As a lonely Republican campaigning in a state loaded with Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, Charlie Baker faces many challenges in his quest to become the next governor of Massachusetts.
An early one unfolded this week: how to avoid political death by association with his national party.
After Republican lawmakers trying to derail Obamacare triggered a partial government shutdown, Baker issued a statement decrying a lack of leadership in both parties. He said he doesn’t believe in shutting down the government as a way to address policy disagreements.
He didn’t answer directly when asked if he supports efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Instead, he said he has concerns about its impact on the state’s health care law.
“The ACA is going to fundamentally change many of components of the Massachusetts law — and in many cases, not for the better,” said Baker. “We’re seven years ahead of the rest of the nation, and we should be allowed to continue down the path we are on, without making changes that hurt our small businesses and have an adverse effect on our economy.”
As Baker, a former health care executive, points out, Beacon Hill Democrats and Republicans supported legislation requiring the governor to request waivers from assorted Obamacare regulations and rules. Anywhere but Massachusetts, Baker would be a “Republican in Name Only.’’ Here, he faces Democrats who know how to turn Republican moderates into potential pawns of the political right.
Scott Brown won a special Senate election as a different kind of Republican. But his efforts to cast himself as an independent “Scott Brown Republican” ran up against a counter-effort by Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren to paint him as a guaranteed vote for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the national Republican agenda. Political inexperience hurt Republican Gabriel Gomez, who lost last June’s special Senate election to Democrat Ed Markey — but so did his party’s resistance to gun control.
For Massachusetts Republicans, the unpopularity of the GOP brand in a world of President Obama-loving voters “is a real problem,” said Republican Joe Malone, a former state treasurer and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.
Only 11 percent of Massachusetts voters are registered Republicans. “The other 89 percent are looking at the Republican brand, and the visceral reaction to it is negative. It’s hard to get over that,” said Malone.
Malone doesn’t think Massachusetts voters see much difference between a Massachusetts Republican running for Congress and one running for governor. “Anybody who is favorable to Obama is inclined to vote Democratic,” he said.
Baker disagrees. “I think voters will make their decision next November based on my vision for the future of Massachusetts and the policy ideas I put forth. When you are the governor, it is a caucus of one. I think people get that.”
Democratic consultant Joe Baerlein agrees with Baker “I don’t think anyone will mistake Charlie Baker for Ted Cruz,” said Baerlein, referring to the Republican senator from Texas who led the charge to defund Obamacare.
The national Republican party is “an albatross when you’re running for federal office,” said Baerlein. “But at the end of the day, we have a history of electing Republican governors.” Of course, the last one was Mitt Romney, who was elected as a moderate Republican governor and then irritated Bay State voters by running to the right as a presidential candidate.
To Baker’s advantage, the 2014 election won’t feature Governor Deval Patrick. It also offers voters a chance to ponder the consequences of eight years of Beacon Hill under total Democratic control. But he still must contend with the so-called “Obama coalition” of African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and younger voters who reliably back Democrats.
Massachusetts Republicans who think about running must also think about how to distance themselves from the national party. Gomez did it recently, stating in a Globe opinion piece that he was wrong to oppose an assault weapons ban — perhaps a move to position himself for a run as lieutenant governor on the Baker ticket?
They can run, but Massachusetts Democrats won’t let Gomez or Baker hide.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.