Politics

analysis

A sense of unknowability in the governor’s race

In the hard-fought governor’s race, Republican Charlie Baker offers a message of value and Democrat Martha Coakley pins her message to voters on values.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
In the hard-fought governor’s race, Republican Charlie Baker offers a message of value and Democrat Martha Coakley pins her message to voters on values.

There is a certain confounding quality to the Massachusetts governor’s race.

The leading candidates have carved out similar positions on the issues. And even after months of campaigning, and years in the political limelight, there remains something unknowable about the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Martha Coakley can appear guarded on the campaign trail and evasive in debates. Charlie Baker, just four years after running a hard-edged gubernatorial campaign under the slogan “Had Enough?,” is now pitching himself as a compassionate centrist.

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But beneath the blurred veneer, the candidates are offering the electorate a relatively clear choice. Call it values versus value.

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Coakley, if unwilling to take a firm position on some issues, still presents as a classic Massachusetts liberal — pressing for earned sick time for working people and equal pay for women. Deep-blue values for a deep-blue state.

Baker, having returned to what supporters call his natural moderation, says he too will make the interests of working people paramount, but without raising taxes. For a state still uneasy about the economic recovery, it is the ultimate value proposition.

The clash is, in some respects, a battle of basic Massachusetts political archetypes: the progressive, Irish Democrat promising an activist approach, versus the moderate, Yankee Republican promising spending restraint and superior management.

But the candidates are not exactly playing to type. Coakley has none of the back-slapping panache of, say, Edward M. Kennedy. Baker’s campaign tears would surely make Leverett Saltonstall blanch. And with polls showing a tight race, it is clear that both candidates have struggled to complete the sale.

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Start with Coakley.

Any appeal to voters’ values is, at bottom, an emotional one. And observers say the state’s attorney general has not mustered the sort of passion so natural to the big-name Democrats who have endorsed her in recent weeks.

“Compare her to Bill Clinton or Deval Patrick,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “She’s not nearly as good at communicating to people that she feels their pain.”

Supporters, though, are hoping Coakley’s record will speak with an eloquence that the candidate does not.

As attorney general, she filed an early challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, helped push a tough domestic violence bill through the state Legislature, and emerged as a national leader on the foreclosure crisis. At the Middlesex district attorney’s office before that she made a name handling high-profile child abuse cases.

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Those exploits have featured prominently in her television advertisements and stump speeches — right up to the end.

At Cobblestones, a dimly lit pub in Lowell where Coakley greeted supporters Saturday, she said “voters are focused on who is the candidate who is going to fight for me.”

“Who is going to represent my interests?” she said. “Who’s going to stand up for me, like I have, fighting Wall Street and challenging the federal government on the Defense of Marriage Act?”

Coakley has suggested her opponent does not share those values.

In a recent speech at Clark University in Worcester, she touted her support for a ballot measure that would guarantee sick time and said “my Republican opponent and his CEO friends — I don’t think they worry about earned sick time.”

But if Coakley has sought to portray him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, Baker has countered with a dewy-eyed compassion offensive.

It has been a bit clumsy at times. After telling a tearful tale of a struggling fisherman and his two sons in a debate last week, he admitted that the story was five years old and very likely wrong on some details.

And in an earlier head-to-head with Coakley, he described a night in Dorchester as if it had been an expedition to a foreign land. “We have got to embed ourselves as human beings in these communities,” he said, “so that people understand that not only do we care about them, but we get where they’re coming from.”

But on the whole, campaign watchers say, Baker has managed to project a genuine empathy even as he has offered something tougher to his conservative base: opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and a high-profile call for welfare reform.

“He’s walked that edge very, very successfully,” said Jim Spencer, a Boston-based Democratic political consultant who has advised Deval Patrick and gubernatorial candidates across the nation.

Public opinion polling suggests as much. Asked which candidate “cares about people like me,” 34 percent chose Baker and 33 percent picked Coakley in a Boston Globe survey conducted October 19 to 21.

Baker has also left little room between himself and his opponent on the issues.

Four years after questioning the science of climate change, he now acknowledges that humans are contributing to the warming of the planet. He has leavened his opposition to the sick time ballot question with a more modest proposal that would apply to fewer, larger businesses. And while his opponent says she wants to get to “universal preschool” eventually, Baker is calling for “targeted” investmentsat the most struggling schools.

That call speaks not only to Baker’s careful navigation of the state’s liberal politics, but to his restrained approach to governance.

The research on preschools’ effectiveness, after all, is mixed.

Baker served as budget chief for former governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci in the 1990s. As chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, he brought the insurer back from the brink of financial ruin.

Polls of Massachusetts voters suggest the public is putting a premium on management expertise this election cycle. A trend Meredith Warren, a GOP political consultant, chalks up to a series of administrative failures in state government — from the botched medical marijuana rollout, to troubles with the state’s health care website, to the struggles of the Department of Children and Families.

“That’s the only news coming out of Beacon Hill right now, is stories of mismanagement,” she said.

But if voters give Baker high marks for his management skills in public opinion polls, Warren added, they may not have fully grasped the implications of the low-taxes regime the GOP candidate proposes.

“I’m not so sure it’s sunk in with people that the way you keep down taxes is by cutting,” she said.

There could be some backlash, she suggested, once a Governor Baker gets to work.

Coakley is trying to stir that backlash now, hammering the idea that Baker’s pursuit of value, in previous jobs, has compromised the state’s values.

In the debates, she’s reminded voters that when he served in the Weld administration, Baker’s shake-up of the state’s mental health system cut some 800 state workers and prompted sharp criticism about a decline in services (supporters say the overhaul pulled patients out of decrepit state hospitals and shifted them into preferable community settings).

And during the Harvard Pilgrim turnaround, Coakley says, Baker slashed jobs and raised premiums while collecting a $1.7 million salary. “You made choices that I wouldn’t have made,” she said in a debate last week. “You look at the bottom line and don’t see people.”

Baker said he had to make some of the toughest choices of his career at Harvard Pilgrim. He said he saved thousands of jobs by rescuing the company.

And as late as Saturday, he was promising to bring a similar sensibility to state government.

During the course of the campaign, he said in Shrewsbury, voters “got a chance to look at . . . our vision for Massachusetts and what we think we can do to tighten the belt on Beacon Hill and bring reform to state government, and they like that and they’re inspired by it.”

With just a couple of days until the election, the polls suggest Baker’s value proposition is running just ahead of Coakley’s values pitch. But the race, it appears, is tight.

That may say something about the charisma-challenged candidates’ difficulty connecting with voters. But, operatives argue, it also says something about an electorate that is not entirely sure what it wants.

There is a lingering unease about the economy. Polls show the public likes departing Governor Deval Patrick personally, but has a mixed view of his legacy. And the final Globe survey on the gubernatorial race shows voters split right down the middle on whether the state is on the “right track” or “wrong track.”

Where to go from here? Values or value? Voters have until Tuesday to figure it out.

Akilah Johnson and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com.