If Republican Charlie Baker erases Martha Coakley’s lead in the polls and becomes the next governor, he may have Democrat Steve Grossman to thank for it.
Not because Grossman has so sorely tested Coakley in the Democratic primary, where she has consistently enjoyed a strong, and sometimes whopping, lead. But because Grossman supporters are signaling they would more likely back Baker than Coakley in November.
In a weekly Globe poll, voters planning to side with Grossman, the state treasurer, in the Sept. 9 primary have consistently said, by a margin of more than 10 percentage points, that they would vote for Baker if their preferred Democrat did not survive the primary. And, among likely Democratic primary voters undecided in a Baker-Coakley matchup, Baker, the venture capitalist and former health care executive, has both a higher favorability rating and lower name recognition — indicating that he has more room to improve among those voters.
“These are probably moderate, pro-business Democrats, and they’re probably concerned about Coakley as governor,” said Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts political science professor. “They weren’t impressed with her last campaign, they’re not impressed with her this campaign. And they feel comfortable with Baker; they see him as a good manager.”
Of course, that lack of a firm profile in the minds of voters also leaves Baker susceptible to being defined negatively — a preview of which Baker got last week, when a super PAC backed by unions and the Democratic Governors Association purchased more than $3.1 million worth of television time. The ads are expected to raise questions about Baker’s business record.
And, as Coakley campaign strategists note, she has already been hit with $475,000 in negative advertising from a pro-Grossman super PAC, before her own campaign has begun to advertise assertively. Coakley’s team says it is confident that, once the passions of an occasionally embittered primary cool, Democrats will return to their base camp.
But Baker, who is heavily favored over Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher in the Republican primary, has been assiduously courting Democratic activists, trying to soften both his image and his policy stances from his failed 2010 run against Governor Deval Patrick when, by Baker’s own admission, he came off as too strident.
Baker strategists figure that, to win, they would need at least 20 percent of Democrats to pull the lever for the other party. That’s roughly the same benchmark set by former US senator Scott Brown’s campaign in 2012, when he ran against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. But Brown was running concurrently with a presidential election, which garners significantly higher turnout.
Among independents — the vast voter universe in between the two parties that comprises the majority of the state’s electorate — Baker steadily collects about three in five voters, according to the poll. Coakley, the attorney general, gets about one in three.
This year, with polls showing Republican voters more enthusiastic than Democrats about the gubernatorial election, Baker is overtly trying to reach across the aisle. Of Baker’s roughly 17,000 donors, campaign officials estimated that some 1,500, about 9 percent, have been Democrats.
And abiding doubts among Democrats about their candidate field are a boon to Baker’s efforts. Baker consistently lures more Democratic voters than Coakley does Republicans in a head-to-head matchup.
“We’re just focused on the primary right now,” Coakley adviser Doug Rubin said. “If we’re lucky enough to earn the vote, we’ll turn our attention to the general.”
One Democrat who has already gone over the fence is John Connors. He owns a Waltham advertising agency, and had donated exclusively to Democrats on the state level, including to Patrick in 2009. But he hosted a Baker fund-raiser this summer at the UMass Club that he said netted $20,000, and plans to host another next month.
“I like the guy,” said Connors, whose father, Jack, is the longtime Boston advertising and health care magnate and a major Obama fund-raiser. “I like the fiscal side of him, and I like the social side of him. If you put those two together, as a business guy.”
Connors said his partisan fence-jumping had drawn “eye rolls” from some of his friends, but said he liked Baker’s plan for statewide economic improvement, instead of just inside Route 128. “This was the rational side of me more than the emotional side. Strategically, I think he’s just really smart about how to build the economy,” Connors said.
Former North Adams mayor John Barrett squired then-District Attorney Coakley around the state to meet with other mayors in 2006, during her first campaign for attorney general. Barrett, who later had a falling out with Coakley after she backed his political rival and who has backed Republicans before, initially expected to throw in this year with Grossman.
“Basically, I was leaning toward Grossman at the beginning of this and I just stepped back and I just said, ‘Jesus, I go back with Charlie Baker some 20 years’,” Barrett said, praising Baker’s work as a top aide in the 1990s Weld and Cellucci administrations.
He added, “I think there are a lot of other Democrats out there, too, who are looking at it that way, and I think they’ll come in after the primary.”
Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, a former legislator, supports Grossman, but did not have a cross word for Baker or his running mate, former state representative Karyn Polito.
“I served with Karyn. I’ve worked with Charlie. Charlie performed well here four years ago. I think the people of Braintree are really focused on results. We have a pragmatic attitude toward government,” said Sullivan, whose town voted for Baker over Patrick four years ago by nine percentage points. “Rigid ideology is not going to get you too far.”
Asked whom he would back if Coakley wins the primary, Sullivan was not ready to concede anything and reiterated his support for Grossman.
Of course, Baker’s leftward shift poses significant perils on his right flank, where Fisher has inflicted some headaches and where unenrolled candidate Jeffrey S. McCormick has been nibbling. (McCormick picks up around 10 percent of the Grossman vote if Coakley secures the nomination, according to the Globe poll, while another unenrolled candidate, Evan Falchuk, receives only a handful.) Baker supports the state’s new abortion clinic buffer zone law, backed Patrick’s embrace of the chance to shelter immigrant minors clustered on the US-Mexico border, and spoke in favor of stricter gun-control legislation.
None of those positions enhanced his already-shaky appeal to the GOP right wing. But they are clear components of Baker’s strategy to project a more liberal image than he did when he ran against Patrick.
Jon Whitesell, a Northbridge conservative activist, ticked through a laundry list of Baker apostasies against the party’sconservative base, including resistance to a no-new-tax pledge and support for raising the minimum wage.
“Is that a Democrat or a Republican? He’s running as a full-spectrum Democrat,” said Whitesell.
After backing both Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election and Gabriel Gomez in last year’s Senate election, two candidates who gave conservatives heartburn, Whitesell said he had “had enough.”
“I can take an imperfect candidate like a Romney or a Gomez, but you’re giving me nothing,” he said. “Baker’s running as a Democrat — why bother?”
During a WBZ-TV roundtable on Friday, Fisher, the Tea Party candidate, sought to underscore the contrast between himself and Baker, mocking the Republican front-runner as Patrick’s “identical twin.”
Democratic candidates, too, have dealt with the tug of their base, which dominates the caucuses and convention, but is more liberal than the party mainstream. Coakley, with a comfortable lead in the primary polls, has worked to avoid the type of broad leftward stride that could knock her off balance for November. Still, she has shaded left on immigration issues.
“I suspect that now that she sees the nomination being more open to her, she’ll start toning down her liberal rhetoric,” said La Raja, the UMass professor.
Of the party’s liberal activists, La Raja said, “They’re opening up space for someone like Baker to pick off some of these moderate Democrats who might not be so liberal. The Democratic nominees have opened themselves up to this. We’ll see if Baker is a good enough politician to gain more of that.”