By the numbers, Democrats still dominate Massachusetts politics. But Republican Governor Charlie Baker clearly runs the show.
Need more proof than Baker's soaring approval ratings? House and Senate leaders have little interest in changing a law that gives the sitting governor the power to appoint an interim US senator should a vacancy occur. As a hypothetical, at least, that means the state's Democratic leadership is willing to let Baker make the call. This would have been heresy in the not-so-distant past.
According to a Globe report, Senate minority leader Harry Reid is reviewing the Massachusetts rules of succession, based on speculation that Senator Elizabeth Warren might be tapped as Hillary Clinton's running mate. Asked about it, state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told Matt Murphy of the State House News Service that he "hasn't even thought about it." House Speaker Robert DeLeo's attitude is even more laissez-faire: "I'm not sure if I'd be terribly enthusiastic about changing what we've already done," he told the news service.
Compare that to 2004, when Senator John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee and state law would have allowed then-governor Mitt Romney — a Republican — to name an interim successor. To prevent that outcome, the Democrats who controlled the Legislature changed the law to require a special election. Kerry, of course, didn't win. But then, in 2009, after Senator Edward M. Kennedy died, lawmakers changed the law yet again to give then-governor Deval Patrick — a Democrat — the power to appoint a temporary successor.
What a difference a popular Republican governor makes. And by the way, how distant a memory is Patrick and his eight-year tenure? He was a footnote to the recent state party convention, in Lowell, when Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence thanked the former governor for supporting education reform and urban parks.
Critiques of Baker, meanwhile, fall into the low-energy category, or tilt positive. US Senator Edward J. Markey told WGBH's Adam Reilly, "Getting the money for snow removal, we were successful in partnering on that issue. I was able to set up a meeting with Joe Biden in his office with the governor and that led to the $130 million being released. I'm working with the governor as well on opioid related issues. So where we agree, we should work hard to partner and try to make progress."
You might say Baker has made it harder to criticize him because he's conforming to the demands of a liberal-leaning state. Early in May, he said he wouldn't vote for Donald Trump. When transgender rights turned into a national issue, Baker was pushed into supporting an antidiscrimination proposal for Massachusetts. Still, the House of Representatives passed the version of the bill that Baker said he's willing to sign. It includes language that LGBT activists say is unnecessary and designed to protect against an unlikely scenario — people who falsely claim a gender identity. Baker also fired up immigration rights activists by recently changing state policy to allow State Police to check with federal immigration authorities about the status of suspects detained on state criminal charges.
But overall, Massachusetts voters like his management style and commitment to fiscal restraint. And Beacon Hill Democrats have no desire to challenge him on any of that.
It puts Baker — the most popular governor in the country, according to a recent survey — in an interesting spot.
He has already cut ties with the Republican party as it exists in this chaotic age of Trump. Come November, if the GOP ticket goes down in flames, the party will be desperate for fresh leadership to rebuild its broken brand. Who better than a selfie-snapping governor with a 72 percent approval rating in the blue state of Massachusetts?