LOWELL — The first major stop Charlie Baker made after he announced last year that he was running for governor was in this onetime mill city.
The Republican has been back for public campaign events seven times since then, discussing welfare reform, holding a small business roundtable, and schmoozing with voters at the Lowell Folk Festival last month. He’s set to return Saturday for the city’s Southeast Asian Water Festival.
All the attention is no coincidence.
The city of about 110,000 — and the surrounding Merrimack Valley — is a battleground filled with the kind of conservative Democrats and independent voters that Baker needs to win in November, analysts say.
The Merrimack Valley is “much more of a blue-collar Democrat type of vote that can definitely go to Republicans,” said Steven C. Panagiotakos, a former Democratic state senator from Lowell. “You combine that with a heavy percentage of unenrolled voters . . . and it makes for a fertile ground for a Republican.”
Lowell, itself, he said, is not quite as conservative as some of the surrounding areas and usually goes Democratic in a presidential year, but “in a gubernatorial year, there’s a smaller turnout and the Republican can usually keep it pretty close here.”
Republican Scott Brown won Lowell in his upset January 2010 US Senate victory. Baker lost the city by more than 8 percentage points when he came up short against Governor Deval Patrick that November. When Elizabeth Warren unseated Brown in 2012, she took Lowell by a comfortable margin.
The city’s battleground nature is reflected in Baker’s eight public campaign visits there since launching his campaign. By way of comparison, his campaign says Baker has had only three public campaign appearances in Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, which tends to vote by large margins for Democratic candidates.
Democrats running for governor have also put time and effort into Lowell and the surrounding region, according compilations of campaign events put together by their campaigns.
Treasurer Steven Grossman has made at least seven public campaign appearances in Lowell since he kicked off his bid for governor, while former federal health care official Donald M. Berwick has held five Lowell events during his campaign, including one on Tuesday.
During her gubernatorial bid, Attorney General Martha Coakley, leading the primary race in public opinion polls, has made seven public campaign visits to Lowell, a city that probably already is familiar with her from her time as the Middlesex district attorney.
“The greater Lowell area has been a strong region for Republican candidates for governor,” said Massachusetts Republican strategist Jason Kauppi, a former reporter with The Sun of Lowell. “But you also have Coakley, who is a former D.A. up there and has prosecuted some very high-profile cases in that area and is well-known.”
Boston Globe polling has found the hypothetical gubernatorial race between Coakley and Baker to be within the margin of error among likely voters in the Merrimack Valley broadly defined — from Ayer to Carlisle to Haverhill. In a general election matchup including independent candidates, Baker takes 31 percent to Coakley’s 36 percent in the region, according to combined polling data from recent months, which carries a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points.
So it was no surprise that Baker, seen as the front-runner for the GOP nomination this year, was shaking hands at the Lowell Folk Festival last month.
He chased after a man wearing a Dropkick Murphys T-shirt, and let it be known that the group is one of his very favorite bands. He devoured a cup of chocolate chip ice cream, after talking with the wife of a local ice cream shop owner. And, exuberantly greeting a few men cooking skewers of meat, Baker got his own leg caught on temporary orange fencing and nearly tumbled into a hot grill.
Some in the crowd were already Baker supporters.
The man wearing the Dropkick Murphys T-shirt, Cameron Rogers, 57, of Haverhill, and his wife, Mary Ellen Rogers, 56, both said they planned to vote for the Republican.
“He’s right on the economic issues, he’s right on the social issues,” she said, explaining she likes Baker’s focus on education and his emphasis on the state being “smarter about how we pay for things.”
Caroline Howard, wife of the owner of Heritage Farm Ice Cream & Restaurant, was working at the business’s tent at the festival. After chatting with Baker, she told a reporter she was supporting the candidate.
“We just think being business owners, small business owners, we’d like to see more balance in that direction,” she said, adding that she thought Baker would look out for shops like Heritage Farm.
Baker, who has emphasized an upbeat persona during campaign appearances, was bright and cheery in his interactions with people at the festival.
He procured a kielbasa sandwich from one of the ethnic food vendors there and was mid-bite as a Lowell police officer greeted him.
“How you doin’?” the officer asked, as fiddle music lilted through the air.
“I’m having a kielbasa sandwich,” Baker replied. “I’m doing great!”
With November a long way away, a number of attendees said they were still mulling the governor’s race, which includes the three Democrats, Baker and Republican businessman Mark R. Fisher, and three independent candidates.
“I wouldn’t want to disrupt you guys, but Charlie Baker, nice to meet you,” Baker said, shaking the hand of Chris Loucraft, 49 of Lowell, who was sitting at Athenian Corner Restaurant with two other men.
Loucraft, who considers himself an independent, thought for a moment when asked about the race.
Then, Loucraft replied, he had not yet made up his mind.