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Analysis

Scorecard: Grading the final debate performances of Massachusetts candidates for governor

Maura Healey (right) faced Geoff Diehl at their final debate in Needham on Thursday.Carlin Stiehl for the Boston Globe

In the years the Globe has offered grades for candidates during political debates, they were always based on a two-part analysis.

First is how the candidates performed in the debate itself, whether they appeared competent, pointed out differences in their favor, and defended themselves well. Second is whether the candidates did what they needed to do in the context of the election, as in if a candidate behind in polling shook up the race or a leading candidate just coasted for another day.

For the first time, we are breaking the mold on these criteria. Candidate performance remains. But as for context, for Attorney General Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl now, the debate matters less for what it means for the remaining few weeks of the campaign as it does for what comes after Election Day. So the second criterion is whether they did what they needed to do for their own near immediate future.

The overall dynamic of this race hasn’t changed since the moment it began. Healey is set to be the first elected woman governor of Massachusetts and the first openly lesbian elected governor in the United States. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll out this week found Healey, a Democrat, leading Diehl, a Republican, by 23 points.

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Related: Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl spar in final gubernatorial debate

Her lead was so dominant in the Democratic primary that her opponents eventually all dropped out. In the general election, Diehl, who was endorsed by Donald Trump, hasn’t made a dent against Healey. When he boasts of momentum, he cites doing well among independent voters in one poll a month ago. (The same poll found him losing by 18 points overall back then.)

It is increasingly clear, watching the Diehl and Healey campaigns lately, that both are just posturing for their futures after Election Day. Diehl, for example, continues to double down on the Trump base, both in rhetoric but also where he has spent the bulk of his time and money in campaign ads. This might seem odd for a Republican in a Massachusetts general election, but it is entirely logical when you consider that he probably knows he will likely lose and that there will be a very healthy debate about the future of the extremely divided Massachusetts Republican Party in a few weeks.

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Shoring up his conservative bona fides on a statewide platform like a gubernatorial debate bolsters his credibility to, say, host a local radio show, run a conservative nonprofit, or stay in the national Trump orbit for whatever the former president decides to do next. It also helps him be a stronger voice inside the weird dynamics of state political party activists.

Likewise, Healey is as much running now to earn political clout for her first 100 days as she is focused on what will happen in the next 19 days. To be sure, Healey wants to ensure a blowout election both because everyone expects it and because she will get to argue to State House leaders she has a mandate.

Healey knows that after she wins, she will be immediately compared to Republican Governor Charlie Baker, the most popular governor in America for several years running. Those are quite the shoes to fill. And if this debate -- and the rest of the campaign -- can do anything interesting at this point, it is to bolster her favorability rating.

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So with their respective performances and futures in mind, let’s get to the grades.

Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe/Associated Press

Former state representative Geoff Diehl

Grade: B

This may have been the best high-profile, under-pressure performance Diehl has given in his political career. The debate performance was certainly more confident that anything he did against Elizabeth Warren when he challenged her for US Senate four years ago.

However, it wasn’t perfect. If this debate is remembered for anything even a month from now, it’ll be Diehl’s contention that being on the exit people-mover at Logan Airport somehow counts as public transportation.

In the context of his future after this race, Diehl did himself favors. He doubled down on issues important to the GOP base such as favoring school choice, opposing COVID restrictions, and mentioning President Biden as a boogyman, even though it is not obvious that Biden is so deeply unpopular in a state he won by 33 points two years ago.

But Biden is deeply unpopular among Republicans in the state, and Diehl’s populist nod to Sysco food distribution workers who just ended a strike, while throwing in a comment about the economy, was clever.

Diehl preserved a lot of options for his future in this debate, except for being elected governor this year.

Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Attorney General Maura Healey

Grade: A

For every time Diehl mentioned Biden, Healey mentioned Baker at least two times more. Even though they are of different parties, Healey was deep in the mode of suggesting she would be something of a Baker third term.

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What’s interesting is that in so doing Healey has zero bones with breaking with the state’s progressive wing. Her answer to help the economy is to embrace Baker’s tax cut proposal. Her flex is to double down on her law enforcement job. The pipelines she blocked weren’t because of climate change, but, she contends, because state ratepayers would get shafted. Yes, this is the same Healey who was the only major political figure in the state to stick her neck out and endorse squad member Ayanna Pressley in her primary challenge against incumbent Michael Capuano four years ago.

On performance, Healey delivered no memorable lines and avoided taking any pledges (on no new taxes or mask mandates), which will give her wide latitude as governor. She also employed the “best defense is a good offense” strategy going after Diehl, especially on election denying and abortion.


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