Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has enjoyed persistent popularity, controls one of the most muscular fund-raising operations in the state, and has no formidable Democratic opponent on the horizon, should be entering his third year in a commanding position for reelection.
But Baker’s path to winning a second term next year will not necessarily be easy. In fact, he faces some serious hurdles.
The state’s Democratic electorate and the potential for contentious fiscal issues overtaking Beacon Hill could make Baker’s race a real battle. So could a series of controversial 2018 ballot issues that would probably draw liberal voters to the polls.
But perhaps most hazardous are the uncertainties created by the election of Donald Trump, a deeply unpopular presidential candidate among Massachusetts voters. Baker didn’t support Trump in the presidential election, but he will need to cultivate the Trump administration for help on a host of state issues.
“Normally national politics doesn’t influence the governor’s race, but we are in uncharted territory with this new presidency,’’ said Peter N. Ubertaccio, associate political science professor at Stonehill College.
“There is no good model of how this will play out,’’ he said, of Baker’s reelection chances. “Trump is breaking all the rules.”
The stunning outcome of the presidential election has shaken the confidence of experienced observers, both Democrats and Republicans, as they try to understand what lies ahead for Baker.
“I find it to hard to think anyone can beat Charlie Baker,’’ said Joe Malone, the former Republican state treasurer who left the GOP and is now an independent. “But this coming year will tell us a lot.”
By most traditional measures, Baker is in an extremely enviable position as the 2017-18 election cycle kicks off.
The state’s economy is strong, major companies are moving here, and the unemployment rate is below 3 percent.
Meanwhile, the public sees a Republican governor working constructively with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, a dynamic that appeals to much of the electorate.
While he won the 2014 gubernatorial race by the slimmest majority in decades, Baker has since used his position to craft a likable image. He eschews national ambitions, tackles wonky problems, and talks fluently about complicated policy matters.
On the political side, Baker has taken control of a once-moribund state Republican Party and used it to create a formidable operation that dwarfs anything that came before it. He has built up $4.6 million in his state campaign account and reached out to constituencies that have long been regarded by GOP leaders as inaccessible, including social service activists and minority communities.
Most important, through Baker’s control of the GOP apparatus, his political team has exploited federal fund-raising laws, sidestepping the state’s much stricter campaign finance regulations that limit individual donations to a candidate to $1,000 a year.
For example, Baker has raised millions of dollars through a joint fund-raising committee with the national party, a committee that allows individual contributions of up to $43,400 a year. He has also raised millions — mostly large corporate donations that are banned under state law — for the Republican Governors Association, much of which washes back to Massachusetts.
Baker has also benefited from dark money — unlimited donations from donors whose names are not made public — given to nonprofits such as Strong Economy for Growth, a group run by his supporters that backed his ballot initiative to expand charter schools.
But Baker is also running for reelection in a country and a state where politics has been turned on its head by Trump’s election, an expansion of social media, and the emergence of a bitterly polarized electorate.
An implosion by Trump and the GOP in Washington could create an even more poisoned political drama and threaten to take down even the party’s moderates like Baker. In Massachusetts, the Democratic base is seething over Trump’s victory and is ready to strike back, with Baker perhaps part of the collateral damage. Already, in a series of tweets and an online petition, the Massachusetts Democratic Party has called on Baker to denounce a string of top Trump advisers and Cabinet picks — a calculated campaign to link the governor to the president.
Dan Payne, a Democratic analyst, believes Trump could create enough backlash in Washington that it spills into Massachusetts, where the Republican brand is always tenuous.
“Trump, who is the most unpredictable and unstable Republican in America, could be a curse or even worse,’’ he said. “There’s no telling what he will do for Republicans around the country.”
Meanwhile at the State House, with tax revenue running flat and billions of dollars of federal funds on the line, the cooperation between Baker and the Legislature — a critical piece for the governor’s appeal to voters — could unravel.
Baker, who has courted moderates and even liberal Democrats, could draw a primary fight from the GOP’s conservative wing, a battle most think he could win but that could force him to take unpopular right-leaning positions.
And, looking forward to the 2018 ballot, Baker will be running in a fall campaign in which Senator Elizabeth Warren will probably draw out Democratic voters in huge numbers. Warren announced last week that she intends to seek reelection. Complicating Baker’s strategy could well be the presence on his GOP ticket of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a Trump fan with a similar penchant for controversial statements.
“The biggest challenge for Charlie Baker is whether he can keep the Trump voters happy without alienating enough Hillary Clinton voters to win,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic analyst. “That is the high-wire act he has to confront in the next two years.’’
She also noted that Trump’s election has created such a divisive electorate that candidates have far less ability to maneuver. “The days of going to the right to avoid a primary fight within his party and going back to middle in the general is over,” Marsh said.
While Baker seems to have avoided any serious political fallout from the defeat of a charter school expansion measure and his failure to block a petition legalizing marijuana, he may hit serious headwinds in 2018 from several ballot questions. One would raise the state income tax on the wealthy. The fight — and potentially other questions dealing with a minimum wage hike and the repeal of a transgender accommodations law Baker signed — could draw a surge of Democratic voters to the polls.
Democrats, however, may not have a candidate with the resources and stature needed to mount the sort of challenge that would beat Baker. Only Attorney General Maura Healey seems to fit that profile at this early stage. She has publicly signaled she is not interested, but her supporters say she is getting strong advice to keep her options open.
Other Democrats looking at a run — Mayor Setti Warren of Newton, former state senator Dan Wolf, former Deval Patrick aide Jay Gonzalez, and Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville — would probably face a tougher fight.
For its part, Baker’s team is convinced that the winning strategy is to stick to the formula that has worked for him over the past two years.
“The governor will continue to be judged on his effort to lead an efficient, effective, and bipartisan state government — including holding the line on taxes, creating jobs, and fixing broken agencies like the MBTA and Department of Children and Families, rather than on national political events beyond his control,” said Jim Conroy, a Baker adviser. “The evidence is clear that on all these measures he is succeeding, and the public is responding.”Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.