Wrapped in a Red Sox sweatshirt, Governor Charlie Baker bounded up the Fenway Park riser Wednesday to gleefully recount the last out of the World Series. He mimicked Manny Machado’s flailing, down-on-one-knee swing to a cheering crowd. “It was awesome!” Baker exclaimed. Local TV stations carried the moment live.
A few miles away at South Station, Jay Gonzalez stood outside. One hand stuffed inside a dark grey peacoat, the other extended outward, he greeted commuters trying to beat the dwindling walk signal. “Hello, Jay Gonzalez,” he said introducing himself, a Republican party tracker training a lone handheld video camera at his back.
If optics shape reality, the campaign trails taking Baker and Gonzalez to Tuesday’s ballot couldn’t look more different, pitting a Republican incumbent awash in photo opps and gaudy poll numbers against an underdog Democratic challenger scraping for attention.
Their paths collide for a final time Thursday in their third debate at 7 p.m., hosted by WCVB-TV, WBUR-FM, The Boston Globe, and the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
It offers Gonzalez the highest-profile stage left to convince undecided voters that the state needs a change in the corner office. But getting there has also meant traveling a long, and sometimes politically lonely, road since his campaign launched 21 months ago.
“Nobody knew who I was when I started. I knew I would need to invest the time to get around the state, meet people, really understand the challenges people are facing,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “I really want to win, and I think we’re gonna win. But it’s been a unique life experience.”
Gonzalez has struggled with building name recognition and fund-raising, compounding problems that have hamstrung his efforts to reach a wider swath of voters. He’s run two TV ads with financial help from the state Democratic Party, but no outside groups have coalesced to fund their own advertising package as they did for his 2014 predecessor, Martha Coakley.
Gonzalez’s former boss, Deval Patrick, has not stumped with him, his hands tied, Patrick says, by federal “pay-to-play” rules. And segments of the reliable labor bloc have taken on a lower-profile role.
Four years ago, a coalition of unions, including 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, combined with the Democratic Governors Association to pour $7.1 million into a super PAC dedicated to denting Baker’s image.
This year, the SEIU is neutral in the race. The DGA has not involved itself after spending $1.4 million in 2014. And while the Massachusetts Teachers Association has endorsed Gonzalez, absent is the $2.5 million its political arm spent to help Coakley.
“If I had a couple of million dollars to spend anyway I wanted, that would have happened,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. The union has endorsed Gonzalez too, focusing on social media advocacy, phone banking, and member outreach.
Merrie Najimy, president of the 110,000-member MTA, said it arrived at the same conclusion: “The best way for us to participate in this election is by informing and activating our members.”
Gonzalez, to be sure, has other help. The state Democratic party’s coordinated campaign has hired 40 field organizers for the ticket. He’s stumped with Senator Elizabeth Warren, and spent Tuesday in Lawrence touring businesses with state Representative Juana Matias and in Boston at a rally with Senator Edward J. Markey.
But to others, the lack of outside cash is telling.
“If there were anything that pointed to the fact that a Democrat could retake the corner office, there would be a lot of investment in trying to make that happen,” said Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic strategist.
It’s stood in stark contrast to Baker, who’s enjoyed the fruits of incumbency amid a humming campaign apparatus. Before celebrating the Red Sox World Series title Wednesday, he was shoveling ceremonial dirt this week with Democratic House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo at a groundbreaking in Chelsea. Last week, it was Attorney General Maura Healey — a popular Democrat who’s campaigned with Gonzalez — laughing alongside Baker and other officials as a pair of oversized scissors struggled to cut the ribbon celebrating a veterans facility in Charlestown.
They’re not campaign events, but they offer visibility often unavailable to a challenger — never mind one behind 39 points in public polls.
Beyond his official schedule, Baker campaign aides stress the governor has kept up a political slate, making eight campaign stops last weekend. And he’s continued to spend: At least $3.7 million between him and running mate, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, since the Sept. 4 primary.
That’s been reinforced by the Republican Governors Association, which has dropped $6.6 million into a super PAC on pro-Baker advertising.
The PAC’s all but ignored Gonzalez, mentioning him only briefly in one pro-Baker TV spot, after spending $9.5 million attacking Coakley. In fact, zero dollars have gone toward so-called opposition spending on Gonzalez this year, campaign finance records show.
Outside South Station on Wednesday, all that was background noise as Gonzalez strode up to strangers. Several told him the same thing: They voted early, and for him.
“So far, only people voting for me!” Gonzalez said with a grin. He then turned back toward the curb, where more commuters were pooling, waiting for the next walk signal.