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Independents may complicate Baker’s bid

Working against Baker is the fact that both independent candidates are social and fiscal moderates with experience in business, making their profiles strikingly similar to that of Baker.

Steven Senne/AP

Working against Baker is the fact that both independent candidates are social and fiscal moderates with experience in business, making their profiles strikingly similar to that of Baker.

Investment banker Jeffrey S. McCormick is taking the first serious steps this week to launch an independent run for governor, a move that would pose a major threat for Republican Charlie Baker.

After months of exploring a candidacy, McCormick, a 52-year-old Back Bay resident who has no experience in politics, is holding a dinner event at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel Thursday with 150 close friends and associates to outline his potential candidacy.

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In the last few weeks, he has hired veteran political consultants from opposite sides of the aisle — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — and brought on board former GOP state treasurer Joe Malone. He plans to launch a formal campaign kick-off in January.

If he decides to run, McCormick will join another independent candidate and newcomer to politics, Evan Falchuk, a business executive who has put $300,000 of his own money into his campaign and has been active on the trail since declaring his candidacy in July.

Independents in Massachusetts rarely get more than a single-digit percentage of the votes in statewide elections. After starting strong, former treasurer Timothy P. Cahill only received 8 percent in 2010. But even if McCormick and Falchuk capture only a small percentage of the electorate, they may draw key votes from Baker, votes the Swampscott Republican will need in a potentially tight race against the Democratic nominee.

Working against Baker is the fact that both independent candidates are social and fiscal moderates with experience in business, making their profiles strikingly similar to that of Baker. They appeal to the core of Baker’s targeted constituency: middle-of-the-road independent voters who were critical to the coalitions that elected moderate Republicans William F. Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney.

Adding to Baker’s problems, political analysts say the disillusionment with Washington seems to have creeped into Massachusetts, making the electorate potentially volatile. This could create a political climate that would allow self-financing independent candidates to be more serious contenders than usual.

Thomas J. Whalen, a Boston University professor of social science, said much depends on how well McCormick or Falchuk perform. Still, he said, the political landscape is more fertile than ever for independent candidates.

“It will depend how good they are and how much they want to spend,’’ Whalen said of the two independents. “But, with the electorate so fractionalized these days, there is certainly an audience waiting for these kind of candidates.”

Peter N. Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College, said that if either McCormick or Falchuk puts significant resources into his campaign with an appeal to moderate independents, he could swing a close election, even if he siphons off only a small percentage of the vote. He said Baker, as a Republican, already has the tough task of challenging a Democratic nominee in a heavily blue Massachusetts.

“It will be much easier for Baker if he only has to make the case against a Democratic nominee, but if he has to fend off independent challenges, it would make that much more difficult,’’ said Ubertaccio.

Their viability as candidates will depend a good part on how well each of them withstands the expected intense examination of their business and personal backgrounds, a process that has doomed past political newcomers. In one of the best-known examples, Romney’s seemingly strong challenge to Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994 fell apart amid reports about his business investments, some of which reaped huge profits at the expense of laid-off workers.

Baker’s advisers say that their strategy is to ignore the shifting political landscape and concentrate on presenting their candidate as an experienced hand in both the public and private sectors.

“The makeup of the field is not something we’re going to focus on because it’s something we can’t control,’’ said Baker campaign spokesman Tim Buckley.

Also, Baker supporters believe both McCormick and Falchuk could draw votes away from the Democratic nominee. While McCormick, a managing partner at Saturn Partners, has donated to some Republicans — including $2,500 to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and $1,000 to Baker’s 2010 race for governor — the bulk of his financial support has gone to Democrats, including Barack Obama, the national Democratic Party, and Joseph Kennedy III. Falchuk supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Ron Kaufman, the state Republican Party’s national committeeman, said the US electorate continues to show a strong appetite for Republican governors, a sentiment he says will help restore GOP control of the governor’s office in Massachusetts.

That dynamic, along with the possibility of a bruising Democratic primary, could create a strong foundation for Baker in the fall of 2014.

Still, he conceded it is too early to understand what will unfold over the next year.

“Am I concerned? I don’t know yet, it could be a problem or could be the best thing for us. Far too early to speculate,’’ he said.

McCormick’s advisers say they recognize the challenge their candidate faces, particularly with the state’s history of shunning independents. But they, like Whalen, say the chaos and gridlock in Washington has created the perfect landscape to break that precedent.

“Running as an independent is a daunting challenge,’’ said Payne. ”But there is room in the governor’s race for a fresh face.  Jeff McCormick has the potential to rewrite the rules of running for office in Massachusetts.’’

Payne, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic political consultant, was a key architect in Senator Angus King’s career as a political independent, first as a two-term governor and now senator from Maine.

Domke, who has advised Republicans for decades in Massachusetts, said he has been drawn to McCormick because he does not think Baker can build the coalition of voters that a GOP candidate needs to win.

“People are not rallying to him and I don’t believe he has a shot,’’ Domke said, noting that Baker has yet to recover from his loss in 2010 to Governor Deval Patrick. In that campaign, Baker was criticized for the harsh image he projected.

“He is trying to reinvent himself, both he and Martha Coakley,’’ he said, referring to the attorney general whose popularity plummeted after her loss to Scott Brown in the special 2010 US Senate election. “Trying to come with a new personality, it doesn’t work.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.
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