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A tough Beacon Hill to climb

For the Democrats who hope to be governor, the biggest challenge is the man they hope to replace.

Governor Charlie Baker's broad appeal makes him a formidable opponent.
Governor Charlie Baker's broad appeal makes him a formidable opponent.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Would the state that loves Republican Governor Charlie Baker to bits ever replace him with a progressive firebrand like Sonia Chang-Díaz? Or any Democrat?

Chang-Díaz formally kicked off her gubernatorial run on Wednesday. The state senator from Jamaica Plain has earned a reputation as a vocal and uncompromising advocate for public schools, criminal justice reform, a millionaire’s tax, and racial justice during her 13 years on Beacon Hill. That has garnered her the ire of some of her colleagues, and made her the darling of the younger progressive activists who helped US Senator Ed Markey win reelection last year.

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“I speak up, I organize, and I win,” she said in her first campaign video, summing up her pitch.

But how does any challenger win if Baker decides to run for a third term? The governor saw his consistently stratospheric approval ratings slip some during the bumpy early days of the COVID vaccine rollout, when folks who desperately wanted shots couldn’t get them. But that weakness has now become his strength. On Tuesday, his administration announced that it had hit its goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents.

Moderate Republicans, who have pitched themselves as a check on Democrats on Beacon Hill, have long had special appeal in this state. Unlike previous Republican governors, Baker has greatly benefited from the comparison with — and his occasional criticisms of — former president Donald Trump and his fellow GOP radicals. Since the former president’s departure from the national stage, the state GOP, run by retrograde Trump cultists, has gone to war with the governor, which only reinforces Baker’s appeal with Democratic and independent voters.

The state party is flirting with a candidate from the wingnut wing of the party as a possible primary challenger for Baker. Having that candidate, Geoff Diehl, or somebody else who isn’t Baker, as the Republican nominee for governor next year would be a dream for Democrats.

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But that dream is a distant one. It’s a good bet that Baker will run for a third term, and that if he does, the race will be his to lose. Otherwise, Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat who is considered Baker’s most formidable opponent, would have made it clear by now that she intends to run.

So how do Chang-Díaz, former state senator Ben Downing, and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, who have all declared candidacies, take it from him?

Downing, like Chang-Díaz, is a proud progressive: Will the voters who consistently award Baker approval ratings in the 60s and 70s give them the time of day?

“We have elected a progressive as governor before,” said Ryan McCollum, a Democratic political consultant in Springfield, where Chang-Díaz made her first campaign stop on Wednesday.

The only Democrat to interrupt a three-decade-long string of Republicans in the corner office was Deval Patrick, a charismatic outsider who put together a phenomenal coalition of progressive voters, suburban moderates, and urban lunch-bucket Democrats to win the first of two terms in 2006. To win, McCollum said, a Democratic nominee needs Gateway City voters who might otherwise go for a Baker and the progressive diehards in Cambridge, Somerville, and other Middlesex County strongholds.

“If Baker is in, you’re going need somebody like Deval,” with his wide appeal, McCollum said. “People lump them in together, but Black and brown Gateway City voters aren’t the same as Arlington-climate-change-Markey voters.”

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To break through, strategists say, Democrats are also going to have to hit Baker where it hurts: In his reputation as a good manager. And he’s vulnerable on a few fronts, our laudable progress on vaccinations notwithstanding.

For example, though we’ve barely opened up again, traffic is an absolute nightmare again, thanks to transportation policy that hasn’t been nearly ambitious enough. Opioid addiction continues to grip the Commonwealth, its consequences on full display at the intersection of Mass and Cass every day. And the crushing educational inequalities exposed by the pandemic, which also highlighted crises in affordable housing and child care, persist. Downing has been relentless on this front since long before he officially declared his candidacy in February.

Is any of it enough? It’s early days yet. But this much is clear: The GOP is in a very tough place if Baker doesn’t run. And the Democrats are in a tough place if he does.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.