?

It’s my guess that unenrolled and undecided voters will quickly feel an infatuation with Baker that even Weld never quite enjoyed. To many voters, Baker will appear as a bona fide outsider to Beacon Hill, when, of course, he’s anything but. Regardless of the reality, Baker matches up against entrenched Democrats such as Coakley or Grossman at least as well as Romney matched up against former state treasurer Shannon O’Brien in the 2002 governor’s race. Romney shellacked O’Brien.

In talking with local Republicans in recent weeks, I’ve heard Baker repeatedly described as a new, or at least different, kind of Republican, one unwilling to walk in lockstep with the national party and particularly uninterested in playing to the far right. From Richard Kos, the mayor of Chicopee, to Debra Boronski, an East Longmeadow Republican running for the 1st Hampden-Hampshire District state Senate seat currently held by Sen. Gale D. Candaras, a Democrat, local Republicans appear to see in Baker a resume and temperament that will play well beyond the small Republican base in Massachusetts.

“I feel it, and I think a lot of voters do, too: the far right and the far left push people away from common ground,” Boronski told me last week. “Those extremes don’t serve the parties well. I can’t go to Boston as an independent, because there’d be nowhere for me to sit, but I’m also not the picture of what people think a Republican is. Neither is Charlie Baker.”

At a time when many voters, whatever they think of recent Democratic embarrassments on Beacon Hill, view Republicans as recklessly anti-government, Baker’s long career in public service runs nicely counter to the stereotype. Voters likely won’t see him as coming in to kill state government as much as to rescue them from a government of unrestrained Democrats.•

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