Charlie Baker was still a new governor in July 2015, enjoying soaring popularity and national headlines that hailed him as “The Bluest Republican.” Soon, the questions started.
“Does Donald Trump help your party?” Baker was asked, twice, during a Q&A session that veered toward the then-presidential candidate. In a winding response, Baker deflected, saying that he hoped the GOP nominee would be a “uniter.”
After he was prodded again for his personal feelings, a smirking Baker momentarily dropped his microphone: “I thought I answered his question,” Baker told the crowd.
Three-plus years later, and much to Baker’s chagrin, it’s one he’s still being asked.
As Baker seeks reelection to a second term, still hovering at the periphery of his political profile are questions about how he has responded to, navigated around, and truly feels about Donald Trump.
Baker didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, and said he doesn’t intend to in 2020, either.
He has criticized Trump’s actions in sharp tones (“disgraceful”) and mild ones (“disappointing”).
But in a state where many voters generally loathe Trump, is it enough? His challenger, Democrat Jay Gonzalez, says absolutely not; The state needs a fiercer fighter.
On Nov. 6, the Election Day outcome could very well provide an answer.
Baker’s positioning on Trump is necessarily complex in this left-leaning state, said Marty Linsky, who worked with him in the 1990s during the Weld administration.
“There’s no payoff in making a political calculation every time [with Trump] because there’s nothing he can do that won’t annoy a whole bunch of people,” Linsky said. He described Baker as “a very hard person to peg ideologically” on most issues.
“One way to describe it is cautious,” he said of Baker’s approach. “Another way to describe it is thoughtful.”
Critics on both sides contend it’s something wholly different.
In the span of 24 hours in January, a headline blared that Baker had “ditched” Trump, while a Democratic Party press release said he was “protecting” him. Baker has been both “anti-Trump” and, according to Gonzalez, “complicit.”
To some Republicans, the governor has shown Trump “outright animosity.” To some Democrats, he’s shown Trump political cover.
“Charlie Baker knows how to manage a state government, but being an effective leader is so much more than that,” said Representative Seth Moulton, who pointed to the late Senator John McCain as a model for how Republicans should respond to Trump. “Baker is missing an opportunity to hold this administration accountable and be a leader in his party.”
In a Globe interview, Baker brushed off the suggestion that Trump has been his most unanticipated political challenge, saying the job, by nature, brings a slew of unexpected obstacles. But he staunchly defended himself against critics who say he hasn’t responded to the president with enough force.
“My answer to this is yes [I have],” Baker said. “My job is to be effective as well as forceful, and in instances where we thought it made sense to come together with others to express our vehement disagreement either with the rhetoric or policies of the administration, we have.”
Baker points to the Affordable Care Act, whose GOP-led repeal, he warned in a March 2017 letter to the Massachusetts delegation, could cost the state billions. He testified before a Senate committee in September 2017, arguing against withholding health care subsidies.
And he highlights other examples: opposing Trump’s proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health, pledging to restore any federal cuts to Planned Parenthood with state money, and urging protections for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
Baker reiterated that he doesn’t support Trump politically and that he doesn’t know him personally, having met him only during National Governors Association-organized events.
“I don’t expect I’ll vote for him in 2020,” Baker said of Trump. Asked if there’s something that could change, Baker replied, “I don’t think I’m going to vote for him.”
“I said many times since , I didn’t think he had the temperament for the job,” he said, “and I see nothing that has changed my mind.”
Keeping Trump at arm’s length has done little to hold Baker’s challengers at bay.
They say he’s been too slow to speak out, pointing to his no-show at a Boston Women’s March in the first days of Trump’s presidency that drew Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and other top Democrats. Or last month, they say, when he called for an investigation into sexual assault allegations against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — but initially didn’t answer whether Kavanaugh was fit for the seat or if he believed his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
The next day, Baker’s official Twitter account sent a widely retweeted statement calling the allegations “sickening.” And that afternoon, the governor told reporters that he did believe Ford. (Baker later said Kavanaugh should not be on the court.)
But it was that hours-long pause — between his initial response and his subsequent tougher comments — that fueled the criticism.
“I don’t think the people of Massachusetts need or want a governor who is going to be a pen pal of Donald Trump,” said Gonzalez, Baker’s Democratic challenger. “I think people right now are yearning for someone who is going to fight back. I’m sorry, but writing a letter expressing your opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is not enough.”
The argument took hold again this month, after Baker’s uneven responses on whether he’ll vote for Geoff Diehl — a staunch Trump supporter who’s challenging Warren — offered Gonzalez a foothold in his attempts to tie Baker to the Trump brand of Republicanism he’s repeatedly shunned.
Even some of Baker’s own criticisms of Trump have opened him to political fire.
Take last year’s vote in the House to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act: Moulton said that “Congress failed the American people.” Representative Katherine Clark said that it was built on “dangerous and callous practices.” Representative James McGovern called it “an abomination.”
And Baker? After urging against the vote, his initial statement said he was “disappointed” and that he would “continue to advocate” for the state.
Baker advisers view the governor’s rebukes differently. By mostly sticking to what they argue are substantive criticisms, Baker often avoids the 280-character fray into which others so quickly leap, they say.
“That’s more impactful than tweeting,” said one Baker adviser. “That’s the president’s game.”
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has campaigned with Baker and helped raise money for him in 2014, accepts that Trump poses challenges for Baker politically, but argues that Baker has navigated the situation because he “disagrees honestly and responsibly.”
“I think most folks understand that Charlie’s got a job to do,” Christie said. “And that his first job is not to be a national political leader. His first job is to be the governor of Massachusetts.”
Baker, to be sure, has not completely cut off national Republicans, taking millions in help from the Republican Governors Association in both his 2014 campaign election and this year’s. His joint fund-raising operation with the Republican National Committee has also been a frequent political target.
It’s unclear whether voters see Baker’s Trump conundrum the way Baker’s Democratic critics paint it. Baker has held a lead of nearly 30 points over Gonzalez in public polling, and 61 percent of likely voters in a recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University survey say they view Baker as “anti-Trump.”
For some Republicans, of course, that’s hardly a positive.
“It seems like he is tap-dancing for the liberals in this state every opportunity he gets,” said Parson Hicks, a Trump delegate at the 2016 National Republican Convention.
Hicks said she’s so dissatisfied she’s weighing blanking her gubernatorial ballot on Nov. 6, as she did in the primary. Baker did the same for Trump in 2016.
“I call it pulling a Charlie,” Hicks said.
As this year’s election rolls into the next cycle, the Republican Party could, again, find itself at a crossroads: Follow Trump’s lead into 2020, or cast an eye toward other Republicans, who may launch a primary challenge.
Baker, asked about the possibility and what role he’d see himself playing in that choice, answered carefully.
“I get very uncomfortable talking about something like that until I actually have a platform for a second term,” Baker said.
“But,” he added, “it’s certainly something I think about.”