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The rise of Charlie Baker

MI Studio 2

In an era of Donald Trump and polarized politics, Massachusetts Republican Charlie Baker has become the nation’s most popular governor by playing it down the middle. But, the question remains: is there a spot on the national stage for a politician like him?

As this past Election Day wore on and the minutes slowly ticked down until polls closed in what was considered one of the most important elections in our nation’s history, voters continued to flow in and out of the polling station in the Dover, Massachusetts Town Hall.

After completing their civic duty, some stopped to express who and why they voted for a particular politician. One female voter, who wished to not be identified, said that she was a supporter of Republican incumbent governor Charlie Baker’s successful reelection bid, but added, “It’s not that simple.”

As she turned and walked away, she doubled back to say, “This isn’t a great town to live in and admit to being a Republican.”

It was a proclamation that, in one sentence, captured the very real tension that divides the country. How you feel about certain issues, from health care and gun laws to immigration and LGBTQ rights, ultimately depends on what side of the political aisle you fall. And, in the current political climate, if you don’t see eye-to-eye with someone else, then it can seem for the best that you both just keep your opinions to yourselves and move on.

Over the past several election cycles, the number of politicians bridging the partisan divide has become fewer and fewer, while the vitriol spewed between political parties has only intensified.

And yet, Massachusetts of all places, is where Baker has managed to transcend party affiliation to become, not just the most popular governor in America, but one of the most popular politicians in the country.

In the span of eight years, Baker has gone from a gubernatorial loser to twice winning election as governor of one of the most progressive states in America as a Republican. And he’s done so while maintaining an approval rating that has hovered at or above 70 percent in a time in which the political divide between parties has never been greater.

Baker’s popularity has led many experts to anoint him as “Mitt Romney 2.0.” Romney, who lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, was also a moderate Republican who appealed to the liberal voters of Massachusetts during his time as governor.

A better way to characterize Baker, however, isn’t by saying he’s the second coming of Romney, but rather a remade version of himself.

“I think in the open seat, when he faced off against (Martha) Coakley, he was in a better position to be the candidate who he is,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “He doesn’t strike me as someone with a great appetite of partisan conflict.… Baker likes the campaigning, but he really likes the governing.”

The evolution of Charlie Baker

When Baker lost in 2010 to Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick, Baker struggled to deal with defeat. He came across as angry and a sore loser, from picking battles with reporters down to his campaign slogan, “Had enough?” But, in a move to make sure that 2010 didn’t repeat itself, in the time between his loss to Patrick and 2014, when Baker defeated the Democratic challenger Coakley, Baker’s worked to change perceptions. He became more likeable and relatable to his voters, most notably publicizing his stance on gay rights by featuring himself in a campaign ad with his openly-gay brother. He said he believed the science behind global warming, had a plan in place to combat homelessness and supported abortion center buffer zones — all issues important to progressive voters.

The change in approach worked. After garnering about 42 percent of the vote and fewer than 965,000 votes in the 2010 election, Baker picked up nearly 80,000 more votes in 2014, en route to winning the governor’s seat with just over 48 percent.

Despite that narrow margin in 2014, he didn’t reflect a split constituent base once he took office. Commonly regarded as a manager and a fixer, Baker’s approval rating regularly had a net margin of plus-50 within the state, much greater than that of President Donald Trump and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In 2014, Baker won 232 towns out of 351 in Massachusetts (66 percent). By comparison, during the 2016 election, Trump managed to carry just 92 towns (26 percent). All in all, there were 139 towns that went red for Baker in 2014 and blue for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In several of those towns, the voting difference was substantial. Baker thrived in affluent areas where voters were college educated at a higher rate than the statewide average. In Dover, one of the wealthiest towns in Massachusetts, with a per capita income of more than $84,000, Baker won by 39 points. In 2016, Clinton carried it by 27 points.

“You have a lot of people who have lived in (Dover) a long time and this town, from what I understand, is very staunch Republican,” Dover resident Elizabeth Shannon said. “But, I think a lot of people like my age and younger have moved in because it’s a great place to raise your kids to get a good education and those are mostly people who are more Democrat in the way they vote.”

