The outcome of the November election could significantly alter the political climate Governor Charlie Baker will face during his widely expected 2018 reelection bid, potentially complicating his campaign.
Baker, a Republican, has pushed hard for a ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts, appearing in a television ad and traveling to New York City last month to meet with deep-pocketed backers, including former mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has come out against a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana. He has been a vocal critic of his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. And he has stumped across the state for Republican candidates in legislative races.
“Governor Baker’s not on the ballot this year, but his political capital is,” said Democratic political consultant Frank Perullo, who supports the procharter and legalization ballot questions. “He runs for reelection in two years, potentially with another Trump-like Republican, Curt Schilling, at the top of the ticket. Governor Baker needs to show strength at the polls.”
On Tuesday, Baker headlined events in Springfield and Dorchester touting his ballot-question stances — a further sign of his political investment. Should the charter school proposal, in particular, fail and the marijuana question pass, Baker’s standing would take a hit. Conversely, if his positions prevail, the governor’s substantial popularity would be further solidified. Recent polls show public opinion trending away from Baker on the marijuana question and a tight race on charter schools.
“I think the charter thing, people might smell blood,” said Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts Amherst political science professor, adding that Baker has generally “done the right balancing act for a Massachusetts Republican.”
Baker adviser Jim Conroy, who is working for the procharter and antimarijuana efforts, said in an e-mail that Baker’s approach toward both issues “is entirely motivated by what is best for the future of the commonwealth, not about scoring political points.”
Baker’s highest-stakes play this season has been to attach himself to the charter school question, lending his two top outside political advisers and his own visage to the effort.
A recent ad features Baker speaking directly to the camera from his living room in Swampscott. Last month, he went door to door in Dorchester, encouraging residents to vote “yes.”
“The more aggressively he puts himself out there in terms of TV advertising, the higher the stakes get,” said Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos, who conducts surveys for the Globe. “If he’s running an ad eyeball to eyeball with people, then he’s invested and it’s an early credibility gut check.”
And, he noted, if the charter school measure passes, Baker will get credit.
If the measure fails, said state Democratic Party chairman Thomas McGee, Baker’s hand could be weakened at the State House.
“If [Question] 2 goes down, there’s an opportunity for people to highlight issues where the governor has taken a different position,” McGee said. “It’s been two years now of the governor being able to set the agenda and have a lot of support. But there are underlying issues that lie ahead.”
Baker advisers argue privately that, even if he loses the charter battle, the governor will have garnered currency with communities that often look askance at Republicans. Polls show the charter question polling favorably with minority voters.
The marijuana referendum could pose the bigger obstacle down the road, forcing Beacon Hill to come up with ways to tax, regulate, and police the industry and its patrons.
“It’s going to be a huge headache for him” if the proposal passes, La Raja said.
Baker has also campaigned and raised money for legislative candidates this season. Several Republican strategists said they expected an anti-Trump backlash to hurt GOP hopes of making gains in their tiny State House minority caucuses.
“I think he has some exposure there. Hillary [Clinton] is going to win by a landslide here,” said Paleologos, referring to the Democratic presidential nominee.
“If things are even, it’s a victory for him,” said one Republican strategist who has worked on legislative races, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intraparty dynamics. “If we lose five or six seats, that’s brutal.”
Nor are the ramifications of the Nov. 8 election confined to state-level results. If Trump meets or exceeds expectations in Massachusetts, that could muddy what are otherwise pristine waters for Baker’s reelection cruise.
Evidence that voters here harbor some appetite for Trump could encourage a candidate like former Red Sox hero Schilling — a vocal, controversial Trump backer — to join Baker on the 2018 ballot, when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s term expires.
The prospect of shackling a divisive candidate like Schilling to fellow Republican Baker could pique the interests of potential Democratic gubernatorial challengers who thus far have given Baker plenty of leash – even though he won election two years ago by the narrowest margin in a half-century.
“He’s been living a honeyed life,” La Raja said.
The 2018 ballot will also be freighted with two ballot questions that will fire up both parties’ activists – including the conservative GOP grass roots that have been leery of Baker and are unhappy with his shunning of Trump. Voters will decide whether to repeal the law prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations and, separately, whether to raise taxes on incomes above $1 million.
While next week’s balloting could result in a host of unpleasant new political and legislative realities foisted upon the governor, there are potential upsides.
Passage of the charter-school measure would represent a notable political victory and delivery on campaign promises to expand the charter system.
Nationally, if Trump goes down in significant defeat, Baker could claim to be one of the early prominent Republican figures to pledge not to vote for him – despite waiting until after Trump won the state primary. That could leave the governor poised to help reshape a post-Trump GOP.