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Analysis

With Charlie Baker out, the three most immediate questions about the governor’s race now

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker left the stage after speaking to the press about his decision not to run for a third term.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On what is probably the most important day in Massachusetts politics all year, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito announced Wednesday that neither will run for governor next year.

This means the contest for the state’s top job is wide open. If Baker had run, next year’s gubernatorial contest could have been a largely sleepy affair with likely the only uncertainty coming from the Republican primary. Baker had a real shot at becoming the first Massachusetts governor ever to win a third consecutive term.

Instead, Baker’s decision to opt out (along with Polito’s same decision) means in a split second, the Massachusetts gubernatorial race went from being a likely Republican win to a likely Democratic win.

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Here are three questions that will drive the next period of the Massachusetts governor’s race.

Can Trump really claim victory?

By the time you read this, former president Donald Trump will likely have already claimed victory in somehow forcing Baker to not run. Trump notably endorsed Baker’s primary opponent Geoff Diehl, a former state representative, in early October.

Trump is both right and wrong, hence the endless debate in Massachusetts over whether the Trump factor was really at play here. In the two months since Trump endorsed Diehl, he has basically done nothing else to help his campaign. That said, Trump’s signaling in the contest could have been just enough of a pain for Baker that he might have thought it wasn’t worth it.

Indeed, Baker could be playing a different game to defeat Trumpism in Massachusetts: giving them the keys and watching them drive the car into the ditch next year.

How many Democrats will get into the race and what will the primary be about?

With Trump-backed Diehl the only Republican now running for governor, the Democratic nomination for governor just got a lot more valuable. Many eyes will be watching to see if Attorney General Maura Healey gets into the contest, joining others like former state senator Ben Downing, current state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen.

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Of course, there could be other big names joining the race, like US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Just as unclear is what the Democratic primary contest will be about. The Democratic Party nationally has been engaged in a debate between a Bernie Sanders wing versus a more establishment wing. But with Joe Biden’s close win in the 2020 election and with moderates winning primaries for New York City mayor and Virginia governor, it is unclear where things stand statewide in Massachusetts. (Yes, progressives had a strong showing in the Boston mayor’s race.)

Will the race take on a national focus, with issues like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and housing and policing issues coming to the fore? If not, what will be the progressive litmus test in 2022?

Will Geoff Diehl move to the center?

Diehl is in a totally different position as a candidate on Wednesday than he was a day before. With Trump’s endorsement combined with Baker and Polito’s exit, Diehl has basically cleared a primary field and is the de facto Republican nominee for governor.

He now has no reason to play to the base and ― if he is serious about trying to win statewide office in anti-Trump Massachusetts — he has every incentive to move to the political center.

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To be sure, Diehl’s political opponents will remind voters of his claims that he was Trump’s state chairman in the 2016 presidential campaign. But Democrats tried to tie Trump directly to Glenn Youngkin’s race for Virginia governor, and he just got elected.

Youngkin won by going to the center and trying to argue he was an old-school Mitt Romney-type of Republican. Diehl may find that to be a smart place to go also.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.