Can anyone beat Maura Healey in a Democratic primary?
That’s an unusual question to ask so early in an open race. But such is the star power of the state’s two-term attorney general, who’s finally made it official that she’s running for governor this year.
Healey enters the race as the clear front-runner — indeed, she’s been the Democrats’ best hope of regaining the governor’s office for at least four years, a fact born of her own ability and a relatively thin bench.
Healey has earned her exalted status. She has taken an office fraught with political land mines and transformed it into something else, branding herself “The People’s Lawyer.” Most voters only vaguely know what the attorney general really does, but a huge number of them believe that Healey is on their side.
She has — I would argue selectively — taken on some high-profile battles that have served to burnish that image. She has gone to war with Purdue Pharma (of OxyContin infamy), ExxonMobil, and — repeatedly — former president Donald Trump. (I’ll never forget the day she said to me during a meeting in her office, “I sued Donald Trump five times yesterday!” No, she wasn’t exaggerating.)
Still, Healey is bucking some serious history with this run. Dating back to at least 1974, a string of attorneys general — Frank Bellotti, Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, Martha Coakley — have reached for the brass ring and fallen short.
That’s not an accident. By the nature of the job, prosecutors do unpopular things, like go after other politicians for wrongdoing. They make enemies and, sometimes, alienate supporters as well. By the time they run for governor, their popularity has often crested.
Healey has done an impressive job of avoiding those sorts of troubles. She learned quickly that every fight didn’t have to be hers. She has differed with her peers but diplomatically. Healey has been relentlessly upbeat and on-message, and her battles have been popular ones.
So why do I think this race is not the guaranteed cakewalk it might seem?
Two candidates, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, have been running for months — building support, raising reasonable amounts of money — though they are, of course, millions of dollars behind Healey. They aren’t going to just step aside.
Also, this is an odd time to run as the establishment candidate. Democrats have steadily been marching left in recent years, leaving even formidable politicians scrambling to catch up with their supporters.
Consider the 2020 Ed Markey-Joe Kennedy III Senate race. Kennedy entered as an alleged heavy favorite. But Markey used his Green New deal street cred and more progressive credentials to win by a landslide. Hardly anyone saw that coming, but in the end it seemed almost preordained.
“Markey painted Kennedy as a moderate and a status quo candidate,” said veteran political consultant Doug Rubin, who isn’t involved in this race. “I’m not sure whether that same path works in a governor’s race.”
Healey has some vulnerability on her left, to be sure. During the debate on criminal justice reform, Progressives were aghast when she would not join in calling for a ban on facial recognition technology, for example. I happen to think Healey was right on the merits. But the point is, the ground is shifting politically.
And if her opponents have an opening, it will be in painting Healey as insufficiently progressive for this moment. In her announcement video, Healey said she would “continue with what’s working and fix what’s not.”
Is that a message to fire up Democratic voters in 2022?
To be sure, Healey’s opponents are looking at long odds. Chang-Diaz has been a mixed bag in the State House — a diligent pol with a lot of good ideas but limited success in implementing them. Allen is little known outside a relatively small circle — though it happens to be a circle that likes to write checks to campaigns.
Healey is smart, accomplished, and popular across the state. This race is clearly hers to lose.
But these are strange and volatile times in Democratic politics. The qualities that have carried her to victory in the past guarantee nothing in 2022.