WORCESTER — Attorney General Maura Healey for months kept the Democratic gubernatorial primary in stasis as she weighed whether to join the fray. Since she announced, it’s taken only a few weeks for her to transform it.
Healey has ridden a long-forming wave of support to piles of cash, early endorsements, and significant political capital. The field has narrowed around her, creating a head-to-head race with Sonia Chang-Díaz, a progressive state senator and first-time statewide candidate. Longtime admirers who have cheered Healey’s fast-moving rise within the party have quickly fallen into her column, giving her grassroots-level clout.
”I don’t want to sound premature, but it seems over to me,” said Scott Ferson, who advised the since-shuttered gubernatorial campaign of Danielle Allen. “Which is weird, because it’s March.”
Long sought in corners of the party, Healey’s candidacy quickly solidified into a front-running campaign, reshaping a primary that both holds historic possibilities and is sprouting classic tropes of insider-outsider politics and ideological gamesmanship.
It’s also being closely watched because the primary winner is viewed as a heavy favorite in the general election. With Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to not seek reelection — and the potential for a Trump-backed Republican nominee to emerge in his place — the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a national handicapper, called the governor’s seat Democrats’ “best pickup opportunity” in the country.
Both Democrats running would-be barrier breakers as the first woman to be elected governor, the first openly gay governor (Healey) or the first Latina and Asian-American governor (Chang-Díaz). The winner would face one of two Republicans: Geoff Diehl, a Trump-backed former state lawmaker, or Chris Doughty, a Wrentham businessman and first-time candidate.
There’s also widespread belief among party activists and strategists that Healey, a South End Democrat, will win the party’s endorsement at its June convention, where activists and party insiders weigh in on their preferred candidates. A candidate must win 15 percent of the vote there to make the Sept. 6 primary ballot, and the one with the majority of delegate votes can tout being the party’s endorsed pick.
It would both be a show of strength against an opponent courting the party’s most liberal blocs, and something Martha Coakley, Healey’s predecessor and the party’s gubernatorial nominee in the last open-seat contest in 2014, failed to do.
“She’s checked every single box that you want a campaign to check at this point,” Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist who is not working with either campaign, said of Healey. “She made her name on grass-roots campaigning, putting together a statewide organization in a car driven by [now state representative] Dylan Fernandes. It’s compound interest, and it’s really starting to pay off.”
But while her campaign is long on advantages, it has, to date, been short on specifics. Appearing at a Worcester Democratic caucus early this month, Healey emphasized the importance of investing in mental health and child care — with little specificity of how — during an almost breathless 90-second stump speech; hers was the only statewide candidate address not to test timekeepers’ two-minute limit.
It’s in that void, Chang-Díaz and her supporters argue, where the Jamaica Plain Democrat has an opening. Chang-Díaz, who launched her campaign in June, has quickly staked out the progressive territory, pledging to support a single-payer health care system, a fare-free public transit system, and tuition-free public college.
They are areas where Healey said she backs more investment or attention but does not embrace Chang-Díaz’s more progressive pronouncements.
The race has evolved into one “being defined more so than any other race on ideological terms,” said Ben Downing, a former state senator who ended his own gubernatorial bid in December.
“You have Sonia as the progressive standard-bearer, the darling of the liberal activists and if the election were on Twitter, that is probably the best primary she can have,” he said. “And Maura I know would push back against being described as more moderate in her messaging or otherwise. But I don’t think any of us have a clear answer for: on day one, Governor Healey does . . . what?”
Healey’s deep ties and broad name recognition have also made her the race’s establishment candidate. It’s a quirky narrative shift from just eight years ago when she first ran for attorney general as a plucky — and then formidable — outsider against a veteran former state lawmaker.
The anti-establishment angle is one Chang-Díaz’s supporters have embraced, too, even if itself is somewhat an odd fit. A seven-term senator, Chang-Díaz has served in a Beacon Hill elected office longer than Healey has.
“She is kind of the outsider. On paper it just might not look that way,” said Watertown’s Democratic Town Committee chairman Will Pennington. At the city’s Democratic caucus this month, Chang-Díaz supporters won 26 of the 27 delegate spots. “Sonia is taking on the establishment, which for the activists and delegates in Watertown, it appeals to them.”
Chang-Díaz’s campaign said it envisions a path to victory by “expanding the electorate,” including by targeting the roughly one million voters who showed up for the 2020 state primary but did not vote in 2014, a mid-term year when the governor’s seat was last open, according to a memo circulated among supporters.
It also cited other progressive candidates — US Representative Ayanna Pressley, former Suffolk district attorney Rachael Rollins, and Senator Edward Markey — who won on the strength of organizing and “running on their values.”
Chang-Díaz also rejects the idea that people have been waiting for, and are ready to anoint, Healey as their gubernatorial pick, saying it belies what most voters care about.
“Ultimately, this race is going to be won by the whole electorate, the people in the state,” Chang-Díaz said, running down a long list of obstacles — traffic congestion, crushing debt, rising housing costs — for which residents have long sought solutions. “When you talk about waiting, that’s the waiting most voters do. It’s not for X, Y, or Z candidate for governor. It’s not, who has been making the moves and lining up establishment support to run for governor.”
Democratic voters’ choices have nevertheless tapered. Downing, the first Democrat to officially enter the race last winter, ended his campaign after struggling to raise enough money to sustain a statewide operation. Allen, a Harvard professor and first-time candidate, followed seven weeks later, lamenting that the party’s caucus process pushes out political novices.
The caucuses, which ran for several weeks and ended over the weekend, determine which party activists will serve as delegates at the June convention in Worcester.
While the race has thinned, Healey raised nearly $1 million in the first seven weeks after she entered the race, helping push her campaign account to nearly $4.3 million by the end of February — more than 10-fold what Chang-Díaz had.
In Brookline, Healey’s supporters made up the entire 48-person slate of delegates, said Cindy Rowe, the town’s Democratic Committee chairwoman. Over the weekend, Healey reportedly swept the delegate count in the Boston’s Ward 9, which is directly adjacent to Chang-Díaz’s ward. And in Fitchburg, while delegates were impressed with Chang-Díaz, many Democratic activists in the city are backing Healey, said Patricia Martin, the city’s Democratic Committee chairwoman.
“She has every right to run for any position she wants to run,” Martin said of Chang-Díaz. “But we’ve known Maura. We don’t know [Chang-]Díaz.”
In Worcester, supportive delegates praised Healey’s reputation as a Donald Trump bird dog, joining or leading dozens of lawsuits against the former president’s administration. Others say they’ve simply been supporters for years, making the embrace of her gubernatorial campaign natural.
Marc Provencher, a 57-year-old Worcester delegate, said he’s viewed Healey as a candidate for higher office since hearing her speak at the 2014 state party convention in Worcester. At the time, he said, he was genuinely split on supporting her or then-candidate Warren Tolman for attorney general.
“As soon as she was done [speaking], I didn’t need to hear anymore,” said Provencher, a “Team Healey” button pinned to his shirt. “I thought, ‘This is the person who can go a long way. This is the rising star in the state.’”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.