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Casino decision could impact political landscape

An artist rendering shows part of a proposed casino complex in Springfield.

MGM RESORTS INTERNATIONAL

An artist rendering shows part of a proposed casino complex in Springfield.

When the state’s highest court this week cleared the way for voters to decide the fate of casinos, the Massachusetts political world scrambled to find some clarity about what impact it would have on the 2014 campaign.

The possibilities are intriguing. A boost for Don Berwick? A setback for other ballot questions? And will any other campaign have a chance of gaining the public’s attention now that the battle over slots has begun?

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Here are some theories that are making the rounds in savvy political circles:

Attorney General Martha Coakley, front-runner in the gubernatorial polls, takes an obvious hit for making a legal decision on the casino question — ruling it ineligible for the ballot — that was soundly rejected in a unanimous decision by the Supreme Judicial Court. It plays into critics’ questions about her competency. But Coakley can also use it to her advantage — driving home to organized labor and big casino proponents that she is their strongest ally among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

Moving too far in that direction however could be dicey for Coakley, too, threatening to alienate another important building block for her in a possible general election campaign, college-educated women. They are far less supportive of casinos than the general voting population. (Republican Charlie Baker’s position of advocating just one casino could be more attractive to that group.)

The casino debate creates a struggle for gubernatorial nominees to break through the cacophony and all but drown out the battles for the other statewide offices.

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Berwick, the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is flat out against legalized gambling, could leverage that position to reinforce his progressive credentials, boost his fund-raising, and also gain some attention for him among the blocs of not-so-liberal anticasino voters. Liberal activists, already drawn to his support for a single-payer health system, are also a big bloc in the Democratic primary. Stuck in single digits in recent polls of Democratic primary voters and lagging in resources, Berwick faces an uphill battle but has wasted no time in challenging his two Democratic rivals to a debate on the issue.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman, who has tepidly said he would vote against the referendum, could try to maneuver to the other side and use the issue against Coakley in the primary. But it would be delicate surgery. He could get caught trying to play both sides — not a good image for a politician.

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The downside for Baker, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, is that the passions for the casino issue, both pro and con, should boost turnout in Democratic communities — Boston, Springfield, Revere, and Everett. As a Republican nominee in 2010, he saw first-hand how the huge margins that Deval Patrick built up in those areas gave the governor his reelection. Baker, an opponent of casinos in his 2010 run for governor, now says he has misgivings about the casino law, but is ready to accept one gambling facility for the state. That could be the one already licensed in Springfield, according to a top adviser.

Baker still faces a primary opponent, Mark Fisher, who is a critic of legalizing casino gambling and will vote to repeal the law. But it is not clear that he is in a position to pressure Baker in the GOP contest. Fisher’s candidacy has yet to gain much traction. In fact, earlier this month, his committee made a partial repayment — $30,000 — of his loans to the campaign. That is not a sign of a candidate who is in for the long haul. It left his account with a paltry balance of $4,264. Baker has over $881,000. Fisher insists he still plans to press Baker on issues like casinos, convinced he can pull off a Tea Party upset much like the one that dumped US House majority leader Eric Cantor earlier this month. Fisher said that by Monday he will put $20,000 back into his account.

In the Democratic primary for attorney general, Maura Healey, a former assistant attorney general under Coakley, has drawn a sharp distinction between herself and her opponent, former state senator Warren Tolman, over the issue of casinos. She is voting for the repeal petition (setting herself apart from her former boss) and constantly points to Tolman’s former financial interest in an online gaming company and his support of casinos. She has already made inroads among the liberal enclaves and this issue will give that effort a boost. But Tolman also has strong ties with the progressive wing of the party, many of whom may oppose gambling but won’t hold it against him. He will also get money and support from the pro-casino labor unions, including the state AFL-CIO, which has endorsed him.

The heavily funded casino debate will add to an already bulging menu of political television advertising this fall. Available air time was a huge issue even before the court put the casino on the ballot. Federal races, which include the New Hampshire US Senate race and Republican Richard Tisei’s challenge to US Representative John Tierney, have priority and are guaranteed the lowest rate. That will bump up the prices for all of the statewide candidates and referendum initiatives.

It also means that the party nominees for governor will struggle all the more to break through the cacophony of ads that is blasting at voters. And it will all but drown out the battles for the other statewide offices.

A half-dozen ballot questions, ranging from expanding the bottle depository bill to rolling back the automatic gas tax hikes, will be in play in next fall’s election.

But the casino issue is sure to draw the most attention — and probably the most money.

“Nobody will be discussing the bottle bill expansion around the water cooler,’’ said Joseph Ricca, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The casino issue is another matter.”

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

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