Metro

Baker’s popularity is sky-high, but could Trump weigh him down?

Governor Charlie Baker is not expected to officially announce his reelection bid until early 2018.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Governor Charlie Baker is not expected to officially announce his reelection bid until early 2018.

Governor Charlie Baker’s popularity is off the charts, his appeal cuts across party lines, and his fund-raising prowess is unparalleled in state history.

But after the unexpected string of Democratic victories earlier this month in Virginia and around the country, even he can’t take reelection for granted.

The governor and his advisers are facing the stark reality that nothing is secure in the era of Donald Trump, even for a Republican who has, in the eyes of many Massachusetts voters, distanced himself from the president.

Advertisement

“It is still a long way off, but what you have is a historically unpopular president, that has created an anger that has bubbled up like in Virginia and will continue through 2018,” said Peter Ubertaccio, political science professor at Stonehill College.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He said the Democrats have the momentum and energy nationally but cautioned that Election Day is a year away and much can change. Another factor? No commanding Democratic opponent has emerged yet.

“The real question is if it will be a tidal wave,’’ Ubertaccio said. “The great big unknown now is how is Trump going to impact Baker.”

Baker is not expected to officially announce his reelection bid until early 2018, but a Republican operative confirmed his political advisers plan to move their operation out of the party’s offices into a Boston headquarters and put in place the initial campaign staff in the next few weeks.

Jim Conroy, the governor’s chief political adviser, points to Baker’s approval ratings, the highest among all of the country’s governors, as proof the governor is not caught up in the political turmoil that Trump’s presidency has created for moderate Republicans.

Advertisement

“Just look at the polling, which clearly shows the governor has handled the issue of the president very well,’’ Conroy said. “Massachusetts voters are well aware that Baker has distanced himself from Trump.”

A Morning Consult poll in late October said 69 percent of voters approve of Baker’s job performance.

In the Virginia governor’s race, the polls in the closing days showed a tight race, with Democrat Ralph Northam holding a slight lead. In the end, Northam won by 9 percentage points thanks to a deluge of voters — a wave the polls missed — in Democratic-leaning precincts in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Additional warnings for the state GOP were evident when voters went to the polls this month in nonpartisan municipal elections. From Malden to Beverly and Melrose, several well-entrenched Republicans were swept aside.

“The political climate is very, very volatile and the targets are Republicans,’’ said Lou DiNatale, a Democratic analyst and pollster. He said the GOP governor has to be keenly sensitive to every detail and issue that comes across his desk that normally would be minor blips but could swiftly engulf him in today’s environment.

Advertisement

“This is exactly the kind of year that could trip up Baker in what should be an easy reelection,” DiNatale said.

Favoring Baker is the lack of a strong Democratic field so far. No candidate has emerged who, like Deval Patrick in the year leading up to the 2006 race, lit the partisan fields on fire. And time is running out, Attorney General Maura Healey, the only Democrat seen as a serious threat to Baker, has consistently slammed the door on a potential candidacy.

Rob Gray, a veteran Republican strategist who worked for Baker in his failed 2010 gubernatorial race, said the weakness of the current crop of Democrats is a good antidote for Baker as he tries to keep his distance from the president and not get swept up the anti-Trump energy that runs strong in Massachusetts.

“Any Republican governor of a blue state has to be worried about the uptick in Democratic energy because of Trump, but I don’t see that as nearly enough to get the current crop of candidates close enough to be a threat to Baker,” Gray said

The latest finance reports could not be more discouraging for Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls as they watch Baker’s fund-raising juggernaut hit another record high.

Baker raised $382,000 for his state campaign committee in October, according to his filings with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. It was one of his best months since becoming governor; he now has $6.9 million stashed away.

The three Democratic candidates — Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Patrick administration fiscal chief Jay Gonzalez, and environmentalist Robert Massie — in total raised $91,058 in the same four-week period. They have a combined balance of $100,368 in their accounts.

Those numbers point to the stark realities facing the ultimate Democratic nominee, who will have to compete against governor who has built the most potent and most complex campaign finance operation seen in Massachusetts politics. Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito have set a goal of raising $30 million for the 2018 campaign.

In contrast, while Baker controls the state GOP’s fund-raising muscle, the Democrats can’t have access to their party’s funds until a nominee is chosen — which is just six weeks before next year’s general election. They are limited to raising funds only for their campaign committees, which under state law can accept only $1,000 per donor each year.

Nor can they use the leverage of the governor’s office as Baker does to amass a war chest. Without a designated nominee, they also do not have the power to create a joint fund-raising committee with the national party — an entity that is governed by federal election law and is thereby allowed to raise $44,800 a year from an individual, most of which can be sent back to the state party. The arrangement allows for the circumvention of a state law banning federal funds from state campaigns.

Baker aides may try to down play the potential dangers the governor faces in the current political climate generated from Washington, but there are recent precedents in which state elections have been buffeted by national turmoil, from Watergate to GOP moves to impeach President Clinton.

Governor Paul Cellucci, with surveys showing him with a wide lead in the weeks leading up to the 1998 election, was almost pulled down in the last days of the campaign when his poll numbers cratered in an anti-Republican surge in Massachusetts against the impeachment proceedings. Cellucci won by just over 3 percent of the vote.

Given this, the consensus at this early stage among most seasoned observers is that Baker has a financial firewall and resilience of popularity to withstand an anti-Trump surge next fall — given there is no shift in the ground under him nor events he cannot control.

“He is extraordinarily popular,’’ said Ubertaccio. “He would have to go from the most popular politician in Massachusetts to a politician barely hanging on by the time of the election.’’

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