Governor Charlie Baker is quietly constructing a massive and historically expensive reelection machine, relying on unique fund-raising methods to shatter records and asserting control of the state Republican apparatus.
Enjoying towering poll numbers and little pushback from the state’s clearly spooked Democratic Party, Baker — who won in 2014 by an extremely narrow margin — has raised $3.3 million since the beginning of last year, including nearly $500,000 in the first two months of 2016. Those hefty sums could serve to intimidate Democrats considering a bid to unseat him.
That haul, secured largely by capitalizing on newly elevated campaign finance limits, constitutes more than what both of Baker’s immediate predecessors raised – combined – during comparable periods of their governorships. Deval Patrick raised just over $1.2 million in his first 14 months in office, while Mitt Romney collected $1.7 million.
“The governor has not said he is running for reelection but is raising money to sustain an ongoing political operation and to be in a position to seek reelection should he decide to,” said a senior Baker adviser, Jim Conroy.
Meanwhile, Baker has taken unprecedented measures to tighten his grip on the party, successfully running his own slate of candidates for a majority of state committee seats. His chosen candidate for the state’s national committeewoman’s post, state Representative Keiko Orrall, said last week she had secured enough endorsements to oust the current occupant, Chanel Prunier, a Baker critic.
Baker’s total state campaign finance account stood at $2.7 million at the end of February, with much of the money he has raised going toward direct mail specialists and outside consultants.
Bouncing back from a lackluster showing against Patrick in the 2010 governor’s race, Baker edged Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley in 2014, winning by the narrowest margin of any Massachusetts governor in 50 years. Since then, he has polished a bipartisan image, earning attention as the nation’s most popular governor. One recent poll found him with higher favorability ratings than Democratic US Senator Edward J. Markey among likely voters in the state’s Democratic presidential primary.
Baker is set to claim a legislative win on Monday by signing legislation designed to curb the opioid abuse crisis, which he prioritized on his agenda before taking office.
At the same time, Democrats in political circles have been softly buzzing over their party’s best choice to challenge Baker in 2018. The general consensus, so far, has been that there isn’t one, though Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Newton Mayor Setti Warren, and state Senator Dan Wolf, the owner of Cape Air, are mentioned frequently.
“I don’t have the answer to how the Democrats beat him in two years,” said Juliette Kayyem, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary and former Globe columnist. “All I know is that remaining quiet and saying he’s a great guy is not a strategy.”
Kayyem, one of only a handful of prominent Democrats who have criticized Baker publicly, said the governor should use his high approval ratings to be more proactive on the policy front.
“What he has is in some ways also a luxury, so let’s do something with it other than ‘getting to no’ on everything from raising revenue to investments in infrastructure to competing with 49 other states,” she said.
Baker has continued to court Democratic officials. His relationship with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is the closest between Beacon Hill and City Hall that many longtime political observers can recall.
Earlier this month, he met quietly at an East Boston restaurant for an off-the-record lunch with Democratic powerbrokers, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, and longtime Boston businessman Jack Connors. To a crowd of firefighters and mostly Democratic lawmakers at Dorchester’s Florian Hall on Monday, Baker extolled the lunch as a paragon of bipartisan bonhomie, according to two people who were present.
In October, Baker headlined a fund-raiser for Boston City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, weeks after being feted at his own fund-raiser by another councilor, Bill Linehan, and former attorney general Francis X. Bellotti — Democrats all.
Baker’s financial success — and that of Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who has collected over $1.4 million since the beginning of last year and sits on $1.2 million — represents a sizable escalation of gubernatorial fund-raising. Both have benefited largely from a doubling last year of the cap on annual individual contributions, from $500 to $1,000.
They also use a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the state GOP committee, which uses a federal account subject to twice the state contribution limits, to bankroll most of Baker’s fund-raising operation, meaning neither Baker nor Polito has to spend much to collect checks.
Conroy said Baker maintains an “aggressive” fund-raising schedule, centered around breakfast receptions and evening cocktail events. Conroy, who managed Baker’s election campaign before joining the administration, recently left the State House to focus on consulting but will remain close to Baker. He is expected to play a prominent role in any reelection bid.
Due to his focus on fund-raising and the higher donation caps, the governor has scooped up more so far in his still-young first term than Patrick did during his first three years.
Nor are Baker’s fund-raising efforts limited to his own account. To pay for his effort to seize greater control of the state Republican committee by ousting more conservative members, he raised more than $300,000 in “dark money.” State campaign finance officials say he faced no requirement to make public the identity of his donors because the candidates he supported weren’t running for public office.
Baker has defended it as standard practice.
Less commonplace has been Baker’s ability to score contributions from Democrats.
At a September fund-raiser in the backyard of former Democratic Worcester city manager Mike O’Brien, who now works for Winn Companies, Baker played to a crowd that included several other former Democratic elected officials, along with some of the lower-profile supporters who are driving Baker’s poll numbers into the stratosphere.
“I really don’t have anybody statewide that I’ve really contributed to, but I think that Governor Baker has really reached out to the average working guy,” said Arthur Mooradian, a real estate investor and infrequent campaign donor who has traditionally given to Democrats running for local office.
“I’m not in these circles that people like the governor are in, but I think he’s good for business,” Mooradian added. “And I think his message is resonating.”Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.