US Senator Elizabeth Warren was visiting a cookout last month for Lawrence Housing Authority residents affected by the Merrimack Valley gas explosions when a reporter asked her how she thought Republican Governor Charlie Baker had handled the response to the crisis.
Missing from her reply? The governor.
“I think that this is not about politics, it’s everyone is doing their best under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Mayor [Dan] Rivera has really stepped up,” Warren said, as the city’s top public official stood beside her. She went on to praise the town managers of Andover and North Andover as well.
“The governor has been here every day,” interjected Rivera, one of several Democratic mayors in the state to endorse Baker.
The exchange highlighted the lengths to which the state’s top two pols on the 2018 ballot seem to be willing to go recently to avoid uttering each other’s names — in praise or criticism. Warren is campaigning for Baker’s challenger, Democratic nominee Jay Gonzalez — and while the governor has endorsed the state’s GOP ticket, he is not actively campaigning for her opponent, Geoff Diehl.
And it underscores the singular dynamics of Massachusetts politics in 2018. On one hand, there’s Warren, an unabashedly liberal, bare-knuckle Donald Trump antagonist who has become one of the more polarizing Democratic figures in politics. On the other, there is Baker, a Republican in a deep blue state who polls have shown is also the most popular governor in the country.
Both are up for re-election on Nov. 6. Both enjoy sizeable leads ahead of their opponents in public polls. Both are supporting the other’s challenger.
Neither one goes out of the way to mention the other.
Key to this political dance is the overlapping constituencies that Warren and other Democrats share with Baker.
“Politically, there are a lot of Charlie Baker Democrats, and he polls well among Democrats and independent voters,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “He has a history now of working well with Democratic leadership and earning praise from Democratic elected officials and there’s not a lot to be gained at this point to be going after him politically.”
A recent Suffolk University Political Research Center/Boston Globe poll found that 40 percent of registered Democrats say they plan to vote for Baker, along with 62 percent of unenrolled voters.
The same poll showed 84 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of independents backing Warren.
Not naming Baker is a strategy other top Democrats seem to be adopting, despite sometimes enthusiastic praise many of them have offered Baker in the past.
At a unity event for Democrats on Sept. 12, Ayanna Pressley, the nominee in the Seventh Congressional District, only indirectly referenced Baker in terms of “the hate coming out of this White House and our complicitness in the corner office here to that hate.” At the same event, most of the rest of the state’s congressional delegation also did not utter the B-word.
For his part, Baker did not even endorse Warren’s Republican opponent by name after Geoff Diehl prevailed in the primary. “I’ve endorsed the ticket, which I said I was going to do months ago,” was all the fanfare he gave the occasion. The fact that Baker is not actively out on the stump campaigning for Diehl makes it easier for the governor to avoid talking about Warren.
Independent candidate Shiva Ayyadurai is also running for Senate.
Warren and Baker have a decent, and ongoing, working relationship, according to associates.
Last year, Warren and Baker worked together to push back against congressional Republicans’ efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, most visibly when he testified in front of the Senate Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee on which she sits. After introducing him to the committee and praising his “considerable expertise” in health care, Warren used her allotted time to ask Baker questions in support of their common view that the proposed changes were wrong.
In June, Warren touted on Twitter that Baker had backed legislation she authored to allow states to set their own marijuana policies.
More recently, images streamed across social media of Warren and Baker touring the devastation of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions together a couple of days after the event.
“Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito have developed successful, collaborative relationships with the congressional delegation and have worked together to deliver real results for the people of Massachusetts, such as protecting the Affordable Care Act and securing transportation funding for projects like the Green Line Extension,” said Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw.
The “go-for-the-jugular” politics that predominates in Washington tends not to work as well in the Bay State, in part because the state’s Democrats have enjoyed such a productive relationship with Baker, which then makes it more difficult to go after one another personally, said Ubertaccio.
The not-so-partisan dynamic is not without historical precedent in Massachusetts. Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist who used to work for former Senator Ted Kennedy, recalled how in 1994 his boss didn’t seek out opportunities to criticize Bill Weld, who was running for a second term as governor at the same time Kennedy was facing his toughest reelection fight for the Senate.
“Kennedy didn’t go out of his way to bash Bill Weld. Part of it was because, they got along, but also he was kind of hard to bash. What would you hit him on?” said Ferson. He said he sees a similar phenomenon in the Warren-Baker relationship. “There’s going to be a lot of people voting for Elizabeth Warren and Charlie Baker, so it’s smart politically,” he said.
This is not to say Warren isn’t helping Gonzalez. She has headlined several events aimed at supporting the entire Democratic ticket. And she’s even tiptoed up to slamming Baker, if not exactly by name.
At a campaign event in Cambridge shortly after the Sept. 4 primary, Warren described two kinds of Republicans in the Trump era — those like her “opponent” Geoff Diehl — whom she also never refers to by name — and those like Gonzalez’s opponent, who “write some letters; put out a few releases about how ‘concerned’ you are by this administration’s moves; and look the other way and pretend you don’t actually know what’s going on in Washington while you continue to support Republicans.”
“That’s why we need Jay Gonzalez in the governor’s mansion,” she said.
Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.