For nearly a year, the race for Massachusetts governor has been defined by what it’s not. Namely, it has not been a competitive race, nor have the candidates been specific about how they would address any number of state issues, like the troubles at the MBTA, or the next COVID wave, or what they would do if more migrants show up unannounced in the state.
Instead, it is a contest defined by Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey’s double-digit polling lead over former Republican state representative Geoff Diehl. Given that Healey is still spending a huge campaign war chest on zillions of campaign ads and Diehl is broke only feeds into the narrative that this is not a chance for voters to discuss priorities. It has just been a snoozefest.
A memorable debate, however, could wake this race up. Sure, such moments rarely happen, but at least it’s possible.
Spoiler: The first of a pair of televised debates on Wednesday night didn’t likely alter much.
With that as the background, we come to the grades. They are based on two factors. First, the individual performance of the candidates. Second, whether the candidates did what they needed to do given the state of the campaign. For example, Healey’s job was to basically protect her lead like a quarterback taking a knee in the final seconds of a football game. But Diehl, to continue the analogy, needed to throw a Hail Mary and pull off an upset.
Former state representative Geoff Diehl (R)
Over the years Diehl has grown as a communicator and as a politician. No one questions his authenticity.
The problem for Diehl is that his true self politically is not a great match for Massachusetts, a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for president in 38 years. Of course, the state has voted for Republicans, especially for governor. However, in this debate, Diehl wasn’t the one referencing Charlie Baker or even Mitt Romney as models. That meant he fell into Healey’s trap to paint him as a Trump-style Republican.
Tactically, when any candidate is behind in polls to the degree that Diehl is now, they need to give a very clean, clear answer as to why the leading candidate cannot get elected. The debate moderators gave him a gift in the opening question to make his point, and his answer was convoluted.
Those who deeply follow the campaign may understand the point he was trying to make later, which was that Healey proclaims to be a champion of closing down a pair of natural gas pipelines, a move that, in theory, would increase energy prices locally. But he struggled with making that point. And even if he did deliver the blow, as he well knows, voters aren’t feeling the large energy bills yet from the winter.
If the debate scorecard was just about his performance as a candidate it would be one thing, but it is coupled with what he needed to do for the campaign. What he needed was to give the campaign a jolt, instead, this debate will soon be forgotten.
Attorney General Maura Healey (D)
While Diehl struggled to make his point, Healey hit the two things she wanted to hammer home all within her first minute of talking: Trump’s endorsement of Diehl and her belief that abortion is on the ballot. She then did it again during the last minute of her closing statement.
Granted, as Diehl mentioned in a post-debate interview, the Legislature has no appetite to restrict abortion access even if he tried. But if there were voters who turned on the debate with an open mind, Healey smartly framed the choice on values even if it isn’t about outcomes.
Indeed, Healey was smooth throughout the debate. She would take an issue and issue points one, two, and three for how she would address them. That sounded like she had a specific multi-part plan, but each item was usually something like “we need to do more,” which wasn’t specific at all.
Her biggest dodge of the night came at the end when she refused to give Baker, the popular outgoing governor she hopes to replace, a letter grade.
“Governor Baker has done a really good job,” is what she offered instead.
Then again, she wasn’t really forced to even get more specific on that. After a follow-up that tried, everyone moved on. And so does the race.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.