In Mansfield, there was a 40-point swing between Baker in 2014 and Clinton in 2016. There were even two towns in Massachusetts where Baker secured victories in 2014 that later went overwhelmingly in Clinton’s favor. Baker won Wellesley by 13 points and Needham by three points in 2014. Both were significant wins when you consider that, two years later, Clinton carried both towns by 50 points.

It’s towns that look like those where Baker can sell himself if he ever does choose to step into the national political scene. In 2016, Clinton held a nine-point advantage over Trump among college-educated voters, one of the widest margins among that demographic in recent elections. Now, after nearly two years of Trump in office and with the House of representatives shifting heavily back in favor of the Democrats in the midterm elections, thanks in large part to Democrats doing incredibly well in those affluent towns, strong results in places like Dover, Winchester and Wellesley can be launching pads into towns across the country that share similar demographics, should Baker ever aim for national politics.

But, if there was one concern when looking at Baker’s success and comparing it to Trump, it came in the towns that were true, deep-red Republican. Even though Massachusetts is notoriously liberal, in the areas where Trump did secure wins, he did so by exceeding his average at a greater rate than Baker did. In 2014, Baker’s per-town average was 49.9 percent. Trump’s was 37.5 percent. In towns like Blandford, Russell, Wales, Holland and Saugus, Baker only won by about 10 points more than his statewide voting average while Trump was winning them by roughly 20 more points than his average.

That might be a sign that Baker’s overwhelming popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to true red Republicans. Yes, on the ticket he’s listed as one, but his ideals don’t fully line up with the modern-day Republican party, which may have caused him to alienate some of his own party’s voters who were drawn to Trump.

“Baker cares about getting the Democrat vote more than he cares about keeping the Republican vote,” said Ed Meau, an ardent Trump supporter. “The fact that he belittles Donald Trump, he’s doing what he has to do to get elected in Massachusetts, which is overwhelmingly Democratic… but he’s not being true to himself.”

“He’s a fraud,” added Jim Krawiecki.

If Baker has detractors within his own party, it didn’t hinder him this past Election Day. After narrowly earning victory in 2014, Baker ran away with the race in 2018, winning all but 31 towns and amassing nearly two-thirds of the vote against Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez. It was an indication that nearly all of Baker’s 70 percent approval rating translated into voters casting a ballot in his favor.

Baker’s popularity among Massachusetts residents is certainly noteworthy, but he isn’t an outlier. Since 1991, five of the six governors elected have been Republican. And that might say a lot about the voters of Massachusetts. To govern the state, they’re fine with a Republican sitting atop Beacon Hill, especially if they’re as moderate as Baker. But, at the national level, with the exception of Scott Brown in 2010, Massachusetts as been a state as blue as they come. Voting a Republican senator into office currently would mean voting in someone for Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s agenda.

“It’s not unusual, but they have to be Republicans that are viewed as being moderate. And Charlie is a moderate,” former governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis said. “I think that’s an interesting aspect of this state. Not that they won’t elect a Democrat, but it better be a Democrat that is viewed as being relatively independent.”

While the nationwide GOP shift from moderate to conservative is still a relatively new thing, many Massachusetts Republicans, like Baker, have stayed in-sync with the party’s old views. Baker’s stance on global warming might not fit with current Republican talking points, but as recently as the George H.W. Bush administration, Republicans accepted the idea of global warming, committing billions of dollars to finding solutions.

By the 1990s, faith is finally mentioned specifically on the Republican plank. The 1992 platform calls for not acknowledging gay marriage or same-sex couples and also calls for the appointment of judges who oppose abortion. Baker, meanwhile, has been an advocate for a woman’s right to choose and making sure people of all sexual identities have equal rights, principles that fall more in line with the moderate Republicans of the past.

Stephen Boksanski of Winchester. (Photo by Patrick Strohecker)

And that’s what it takes to get elected as a Republican in Massachusetts. Because the state has such a large unenrolled population, voters will look to support a politician who is more down the middle. Leading up to the primaries in September, 55 percent of all registered voters in the state were listed as unenrolled. It’s a figure that represents roughly 2.5 million people, the highest that number has been within the state in 70 years. It’s a clear indication that, despite being viewed as one of the most liberal states in the country, the voters aren’t as “blue” as they may seem, while the recent run of Republican governors can’t be and aren’t as “red” as their party my indicate.

