Left turn ahead? Team Baker looks to reshape coalition for re-election bid
As Charlie Baker accelerates toward his re-election season, he may have just flipped on his left blinker. If the strategy he shared with donors in a recent meeting is any indication, his campaign may be an even more cross-partisan affair than his governing has been. The Boston Globe reports that in a meeting of his finance committee, “the governor said he must draw nearly a third of Democrats and almost 60 percent of independents.”
If Baker were to win a third of Democrats, it would be a legitimate political earthquake. That would represent nearly twice as big a share of Democrats as Republicans have gotten in recent contests. The target for Democratic support may have been set high, just like the reported goal of raising a staggering $30 million for the 2018 bid. In 2014, Baker won just 18 percent of Democrats in his winning bid, almost identical to Senator Scott Brown’s 17 percent in his 2010 special election. Win or lose, this tends to be the range competitive Republicans fall into in Massachusetts. Baker, in his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor, and Gabriel Gomez in his 2013 senate loss to Ed Markey, also earned Democratic support in the mid-teens.
Baker’s target is ambitious, but it makes a certain amount of sense, given his poll numbers. Key to Baker’s consistently strong polling has been the strength of his cross-partisan support. A recent poll from The Novus Group showed Baker is just as popular among Democrats (66 percent favorable) as he is among Republicans (65 percent favorable). This echoes many of our own polls of late, some of which even show Baker doing better among Democrats.
Aiming more toward the center also compensates for Baker’s potential weakness on the right. Among the Massachusetts registered Republicans, Donald Trump is more popular (79 percent favorable) than is Baker. Baker has had a deeply uncomfortable relationship with Trump since the campaign, and has chastised the administration for policies at odds with his own.
Chasing Trump’s core supporters to improve his numbers among Republicans would be perilous for Baker. Just 35 percent of Massachusetts votes approve of Trump’s job performance, so there is relatively little to gain. And seeking to curry favor with Trump’s base would likely cut into the Democratic support Baker currently enjoys. There are more than three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans in Massachusetts. Winning close to a third of Democrats would mean Baker could lose a good chunk of Republican votes and still be successful.
It could be that Baker just wants a comfortable margin and is aiming above where he needs to be. Or it could be he is anticipating losing votes on the right, and needs to make up the difference in the middle. Especially if Baker faces a third party challenge on the right (not unheard of lately), he may need a larger chunk of the Democratic vote than Republicans typically receive.
The Democratic Party, for its part, is not doing much to prevent Baker from siphoning off their voters. In an interview already causing heartburn on the left, House Speaker Robert DeLeo would not commit to voting for the eventual Democratic candidate for governor next year. DeLeo told WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller over the weekend: “I think I wanna see exactly who that nominee will be. I still think it’s a little bit early, in terms of thinking about next year’s race. So right now I just want to see, wait and see attitude.”
Baker’s strategy of courting Democrats is not without risk. If the Democrats find a compelling candidate, or coalesce around one of the current challengers, Baker may find his coalition pinched on both the left and the right. Party alignment and identification have been powerful forces in recent election cycles. Reaction to the Trump presidency — and, potentially, Trump’s state co-chair Geoff Diehl on the Senate ballot — may reinforce partisan tribalism next year.
So keep an eye on how Baker does among Democrats in future polls. Those numbers will give a hint whether Baker’s brand of bipartisanship is enough to steer him around the obstacles he faces on the road to reelection.
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