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As Democrats exit governor’s race, some point to barriers for outsider candidates

State Senator Sonia Chang-Dίaz announced her exit from the race for governor on June 23.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Between them, they had legislative experience, sterling academic credentials, a solid geographic base of support, and liberal bona fides to rival anyone’s. There were compelling life stories, headline-grabbing policy rollouts, strong fund-raising showings, splashy front-page photos, support from the state’s most vocal progressive activists.

Yet one by one three challengers dropped out of this year’s Democratic primary for Massachusetts governor, ceding to a better-known, better-funded opponent, in a slow-motion surrender that makes clear why elections here remain among the least competitive in the country. When state Senator Sonia Chang-Dίaz ended her campaign last week, she effectively crowned Attorney General Maura Healey the Democratic nominee and, most likely, the next governor.

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The evaporation of primary competition illustrates the difficulty of gaining traction in Massachusetts’ calcified politics, where systemic and cultural barriers often cap the aspirations of outsiders, political neophytes, and anyone else who lacks a household name. And it illuminates, through its conspicuous absence, the importance of robust political debate: In the marquee race on the ballot, voters in the state’s dominant party have been left with just one choice — which, ultimately, is no choice at all.

Chang-Dίaz, a veteran legislator who could not compete with Healey’s stronger name recognition and larger war chest, pointed to those obstacles last week when she announced her exit.

“There are real structural barriers to outsider candidates, and to nontraditional candidates, to candidates that are running against the establishment and being truthful about the shortcomings of the establishment,” Chang-Dίaz said. “We have to be frank about that.”

Those challenges are even steeper for women and people of color, who have only rarely ascended to the highest offices. Yet there are outsider candidates — Deval Patrick, the state’s first and only Black governor, is perhaps the best example — who have managed to surmount them, proving it is possible.

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“Massachusetts is very incumbent-heavy . . . partly because the party has not done enough to encourage new ideas and new thoughts,” said Jacquetta Van Zandt, a political strategist and host of the “Politics and Prosecco” videocast program. Outsider candidates like Patrick can win at the right time and with the right message, but this year, candidates weren’t being “aspirational or inspirational,” she said. “It just needs that kind of engagement, that kind of excitement.”

Running for governor of Massachusetts is an undeniably difficult task. A serious bid typically requires raising at least $3 million, candidates and strategists said, money that is all the more essential for newcomers with little name recognition, who generally need to spend more heavily on advertising than established candidates and incumbents. To get on the ballot, candidates must gather 10,000 signatures and earn the support of at least 15 percent of delegates at their party conventions. All that requires hours upon hours of calls to donors and delegates, a crushing logistical burden especially for candidates who can’t afford to leave their day jobs to campaign.

Once candidates make the ballot, other obstacles emerge. Unlike 20 other states and Washington, D.C., Massachusetts does not allow for same-day voter registration, making it more difficult for students, renters, and low-income residents who move frequently to participate in primary and general elections. There is no question that same-day voter registration would help outsider and underdog candidates, analysts said. But long-serving Democrats in the Massachusetts House have repeatedly rejected same-day registration, a move critics say is intended to protect incumbents from more progressive challengers.

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The challenges helped push three serious candidates out of the Democratic primary for governor. Before Chang-Dίaz’s exit, former state senator Ben Downing bowed out in December, acknowledging that “we simply do not have the financial resources to continue.” Danielle Allen, a first-time candidate and prominent Harvard academic, followed in February, lamenting “ballot access procedures that push out qualified but nontraditional candidates.”

Allen, who has since dedicated herself to advocating for reforms, criticized “one of the most restrictive ballot-access processes in the country for statewide office.”

“People have to invest huge amounts of time and energy just getting on the ballot, where that time and energy should be invested in campaigning,” she said.

By the time Healey entered the race in January, there was little doubt she would make the ballot. She had $3.7 million in her campaign account and a strong national reputation from eight years as attorney general. And she was already familiar to the Democratic convention delegates whose votes she would need. As a strong candidate with a well-known record, Healey entered the race with an air of inevitability.

That allowed her to maintain an enormous lead in polling even as her campaign started out light on substance. For the first few months of her bid, Healey did not have a policy platform. (More recently, she has laid out plans on a number of issues, notably on tax credits and climate.)

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Serious electoral competition puts pressure on front-runners to detail — and, occasionally, to alter — their policy proposals. Without it, candidates can skirt tough questions and avoid deep discussions.

“We have lost the opportunity to have a really important debate around the direction of this state, and about different progressive policies that can really help people,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist.

Healey’s victory had been assured long before Chang-Dίaz’s exit, Downing said: “This is just the final recognition of it.”

Still, analysts said, to dismiss the primary’s outcome as inevitable would be to devalue Healey’s appeal as a candidate and to disregard the race’s unique circumstances. It would also elide the stories of the outsider candidates who have beaten the odds, they said.

“Massachusetts has some things that are hard to break through, because we’re a bit of an inward political culture,” said John Walsh, a longtime Democratic strategist who led Patrick’s underdog campaign in 2006. But, he added, “to say that’s a rule, you have to ignore Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren . . . and a long string of outsider candidates who have run successfully.”

One was Healey herself. In 2014, in her first run for attorney general, she was the clear underdog against Warren Tolman, a former state senator who had the backing of the biggest political players. But a compelling personal story, savvy campaign, and enthusiastic support from women and gay rights groups fueled her upset victory.

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Similarly, before he became the state’s first Black governor, Patrick was dismissed as a long shot, an attorney and business leader with no experience running for office.

Rubin, a top strategist on Patrick’s first gubernatorial campaign, said candidates coming from outside the system have to “think outside the box.”

“You have to run an unconventional campaign if you’re an outsider,” Rubin said. “I don’t see a lot of campaigns willing to do those kinds of unconventional things.”

Patrick’s campaign bucked the conventional wisdom that candidates should stockpile cash, then spend it on television ads toward the end of the race. Instead, his team spent money as it came in, investing in staff who could facilitate grass-roots volunteering, and early digital efforts such as online videos. It didn’t hurt that Patrick quit his job to campaign full time, and that he was able to lend his campaign several hundred thousand dollars.

And Patrick had another advantage: “He’s the greatest candidate the world has ever seen,” Walsh said. That intangible personal appeal helped propel him.

Candidates and strategists disagreed about whether Healey’s nomination was inevitable. Some argued that her coronation took place the day she entered the race. Others said the right candidate, with the right strategy, might have been able to snatch the crown.

“I think they got scared,” Van Zandt said of the Democrats who dropped out. “ ‘OK, Maura’s in, so I don’t have a chance in hell’ — instead of fighting like hell.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.