Governor Charlie Baker is quietly assembling a reelection apparatus for 2018 — and using November’s legislative contests as a tuneup — even though no likely Democratic challenger looms on the horizon.
Party officials say this year’s multimillion-dollar election effort will be based on an expanding trove of voter information from social media. It will aim to inoculate down-ballot Republicans from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, in part by offering the election data and tools the party began assembling during Baker’s winning 2014 campaign.
Baker — the nation’s most popular governor, according to some polls — has not publicly acknowledged a reelection bid, but associates say it is all but a certainty. In a recent interview, he chalked up the midterm endeavor to a broader effort to reinvigorate the GOP.
“There’s no question that . . . the party has a much more robust apparatus . . . than I can ever remember the party having when there wasn’t a big statewide race,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been set back on their heels by Baker’s popularity. Party insiders acknowledge that, at this point, any Democrat who takes on the governor would be viewed largely as a sacrificial lamb.
And any contender who emerged would also have to contend with Baker’s campaign war chest of nearly $3.7 million.
Baker associates acknowledge privately that 2016 is functioning largely as an exercise in keeping his expensive, data-driven campaign machine in fighting shape, but argue also that he is following through on his promise of eschewing the national scene in favor of strengthening the state party.
In the current election cycle, Republicans across the country are worried that Trump’s unpopularity, historic for a presumptive nominee, could prove infectious and taint the rest of the ticket.
In Massachusetts, shielding the 17 Beacon Hill Republicans who face challenges this fall is a priority, but significantly expanding the party’s minuscule legislative delegation has been back-burnered. The handful of Republicans challenging the state’s all-Democrat congressional delegation are considered long shots.
With many from the team of Baker’s narrow election win in 2014 reprising similar roles, the Baker-controlled state GOP is updating the data and field programs that propelled the governor to victory, bankrolled by a novel fund-raising arrangement that allows Baker to circumvent state campaign finance limits.
Republicans are challenging 64 legislative seats this fall, according to the party’s tally, and the coordinated campaign has already knocked on more doors than at this point in 2014. The GOP hopes to place 1 million phone calls by Election Day, party officials said.
The number of paid field staffers has more than tripled from 2010 — when Baker waged his first, unsuccessful bid for governor — to 14.
Using an extensive online information-mining system, the party has collected digital data on 152,000 people — ranging from who presses the “like” button on which Facebook posts to which potential voters are inclined to enter their credit card numbers into an online portal.
“Because you have that information, you can coax people into giving more information about themselves,” said Brian Wynne, the state Republican Party’s executive director.
That information is used to direct autodialing, direct mail, and other get-out-the-vote activities, and has already been used in municipal and special elections.
“That puts us in a very good position for 2018,” Wynne said.
Fueling the effort is a unique fund-raising apparatus that Baker has constructed, using a joint state-federal fund-raising committee that allows him to take in donations up to the higher, federal limit.
Baker’s team has also pursued an apparently novel program targeting contributions from special-interest political action committees, with promises of direct access to him and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
During an interview at the state party’s West End headquarters, Wynne, party communications chief Terry MacCormack, and political adviser Jim Conroy laid out a 2016 plan that is as much geared toward Baker’s reelection bid as it is for November.
Many of the principal players being put in place now are expected to play key roles in two years.
Conroy, for instance, was Baker’s campaign manager and then senior adviser in the administration before leaving this year to start his own consulting outfit that works with Baker, the party, and the charter schools expansion movement.
The GOP effort here is expected, per tradition, to focus on the top of the ticket — even if that spot is not on the ballot for another two years. Legislative races that fall in years with presidential elections are particularly arduous for Massachusetts Republicans.
With no Republican having unseated a legislative Democratic incumbent in a presidential-election year since 1984, the small-bore goals for 2016 appear not only modest but realistic.
“I don’t think we will pick up eight seats this year,” Wynne said.
But if the GOP machinations are a trial run for the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, the contours of that race remain murky. While it seems clear that Baker will run on his work to combat the opioid crisis, management record, and reforms to the MBTA, whom he will run against is utterly unknown.
Leading Democrats essentially shrug when asked about their party fielding a potential challenger. One state senator who ran briefly in the 2014 race and has previously made noise about a second bid, Dan Wolf of Harwich, last month called a 2018 run “unlikely.”
At the state Democratic convention last month, Baker was on the lips of only a few speakers, and even then just fleetingly. Similar confabs often serve as red-meat roasts of governors from the opposing party, but Baker was essentially spared.
“It’s not surprising to me that no one has definitively said they’re going to run for governor in 2018,” said the state Democratic party’s executive director, Jason Cincotti.
“In my opinion, it’s too early,’’ he said. “I think we need to elect a Democratic president. I think we need to ensure a Democratic Legislature — who can continue to promote our policies and move Massachusetts forward.”
Cincotti said “a number of people have expressed interest,” but declined to provide names.