With the mask mandate lifting and Massachusetts getting back to business as usual, do you think Governor Charlie Baker is running for reelection?
“Absolutely. Don’t you?” said Republican state Representative Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, via email.
Anyone who remembers a long ago but still infamous Boston Herald headline — “White Will Run” — avoids predictions like that. As it turned out, Boston Mayor Kevin White did not seek a fifth term, despite the Herald’s front-page “exclusive” report that he would. But political speculation is hard to resist. So yes, I do think Baker will run for reelection. OK, make that probably.
Now that there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Baker has to be thinking about his legacy. If he leaves office after two terms, what exactly did he stand for? Before COVID-19, he was known for finding safe middle ground, not for breaking revolutionary, new ground. With COVID-19, his administration’s energy and resources have been rightly directed at minimizing the impact on housing, transportation, and education and supporting the economic recovery.
For awhile, Baker looked understandably tired. Facing a pandemic, along with critics from the left and right — including those who marched regularly on his Swampscott home — can’t be fun. Meanwhile, after the initial bungling of the state’s vaccine roll-out, which he said set his hair “on fire,” Baker’s famous Teflon finally seemed to be melting.
When one poll showed his favorability down to 52 percent, Democrats started to pounce. Attorney General Maura Healey, who is seen as a likely challenger, started making campaign-like stops in places like Worcester and Brockton. Healey also started separating herself from Baker on pandemic-related issues. During this week’s appearance on Boston Public Radio, the AG reiterated her call for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for public employees. Forced to contend with conservative critics squawking about personal liberty, Baker is resisting the idea of mandatory vaccines. At a Tuesday press conference, he said he would leave it up to businesses and other organizations to decide on vaccination requirements, and would not require them for state employees in the executive branch.
In the latest polling, Baker’s approval rating is 67 percent overall and 71 percent for his handling of the pandemic. He remains popular, especially with Democrats and unenrolled voters, despite the rocky vaccine roll-out; the COVID-19 deaths of 77 veterans at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home; ongoing scandals involving the State Police; MBTA service cutbacks; and bureaucratic breakdowns in assorted state agencies.
His big problem is with fellow Republicans, who consider him a “Republican In Name Only” or “RINO” and not just because of his renouncement of Donald Trump. The mask mandate and business lockdowns enforced by Baker drew harsh reviews from right-wing critics. Geoff Diehl, a Trump loyalist and former Republican state representative from Whitman, is reportedly considering a run for governor. While Senator Elizabeth Warren beat Diehl, 60-40, in their 2018 Senate race, Republican primary voters could rally behind Diehl. Of course, if that happened, the conventional wisdom is that virtually any Democrat would beat Diehl in a general election.
But if Baker is the Republican nominee, he would still be very hard to beat.
Against that backdrop, the Massachusetts political world is trying to figure out Baker’s next move. “It’s impossible to discern right now,” said Wilnelia Rivera, an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing. Baker’s relatively sluggish fundraising was taken as a signal that he isn’t gearing up for another campaign. But people who know him say Baker was rightly concentrating on the public health crisis, not personal politics. In January, Jim Conroy, Baker’s political adviser, told the Herald the governor “hasn’t ruled out a third term.” Asked for an update, Conroy said, via email, “That is still the case.”
Yet there’s still room for doubt. After his initial enthusiasm about the probability of a Baker run, Dooley sent a follow-up email which said, “I think, or should I say hope, that Charlie will run for reelection as we need a steady hand at the helm to get the Commonwealth back on track as we move past this crisis.” As the pandemic eases, added Dooley, “it gives him the ability to step back, take a breath, and decide if being governor is something he still has the energy and the passion for.”
With the mask mandate lifted, maybe it will be easier to read Baker’s face — and intentions.