As Republicans celebrate Charles D. Baker’s decision to run for governor, Attorney General Martha Coakley is edging closer to joining the Democratic gubernatorial race, turning to the state party’s leading political strategist to help assemble a potential campaign team.
Those developments, along with the possibility of a third major Democrat, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, jumping into the race marks a sudden acceleration of what has been until this post-Labor Day week a sleepy backwater of Massachusetts politics. A close Capuano adviser said the Democratic congressman has spent the summer lining up a media adviser, pollster, and fund-raising team.
The involvement of political consultant Doug Rubin as unpaid adviser to Coakley caught the political world by surprise, while giving Coakley what could be an implicit boost even before she gets into the race.
Rubin has emerged over the last decade as the Democrats’ top political consultant, having won a string of high profile victories, including helping to elect Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, and Joseph Kennedy III.
Both Rubin and Coakley’s political team declined to discuss the relationship.
Polls continue to show the attorney general as one of the most popular political figures in the state. But some Democratic operatives are convinced a Coakley candidacy would be dragged down by residual feelings of ill will toward her among the party’s activists for her poor performance in the 2010 Senate race against Scott Brown.
Coakley insiders say she has yet to make a final decision about whether to run, but confirm that much of her decision depends on whether she can assemble a highly talented group of organizers, media consultants, and pollsters. They say she feels her failure in the 2010 campaign is at least partly due to her lack of a highly competitive campaign infrastructure.
Until recently, Rubin and his firm, Northwind Strategies, had been advising another Democratic candidate, Dan Wolf, the state senator and chief executive of Cape Air whose candidacy is all but closed down as he battles the State Ethics Commission over his business ties with Logan Airport. His move to help Wolf also required Rubin to break his once-close ties to state Treasurer Steve Grossman, a declared candidate and early favorite in the Democratic race for governor, whom Rubin advised in his 2010 campaign for treasurer.
The already crammed Democratic field could get even more crowded if Capuano decides to run. In addition to hiring advisers in recent months, he has been meeting with labor leaders this week to gauge their level of support.
The Capuano adviser, who asked not be quoted by name because no final decision has been made, said Capuano will make up his mind this month whether to join the race.
Already a major Democratic figure with longtime electoral experience and a strong fund-raising network, Capuano would probably emerge as a prominent figure in the Democratic race. But he will have to consider whether he wants to run a second time against Coakley, who beat him in the December 2009 Democratic US Senate primary. Analysts attributed that loss, in part, to the fact that Coakley drew large numbers of female votes who might otherwise have voted for another Democrat.
Other Democrats in the race include biotechnology executive Joseph Avellone, Donald M. Berwick who ran the Medicaid and Medicare programs in the Obama administration, and Juliette Kayyem, a one-time homeland security official under Obama and former Boston Globe editorial page columnist.
While Republicans on Wednesday united behind Baker, their probable nominee, as he officially kicked off his campaign in a Web video, Bay State Democrats jumped on the GOP candidate for his role in the financing of the Big Dig, reviving a line of attack they used during the 2010 race.
“One of the biggest problems that confronted Massachusetts during his time, when he was responsible for our finances, were the cost overruns and the late progress of the Big Dig,” state party chairman John Walsh said during a press conference at Democratic headquarters. “We now know from the last campaign that Charlie Baker was the author of the Big Dig financing plan.”
Former governor William F. Weld, for whom Baker worked as budget chief, defended his one-time Cabinet member against Walsh’s attacks, saying he had been “definitely not the point person” on the project. That role, Weld said, belonged to Paul Cellucci, who first served as Weld’s lieutenant governor and later governor in his own right. Cellucci died in June.
Noting that he had lost his own first race in 1978 against sitting Democratic Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, and learned from his mistakes, Weld predicted a looser Baker in his second run. “He will relax and be himself,” Weld said.
While Democrats reacted with a barrage of attacks on Baker, the 2010 gubernatorial nominee seems to have a lock on heading the party’s ticket four years later.
Initial reactions from the state GOP suggest that Baker is not likely to face any serious opposition. After seven years of Democratic control in the governor’s office, Republicans are closing ranks to win back the post.
“I think he’s got a clear sail to the Republican nomination this time,” said state Representative Viriato deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican. “I do not see anyone from the Republican Party challenging Baker.’’
Even conservatives, who may disagree with Baker’s liberal positions on social issues and could be his most likely opponents, seem to be rallying behind his candidacy.
One GOP conservative, Steve Aylward, a state party committee member from Watertown, said he accepts Baker’s need to modulate some the party’s conservative positions. Baker is acceptable enough to conservatives, particularly on fiscal issues, that he will most likely avoid a primary battle, Aylward said.
“It’s OK for candidates to stray from our values,’’ Aylward said. “We all understand that you can accomplish that without alienating the base. The base just doesn’t want to be demonized.’’
While some think a primary can sharpen Baker’s candidacy, one Republican insider, former state Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees, said having a clear path to the party’s nomination would be a huge boost for him.
“Without a primary, he will be able to keep his message clear from day one,’’ said Lees, noting how Baker had to cover his right flank in 2010 because of then-Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill’s presence in the race.
“He will be able to talk to Republicans, independents, and Democrats from day one with a clear, concise message that will remain the same,’’ Lees said.