As Massachusetts Democrats converge for their annual convention in Worcester this weekend, party leaders, activists, and operatives face a dispiriting challenge: blocking Governor Charlie Baker’s reelection in 2018.
To eject Baker, the party will have to channel fury from a new wave of party activists, emboldened by their opposition to President Trump, into a campaign to defeat a Republican governor. Baker has distanced himself from the president and a host of his most controversial policies, from climate change and immigration bans to health care and budget cuts.
What’s more, the governor’s consistent record-breaking popularity in opinion polls, unprecedented fund-raising prowess, and effective use of his bully pulpit on Beacon Hill have positioned him as an affable Republican moderate — and created serious political complications for Democrats, according to Globe interviews with longtime activists, leaders, and party operatives.
But the rank and file’s focus on Trump and the turmoil in Washington, while ignoring the governor’s race, might be their toughest obstacle.
“I see much more enthusiasm among activists in getting rid of Donald Trump than in the governor’s race,’’ said Janet Beyer, a veteran Democratic state committeewoman from Concord. “A lot of Democrats here are more concerned about electing people around the country who can override Trump than who’s running for governor,” she said.
Another longtime state committee member, Tom Larkin of Bedford, said he sees that as the biggest challenge facing Democrats — to harness the passion brought into the party this year by a surge of new anti-Trump activists into a campaign against a moderate Baker.
“It is hard enough to get a handle on Baker as a problem, but Trump is boiling the pot, helping us keep the activists in the field,’’ he said. “Our challenge is to translate that to a Democratic race to beat Baker. I don’t see how we can take advantage of it. It’s tricky.’’
Other party leaders and the candidates are apparently sensing that, too. Trump is the first name out of their mouths when asked about the Massachusetts gubernatorial race and the strategies to beat Baker.
“Trump is an albatross around his neck,’’ Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford said. “Our focus has to be on Trump and what Charlie Baker, as the leader of his party, is going to do to stand up for the people of Massachusetts.”
The announced candidates — former Patrick administration fiscal chief Jay Gonzalez, Newton Mayor Setti Warren, and environmental activist and 1994 lieutenant governor nominee Robert K. Massie — strongly dismiss reports that the nascent gubernatorial race is failing to generate much interest or enthusiasm at the grass roots.
While they are not creating much excitement, they are seen for the most part as credible candidates, with the beginning assemblage of campaign organizations, the development of broad themes for their candidacies, and claims of growing lists of volunteers.
But none of the three has yet to create the kind of spark that Deval Patrick had at this stage of the 2006 race.
Warren argues that it is too early to make that assessment. But his comments again highlight the point that Trump is the political bugbear at the center of the 2018 state election.
“This is where we can actually push back against Trump’s policies,’’ Warren said of the race. “It is going to take time to build up the grass roots, but we will get there.”
The candidates are also nervously looking at a shadow boxer at the edge of the race — Attorney General Maura Healey, who has a healthy $1 million in her campaign account and a strong political profile just halfway through her first term.
A Healey candidacy is the Baker camp’s worst fear and many Democratic leaders greatest wish, according to Republican insiders. But she is showing no signs of jumping into the race at this point. However, Democrats say that if Baker’s poll numbers were to crater this fall, she would face strong — and tempting — urgings for her to get in the race.
Another problem for gubernatorial contenders is the importance the party is expected to put on the US Senate race. Elizabeth Warren’s reelection is the party’s priority, particularly with national Republicans threatening to pour resources into Massachusetts next year to damage her national reputation. “She needs to be our No. 1 priority going into 2018,’’ one of the state’s top Democrats said. “The governor race is an afterthought.”
But perhaps the most difficult challenge for Democrats to unravel Baker’s candidacy is his public image. Since his hard-fought election, he has crafted a profile that few dispute — an affable governor who seems more focused on governing and is not banging the partisan drum or looking for battles with Democrats.
He has cultivated Democrats and set a tone that appeals to moderate voters — a swing bloc that often decides gubernatorial elections, particularly for Republicans.
“He never uses excitable language,’’ said US Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat and the dean of state’s congressional delegation. “It’s very reassuring. Every word he utters is aimed at suburban independent voters.”
Veterans of state politics said they see a parallel to 1994, when a very popular Republican incumbent — an affable and moderate William F. Weld — cruised to reelection. He crushed Mark Roosevelt, a state representative with historic political roots and a legislative record. He is Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson.
Even Elizabeth Warren’s ability to generate turnout of Democrats, they argue, might not necessarily help the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. The state has a deep history of ticket splitting. That same year, while Weld won in a record landslide, Senator Edward M. Kennedy handily beat back what at first appeared to be a serious challenge from first-time candidate Mitt Romney.
Some veterans of past campaigns dismiss the notion that party’s rank and file, who rallied to Patrick and gave him a landslide victory in the Democratic primary and general election in 2006, are not ready to mount a spirited challenge to Baker. They argue that the anti-Trump fervor that is bringing overflow crowds to local meetings will spill into the state elections next year.
“The Democrats have a much more favorable environment than 1994,’’ says Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who guided Patrick from obscurity to the governor’s office in less that two years and in a come-from-behind reelection to beat Baker in 2010.
“There is a real grass-roots excitement since the Trump election, which will carry over to the state elections in 2018,’’ Rubin predicts. “They are looking for an opportunity to push back. And Democrats win when our base is engaged and motivated.”