Donors and activists gathered with Governor Charlie Baker for a fund-raiser last week at a Millbury eatery, dining on risotto balls and other Italian appetizers. But they were also looking for bread crumbs.
Does Baker, who’s now served longer than any of his modern Republican predecessors, intend to seek a third term? When will he decide? What will drive his decision?
“It’s the elephant in the room. How could it not be?” said Mike Valanzola, a Republican state committeeman who attended the gathering at Calabria Ristorante. At one point, he said, Baker told attendees he was looking forward “over the course of the next year-plus to attending and supporting events like this.”
“Nothing,” Valanzola said, “sounded to me like he was not running.”
That may be as close as people get these days. The question — and it’s the question in Massachusetts politics — of whether Baker runs in 2022 remains the preeminent force in a race he’s yet to even join, keeping donors sidelined, activists guessing, and worried Democrats game-planning.
With this year’s Election Day now passed, the state’s political attention — and its accompanying pressure — is shifting to Baker. The same forces also will likely build on Maura Healey, the Democratic attorney general whose own potential gubernatorial aspirations have hung over her party’s field.
Baker himself has called the decision a “very complicated” mix of personal and professional considerations, saying this week that he’s weighing, among other things, whether he has “something productive and helpful to say” in what would be his fourth run at the governor’s office after successful runs in 2018 and 2014, and a failed bid to unseat Deval Patrick in 2010.
Baker, saying he doesn’t “feel any pressure” from voters to rush a decision, also lightly bristled at questions about his timeline.
“I don’t understand why you’re in such a big hurry for me to make a decision about this,” he told reporters Monday.
Those close to the Swampscott Republican describe him as seeming genuinely torn about vying for a third term that, by the end of which, he’d be 70 years old. He’s offered hints that he’s at least preparing for a potential run, including holding fund-raisers to rebuild a campaign account that dwindled amid the pandemic.
For example, the morning after the Millbury event, which benefited a political action committee for state House Republicans, Baker was at another fund-raiser. This one was for himself and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito at 7:30 a.m., at the Westin Waltham hotel, and he emphasized he feels there are still things left to accomplish, according to those who attended.
“The speech was much more about four years than it was nine months,” one attendee said.
Few also doubt the zeal he still has for a position he’s repeatedly called the “only job” in elected politics he’s ever wanted. That, supporters say, is still the case, even after a nearly two-year-long pandemic that’s left many other public executives burned out.
“I think he and his colleagues are tremendously energized,” said Jack Connors, the philanthropist and Democrat who cochaired Baker’s successful 2018 reelection campaign. Connors likened Baker to the classic blow-up children’s punching toy that’s generally weighted by sand at the bottom and automatically pops back up when hit.
“We got ourselves a Joe Palooka,” he said with a laugh.
Still, Connors too said he doesn’t know what Baker will ultimately do, though he believes the governor will decide within weeks. “I think that decision will probably be forthcoming by the middle of [November],” he said. “I think he’s in the wrestling stage.”
The indecision has left the field deeply unsettled. Democrats Danielle Allen, former state senator Ben Downing, and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz announced their respective campaigns months ago, with each promising varying versions of ushering in fundamental change to how the state is governed.
But Democratic Party activists have been engaged in a similar waiting game for Healey, whose potential entrance as a well-known, well-funded, and likely front-running candidate has been pined over in liberal circles for years.
Healey, a South End Democrat who for months has stoked speculation about her future, has begun talking to potential campaign staff and reaching out to activists and other elected officials, but she has yet to make a decision, according to a person familiar with her thinking.
There’s little sense of another major Democratic name waiting in the wings. None of the state’s other statewide or congressional officeholders have sent public signals they are considering running for governor. Former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a popular what-if candidate for some after he unsuccessfully challenged Senator Edward Markey in a bruising Democratic primary last year, has no plans to run for the corner office next year, an adviser said.
That’s kept the focus on Healey, whose opaque plans have frustrated some in the party “who want to field a strong competitive candidate,” said one Democratic operative. “They want to get behind someone people know can be the person who can take on Charlie.”
Major donors from Massachusetts’ business world have so far largely stayed clear of the gubernatorial race, if only to not-so-quietly urge Baker to run. With $412,000 on hand to close September, Allen, a first-time candidate and Harvard professor, had by far the biggest account to draw from among Democratic candidates. But it was still hundreds of thousands less than Baker and nearly $3 million short of Healey.
The same wait-and-see goes for many who would otherwise begin populating a Democratic gubernatorial campaign, too, party members said.
“I’ve got a lot of operatives across the state asking, When is she going to make the announcement?’” Melvin Poindexter, a Democratic National Committee member, said of Healey. “And in doing so, they’re kind of holding their chips.”
But even to Democrats — who dominate the state Legislature and make up the entire federal delegation — it’s Baker’s plans that are the ultimate wild card.
The state party has made his potential candidacy a “significant focus,” said chairman Gus Bickford, who said the party plans to pass out scorecards at its upcoming caucuses to emphasize what they view as “weak spots” for Baker and Polito, a potential gubernatorial candidate herself should Baker not run.
Baker’s stable popularity in public polling and his runaway reelection victory in 2018, when he topped Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez by 33 points, also have helped prompt soul-searching among Democrats about what kind of candidate it’d take to wrestle the governor’s office back if he runs.
“I think there’s a whole argument here that Democrats, at least on the gubernatorial level, have moved too far away from a strong progressive economic argument and focused more on social issues,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who helped lead successful statewide campaigns for Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren. “When you look at some of the big economic issues — paid leave, job creation across the state, etc. — there’s a real strong Democratic argument that we haven’t made for years.”
Should Baker run, he’d also face a complicated path through his own party. He’s publicly feuded with Jim Lyons, the conservative head of the Massachusetts GOP who’s already dismantled the lucrative and controversial fund-raising operation both Baker and the party used to raise millions during Baker’s first two campaigns.
Baker also would face an immediate primary opponent in Geoff Diehl, a Donald Trump-backed conservative who, some Republicans believe, could command the support of the party’s right-leaning base and offer the incumbent a headache, if not a challenge, in a GOP primary.
Diehl has aggressively attacked Baker’s decision to mandate executive workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, and pitched himself as a more business-friendly candidate.
Democrats doubt that Diehl would be a viable challenger in a general election after he unsuccessfully challenged Warren in 2018, losing by 24 points and in all but one county statewide. He also previously ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate in 2015. But, conservative Republicans say, they’re likely loath to support the more moderate Baker, who they consider is aligned with Democrats.
“If I were to vote for Geoff, it would be a protest to Charlie Baker,” said Steve Fruzzetti, president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a statewide GOP group, and also a member of the Republican State Committee. “If Charlie Baker wins, is it really a win?”