Metro

Democrats play wait-and-see on gubernatorial field

Jay Gonzalez (upper left), Dan Wolf (upper right), Setti Warren (lower left), and Bob Massie (lower right).

Massachusetts Democratic activists share a general view of the names in circulation to challenge Governor Charlie Baker next year: All are nice guys. Solid candidates. But let’s keep the door open.

“I have heard all of them. . . . They’re all good people,” said Deb Fastino, executive director of the Coalition for Social Justice and a Democratic state committee member.

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“I think the Democratic field will be pretty robust, but I don’t know how that evolves,” said Randall Tatum, another committee member.

Interviews with more than 20 committee members, activists, strategists, and Democratic officeholders reveal a common theme. The party is broadly optimistic about its odds against the Republican governor, but underwhelmed by the current, still nebulous cast of candidates. And they really — really — want Attorney General Maura Healey to run.

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“The only A-level candidate I’ve heard of is Maura Healey, who’s obviously not in the race,” said state Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan.

Only one Democrat, former Patrick budget chief Jay Gonzalez, has formalized a candidacy. Mayor Setti Warren of Newton has told prospective donors that he will run, and has announced a change in his campaign finance classification as a step toward that end. Bob Massie, the party’s lieutenant governor nominee in 1994, has said that he is considering it. Dan Wolf, the former state senator who founded Cape Air and was bounced from the 2014 race by an obscure ethics rule that has since been changed, has not ruled out a campaign.

“We got some interesting new faces,” said Lee Harrison, a committee member from Williamstown. “Look, I remember back in 2006 nobody had heard of [eventual governor Deval Patrick]. I expect we’ll have a good primary and there’ll be other people who may jump in. Of course, everybody would love Maura to jump in.”

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Healey has repeatedly said she is running for reelection, though many Democrats believe the door is still open to a gubernatorial bid.

Other elected Democrats often cited as potentially strong candidates include three members of the state’s congressional delegation: Representatives Katherine Clark, Joseph P. Kennedy III, and Seth Moulton. But all three have indicated they are unlikely to run for governor next year.

The nascent campaigns of those who are interested in running have been complicated by the widespread hope that Healey will reverse field and join the race. That uncertainty is hamstringing both their fund-raising and organizing efforts. Until Healey slams shut the door, that dynamic will likely remain.

“It is a real fear among the campaigns that she could come in and bigfoot,” said one major Democratic fund-raiser.

There is a telling recent precedent. With Republican Senator Scott Brown up for reelection in 2012, a gaggle of Democrats lined up to challenge him, including two — Warren and Massie — considering gubernatorial bids this year.

But many of the state’s progressives, and party leaders in Washington, clamored for former Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren. After demurring for months, she declared her candidacy about a year before the primary and effectively cleared the field.

Several Democratic strategists said Healey could avail herself of a similar strategy this year. Party activists are in the midst of their annual caucuses, which frequently offer insight into which candidates have momentum among the party’s base. The caucuses will also elect delegates to the off-year party convention, which will also serve as a test of the campaigns’ organizing abilities and popularity.

Thus far, the caucuses have revealed ample anti-Trump, anti-Baker energy, but party insiders say it has yet to flow in the direction of any individual candidate.

Baker remains popular among voters, though his numbers have softened in recent polls and he took office with the slimmest victory margin in 50 years. Democratic strategists, eyeing the 2018 ballot, believe that the combination of Warren’s reelection campaign, a bevy of liberal hot-button ballot questions, and the midterm referendum on President Trump combine to give their party a significant structural advantage.

They note that the electoral calendar is still young. Activists began meeting last month in local caucuses, which continue through this month and often lend early momentum to upstart candidates or help favorites cement their positions.

But, at this point at the same stage in the 2006 race, the last time Democrats tried to take back the governorship, Patrick had already begun riling the base — largely by electrifying the caucuses. And there is, according to the Globe survey of Democrats, no Patrick on the horizon.

“All are very qualified people, obviously, but their name ID needs to get much higher and they have months to do that,” said Holmes. “Their biggest challenge is that [Baker is] going to go everywhere and not take any vote for granted, and we’ve seen that already.”

Several party elders likened the early dynamics of the 2018 race to the 1994 gubernatorial, when the Democratic primary featured a field viewed as too thin to topple the popular Republican governor, William Weld.

Indeed, in the November general election, Weld thrashed Democratic state Representative Mark Roosevelt, 71 percent to 29 percent, the largest margin of victory in a gubernatorial race in state history.

The same month, Weld elevated from a health and human services post to budget chief a promising young aide named Charlie Baker.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.
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