Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Paging all Massachusetts Democrats who think they have what it takes to lead a state of almost 7 million people: This is your final boarding call.
The window to raise the cash, make the grass-roots connections, and hone a message that could unseat Governor Charlie Baker in 2018 is fast closing, political pros say.
“Anyone who is looking to run a grass-roots campaign, which has proven to be a successful model in Massachusetts, needs to get in now,” said political consultant Doug Rubin, who helped shepherd Deval L. Patrick from little-known corporate lawyer to governor in the 2006 race.
The sole exceptions are premiere club members Attorney General Maura Healey and US Representative Joe Kennedy III, who already have deep political and fund-raising connections in Massachusetts. But both have stated unequivocally that they will not run for the corner office next year.
For everyone else, time’s just about up to join the three low-profile Democrats already in the race.
“When the pumpkin lattes come out in the year before an election season, you need to be making your decision, because you have to raise dough in two consecutive years to run for governor,” said consultant David Guarino, a political adviser to Healey. “That’s really held over the years.”
Indeed, for 50 years, every successful gubernatorial candidate not running for reelection — with one exception — has launched their campaign the year before voters cast their ballots.
Consider: For the November 2014 election, Baker launched his campaign in early September of 2013, after a losing campaign for governor in 2010.
Patrick filed paperwork for a gubernatorial campaign in January 2005 for the November 2006 election.
In the spring of 1989, William F. Weld announced to the Globe that he would run for governor in 1990.
Edward J. King launched his gubernatorial campaign in October of 1977 for the 1978 race.
And Michael S. Dukakis kicked off his first gubernatorial campaign in October 1973, more than 13 months before his 1974 victory.
Mitt Romney, who came to the race with enormous personal wealth, marks the big exception of the modern era. He made his bid official in March of 2002, just eight months before he won.
But the state Democratic Party’s process rewards those who start early.
Democratic Party caucuses — the sometimes boisterous, sometimes staid events that, taken together, mark the first real test of the campaigns — begin in February of an election year.
At hundreds of gatherings in cities and towns across the state, neighbors make their pitch to neighbors and ask for their vote to be a representative at the state Democratic convention in June.
A campaign’s mission is to elect delegates who will support them because candidates must receive the backing of 15 percent of delegates — usually about 750 people — at the convention to qualify for the September primary ballot.
That takes time and lots of effort to organize successfully, and the process rewards those who have spent time making their case to activists from Pittsfield to Provincetown.
“I’ve always believed in the caucuses. I think they are a good organizational tool. They are the foundation of grass-roots organizing,” said state party chairman Gus Bickford. “To set a bar like that makes the party stronger, top to bottom.”
Then there’s money.
State finance law limits individuals to giving $1,000 to a candidate per calendar year. So being able to tap wealthy donors in 2017 and 2018 could be key for any Democrat hoping to take on Baker, who had a whopping $6.7 million in the bank on Oct. 15.
“There’s an expectation among party insiders, and opinion leaders, and activists that these campaigns now take 18 to 24 months,” said Democratic consultant Dan Cence, a senior vice president at the public relations firm Solomon McCown & Co. “If other people are out there actively recruiting field operatives, engaging local town committees, raising money, and you’re not, then naturally you fall behind.”
All that adds up to a field of Democratic candidates that may soon be set at three: Newton Mayor Setti Warren, former Deval Patrick budget chief Jay Gonzalez, and environmentalist and entrepreneur Robert K. Massie. All announced their bids earlier this year. All have been recruiting activists and soliciting endorsements. All have been making appearances around the state.
And, conventional wisdom holds, all are long shots against Baker, whose job approval rating has held at a jaw-dropping 70 percent in surveys of registered voters for almost all of his term.
That approval rating, his big fund-raising haul, and the dearth of apparent crises in Baker’s administration have kept other candidates out of the race, analysts say.
One potential candidate, Cape Air chief executive and former state senator Dan Wolf, was coy when asked if he is still considering a bid for governor. Since the hurricanes, he said in a text message, he has been focused on his airline’s San Juan-based employees and the communities they serve in the Caribbean.
Other businessmen have been mentioned as potential Democratic candidates, but none have stepped forward.
“Under normal circumstances, the window is closing rapidly,” said Steve Grossman, a 2014 candidate for governor and former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “But I think there are an awful lot of Democrats out there who are undecided. And if there’s a vacuum out [there], particularly among the most liberal and progressive caucus-goers, is there someone who could rapidly fill it?”
To be determined, Grossman said. And probably pretty soon.
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