Charlie Baker has clearly mastered the first law of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.
Under biting attack from Democrats, the Republican gubernatorial candidate quickly backed away Thursday from remarks he made a day earlier that downplayed the significance of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on insurance coverage for contraceptives.
In a statement, Baker said he was “deeply concerned” that when he said Wednesday that his personal view of the ruling “doesn’t matter,” he may have led voters to believe that he does not support women’s access to birth control coverage. And he said he misspoke when he said the ruling would not affect women in Massachusetts.
Baker’s swift turnaround underscored the enduring power of volatile social issues to trip up Republicans in Massachusetts, a traditionally liberal state where the GOP seeks to minimize its differences with Democrats on abortion and gay rights.
“He had to do sort of a mea culpa and show that he is actually in step with Massachusetts thought,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a political analyst and professor of communications at Boston University.
The “doesn’t matter” contretemps was the first opportunity Democrats have had to use a social issue against Baker in this race, and the party seemed determined to exploit it, with incensed statements from all three gubernatorial candidates, a fund-
raising plea, and a conference call with a congresswoman and a former candidate.
Many of those statements took Baker’s remarks out of context. But Baker’s decision not to quibble and to instead retreat, showed his determination not to let social issues take over the race and distract from his priorities: fiscal and management policy.
Nevertheless, “the Democrats are going to be like a dog with a bone on this,” Berkovitz said.
The dustup began Wednesday when Baker was asked about the court’s ruling that family-owned businesses are not required to provide birth control coverage to their employees if it conflicts with the business owners’ religious beliefs.
Questioned about his view of the decision, Baker told reporters: “It doesn’t matter. What I care about is Massachusetts. and, for Massachusetts, it doesn’t change a thing, which is great.”
That was enough to set off a barrage of attacks from Democrats who accused Baker of being insensitive to women’s issues.
Baker lost the women’s vote by 24 percent when he ran for governor in 2010, and both parties believe women voters will be crucial in deciding the winner this November.
“Charlie Baker’s attitude that failing to provide contraceptive coverage doesn’t matter proves that he is out of touch with the issues that affect voters, most especially women voters,” Martha Coakley said in a press release that had the subject line: “Dear Charlie: It does matter.”
Coakley followed up with a fund-raising e-mail to supporters that blasted Baker’s remarks. “Stand with me and tell Charlie Baker — this matters,” Coakley wrote in that e-mail.
In his own statement, Steve Grossman said Baker “owes women across the country an apology and an explanation for his insensitive, out-of-touch comments.” And Don Berwick said in a statement that Baker’s remarks show “he completely misunderstands the seriousness of this and other recent attacks on women’s health.”
Piling on, the state Democratic Party organized a conference call with US Representative Katherine Clark and former gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem, who leveled their own accusations.
“The women of the Commonwealth realize that bosses shouldn’t make their personal health care decisions,” she said. “It’s going to matter to them in the voting booth in November.”
Within minutes, Baker had released a statement effectively disavowing his remarks on Wednesday.
“I have always, and will as governor, support women’s right to access comprehensive health care, and I am glad that Massachusetts has for more than a decade required insurers to provide contraceptive coverage,” Baker said. “This issue is immensely important to me, which is why I am deeply concerned that my statement yesterday may have led some to believe otherwise. I will strive to make my lifelong commitment to women’s health crystal clear.”
Baker, a former health insurance executive and one-time state secretary of health and human services, also said he was wrong to suggest that the ruling would not affect Massachusetts.
“It is true that some segment of employers, who self-insure, have been exempt from the state’s mandate but are now subject to a contraceptive coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act,” he said Thursday.
“I misspoke yesterday because it is possible, given the Hobby Lobby decision, that a small segment of employers could qualify for the narrow exemption to the mandate that the Supreme Court deemed permissible.”
Baker added that, as governor, he would work to ensure that Massachusetts employers continue to offer comprehensive health insurance coverage, including contraception, to their employees.
“Should any woman not be able to access contraceptive coverage through her employer, my administration will make it available through the Department of Public Health,” he said.
“I also hope Governor Patrick and our lawmakers act quickly to close this gap so that no woman can be denied coverage.”
Baker’s campaign, clearly hoping to put the matter to rest, said the candidate would have no further comment.