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Ballot question setbacks may yet aid Baker in 2018

Massachusetts voters on Tuesday legalized marijuana for recreational use, sweeping away more than a century of prohibition and opening the door to a massive new industry.
Massachusetts voters on Tuesday legalized marijuana for recreational use, sweeping away more than a century of prohibition and opening the door to a massive new industry.

After living a politically charmed life for the past two years, Governor Charlie Baker now faces his first serious turbulence, having been dealt a setback by voters who rejected two contentious ballot campaigns on which he staked considerable political capital.

As the dust settles from Tuesday’s balloting, Baker must watch the teachers unions, his bitter enemies in his failed fight to expand charter schools, take a victory lap.

And having played a leading role in opposition to legalizing marijuana, he must also contend with a new industry that could bring huge pot-growing farms and commercial outlets that market weed-laced candy bars, sodas, and brownies.

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Baker, among the most popular governors in America, is facing a stark new political reality: There are limits to his ability to use that popularity to convince voters to back him on controversial policy issues — or, on charter schools, to create a positive legacy that could define his governorship.

At the same time, analysts see several positives for Baker. He lost on both ballot questions but may have made inroads with constituencies he’ll need in his expected 2018 reelection campaign.

As Beacon Hill gets back to work, the governor will now be faced with two big challenges: leading the smooth implementation of marijuana legalization and figuring out how and whether to push forward on charter schools, even as other pressing matters demand his attention.

Late Tuesday, the governor issued a statement on the necessity of providing more educational choices for students in struggling Massachusetts school districts. “While Question 2 was not successful, the importance of that goal is unchanged,” he said.

It is far from clear whether the governor’s failure to sway voters will have a significant impact on his political standing or his prospects for reelection.

To be sure, Democrats and the labor unions who fought him in the charter school battle are feeling energized. “It’s inconclusive at this early point, but it’s hard to find a positive for him on this,’’ said John Walsh, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

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Walsh said Baker had misread the public mood as evidenced by the drubbing the governor’s charter expansion proposal took at the polls Tuesday, getting only 38 percent support despite the record $24 million spent to get it approved. In a partisan swipe, he noted that it was, in good part, Baker’s political team that ran the ballot campaign operations.

“I not sure the governor has the pulse of the electorate,’’ Walsh said. “And you have to ask how good the much-vaunted Team Baker really is.”

But some observers, and even a Democratic analyst, see a silver lining in the election results for Baker. His push to expand charter schools played well among some urban and minority communities, normally places with a steadfast bloc of Democratic voters but where charter schools have has a strong core of support.

Baker’s high-profile role in leading the charter expansion campaign allowed him to build relationships where no Republican has been able to penetrate in the modern era. Those voters may be critical in a reelection campaign to dampen a Democratic opponent’s ability to roll up large margins in the state’s urban centers.

“These are voters he needs, African-American and minority voters, who see charter schools helping their communities,’’ said Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh, echoing a theme that has run through Baker’s inner circle.

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In addition, Baker’s taking a lead in the antimarijuana battle may have also burnished his bipartisan credentials. He joined the state’s leading Democrats — particularly Attorney General Maura Healey and Mayor Martin J. Walsh — in opposition to legalization. The three penned a Globe column in opposition to the measure back in March.

“Even by losing these two questions, Charlie Baker wins politically,’’ said Marsh.

Peter N. Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College, said the image Baker projected in the antimarijuana ballot campaign — working with Democrats to tackle a major policy issue — is critical for the governor in a statewide campaign.

“That really helps to negate any electoral impact from these defeats two years from now when he runs for reelection,’’ Ubertaccio said.

Marsh sees another advantage. With his high-profile fight against marijuana legalization, she says, Baker gained some footing among another demographic group critical to his reelection: suburban residents and parents, many of them unenrolled voters, who are uneasy about expanding a drug culture they believe is already threatening to their children.

Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University, dismissed any notion that Baker’s image took a hit on Election Day. In fact, he said, the governor’s leadership in the campaigns reenforces his image as a policy-oriented governor.

“He has been a serious voice on these things,’’ Berkovitz said. “These are not hot-button social issues, these are real political issues. So, I don’t think this will come back to bite him.”

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Harder to discern is what effect the election will have on the power dynamics on Beacon Hill.

Baker, allied with the more moderate Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, has been able to drive much of the agenda, often isolating the more liberal Senate.

But the governor’s ending up on the losing side of both ballot questions could portend a subtle but significant shift. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who has often been the odd man out among the trio who rule the State House, stood alone among the three, opposing the charter school question and supporting legalizing marijuana.

Rosenberg, who had offered a much watered-down version of the charter school plan last April, could be in a position to bring DeLeo and Baker back to the negotiating table. He also could have some new capital to help lead on implementing the marijuana legalization.

Amid all this fallout, the political discussion increasingly shifts now to Baker’s expected reelection effort.

One sign of a problem could well be the GOP right, which has grown increasingly alienated from him after he refused to endorse Donald Trump. In wake of the Trump’s victory, Baker is facing a divided state party, just at a time he needs to focus on his reelection.

His failure to stop the legalization of marijuana could add fuel to that rift, particularly among social conservatives, who in 2018 will be fighting to pass a ballot question repealing the transgender rights bill that Baker signed.

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“You can look at this ballot campaign as a dry run that didn’t work,’’ said Walsh. “It will be interesting to analyze what this means for two years from now.’’


Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.