Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Massachusetts’ 2018 campaign will begin its first full test-run this weekend as parties kick off local caucuses, where Democrats will discover whether the party’s antagonistic energy toward President Trump can translate to the state’s top race: Governor Charlie Baker’s reelection battle.
So far, the Republican’s huge financial advantage and consistently high polling numbers have made it difficult for the three Democratic challengers to create much excitement over their candidacies and raise the necessary funds from the party’s usual big-dollar donors. At the same time, Democrats have seen a surge of activism since Trump’s election.
“The caucuses are the first test as to whether these candidates can turn that energy into increased participation and higher turnout,’’ said Doug Rubin, a veteran Democratic strategist who guided Deval Patrick from political obscurity to landslide victories.
At the caucuses, which begin for both parties Saturday at elementary schools, libraries and town halls throughout the state, tens of thousands of activists will hear from the campaigns officially for the first time. It’s the initial step in selecting delegates who will endorse the party’s preferred candidate or, in some cases, determine who will be on the primary ballot later this year.
And for Democrats, in particular, the gatherings of town and ward committees will serve as the initial organizational shake-down for the three candidates for governor: former Newton mayor Setti Warren, Patrick administration budget chief Jay Gonzalez, and environmental activist Robert K. Massie.
Rubin brushes aside the usual metrics — fund-raising, public opinion surveys — that show Baker with a strong standing. He said there is a clear path to victory against the governor that relies not so much on money but harnessing the anti-Trump wave to get Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to the polls.
“I want to see who can capture the excitement at the convention,’’ he said. “Whoever wins the convention needs to turn that momentum into a strong Democratic turnout in September and again in November.”
The Democratic caucuses are expected in good part to be dominated by the anti-Trump energy within the activists’ ranks. The question is where that enthusiasm will be directed.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a high-profile critic of the president, faces no primary challenges, but her national image as an antagonist to the president will undoubtedly attract some of the party’s attention, presenting a challenge for the Democrats’ three gubernatorial hopefuls who need that excitement to take their campaigns to new postconvention levels.
The Democratic caucuses will also lend some insight into whether several longstanding party stalwarts — Secretary of State William F. Galvin and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg — can hold off those insurgencies from the left. Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is challenging Galvin, while former Lowell mayor Patrick Murphy is taking a hard look at running against Goldberg.
Both incumbents have strong roots in the Democratic establishment, but they need to adjust as they face the volatile electoral climate.
On the GOP side, Baker is expected to easily sweep much of the Republican caucuses, despite pockets of conservative resistance to his candidacy. The only question is whether he can so heavily dominate the delegate selection that he can avoid a primary race.
Instead, the most contested GOP race will be between the three major candidates seeking the nomination to challenge Warren: state Representative Geoff Diehl, veteran GOP activist Beth Lindstrom, and Winchester businessman John Kingston. All three face a tough job of stirring enthusiasm among party faithful who view Warren as nearly as unbeatable as the Democratic rank-and-file activists view Baker.
Diehl, the only strong Trump supporter among the trio, is the early favorite to win the convention endorsement, while both Lindstrom and Kingston are working hard to make sure they merely clear the 15 percent threshold of total convention delegates that qualifies a candidate to get on the party’s primary election ballot on Sept. 4.
“Getting 15 percent is hand-to-hand combat for lesser-known candidates,’’ said Rob Gray, a longtime Republican strategist, of the rule both parties use for the ballot. “You have to personally engage, sometimes multiple times, to gain a delegate’s support.”
Both conventions are being held in Worcester. The Republicans gather there in April, the Democrats in June.
Baker’s team is putting his political clout towards crushing an obscure challenger, Scott Lively, a Protestant minister from Springfield, best known for his controversial anti-gay activities. Baker’s team would like to get enough support in the caucuses — as well as the slew of party leaders who automatically qualify as delegates — to avoid a primary altogether.
But that goal could be a challenge for Baker, as the makeup of the convention delegates has over the years become increasingly conservative, with many of them upset over what they see are his moderate and liberal policies and his close ties to some Democratic political figures.
A similar effort in 2014 against a little-known conservative challenger, Mark Fisher, blew up into a huge legal row and wild charges that dominated headlines. Baker and his allies ultimately failed to keep Fisher off the primary ballot.
In fact, knocking out a convention opponent does not necessarily portend success. At the 2010 GOP convention, Baker stopped his only potential primary challenge from a wealthy self-financed candidate, Christy Mihos, by keeping his delegate proportion to 11 percent. But that stunning victory did not translate into a win over Governor Deval Patrick in November.
Gray says the controversial 15 percent rule that both parties adopted allows the party to test people to see if they are credible candidates.
“The reason for the threshold is that a candidate who can’t put together a couple hundred delegates to get the 15 percent, there is no way they would be a successful candidate for the party in the general election,’’ he said.
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