“Because we have such a big unenrolled population in Massachusetts,” said Winchester voter Stephen Boksanski, “I think people like someone who’s going to be a leader and somebody who’s going to accomplish goals and not sling mud and get into the bipartisan bickering, but move the ball forward.”

Toeing the party line… But not too close

During the first gubernatorial debate on Oct. 9, Baker made it a point to refute any time Gonzalez accused him of being too much of a Republican. For Baker, distancing himself from what the national Republican Party currently stands for isn’t hard. There are rare instances – if any – in which Democrats have caught Baker in a flip-flop or lie, claiming to be against something the Republicans stand for, but saying otherwise in the past.

Baker boasted during the debate about how poor his grades from the National Rifle Association have been, receiving “D’s and F’s” due to strict gun legislation within the state. Baker stands to protect abortion access for women and believes the state should work with other states for a women’s right to choose. He was concerned with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and publicly opposed his confirmation a month before the election. He opposed Trump and congressional Republicans’ rollback of Obamacare, as well as Trump’s travel ban on immigrants from particular countries following the Parkland, Florida shooting. And, in perhaps his greatest act of defiance against the Republican Party, Baker has openly admitted to casting a blank ballot for president in 2016, reiterating his feelings during the first debate. “My views on Donald Trump are quite clear… I didn’t vote for him.”

During his first term in office, Baker was always measured in how he chose to deal with Trump, never going out of his way to bash the president – unlike other anti-Trump Republicans – in an effort not to upset Massachusetts Republicans. He’s picked his spots when to work with the Trump administration, like when it came to combating the opioid crisis.

But, even when Baker has shown signs of supporting a Republican cause, it hasn’t been without calculation.

During his first term, Baker was one of just a few elected state leaders to not attend the Women’s March in Boston and travel ban protests, despite his original stance of being against what has become known as “the Muslim ban.” And, as the past midterm elections grew closer, Baker showed tendencies to be a dutiful Republican and throw his support behind certain causes. He received criticism for endorsing a straight Republican ticket, which included endorsing pro-Trump candidates Geoff Diehl and Rick Green. Despite Baker’s support, both Diehl and Green lost decisively in their respective races, with Diehl losing to Warren by 24 points for her Senate seat and Green losing to Lori Trahan by 28 points for the 3rd Congressional District House seat.

“I think Baker is starting to signal that he needs to hold the line and be a dutiful Republican,” Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry said. “But, while he’s holding his nose to these people, he wasn’t out campaigning for them and not directing campaign contributors to also give money to these people. So, I think he’s been very clear that these more pro-Trump Republicans in Massachusetts were on their own and not part of his own campaign.”

The future of the Republican Party?

After having a rather untumultuous first term that saw his approval numbers settle in an area that regularly ranked him as the nation’s most popular governor, it would’ve been surprising for Baker not to run for a second term as governor. Even in the lead up to the primaries in September, there was no real threat for his seat coming from any of the Democratic candidates and then very little push back from Gonzalez in the two months leading up to the election. And, despite Baker’s ability to play both sides of the aisle within the state, he was still only coming off his first term as governor, so setting his sights on anything larger would’ve halted all of his built-up momentum.

But, now?

There’s a reason people want to refer to Baker as “Romney 2.0.” The two men used their prior histories as businessmen and rescuing companies out of financial crisis to help solve Massachusetts’ fiscal problems when they took over. The two politicians are similar in their down-the-middle views as governor of Massachusetts, with both sharing similar beliefs on hot-button issues, like abortion, when campaigning for governor. Yet, when Romney made a run at the presidency in 2012, even he began shifting more to the right, realizing that he had to align himself more with his party than simply hoping his moderateness would garner enough votes from both sides to win him the White House.

Politics have only grown more contentious in this country since Romney ran and moderate voices like Baker’s are the exception, hardly the norm. In such a combative time, could Baker be the person to bring politics back toward the center and capture the hearts of voters who see the politician, rather than the party? Or, at the very least, rescue the Republican Party from becoming even more extreme than it’s become? It depends who you ask.

Ask a Republican and you might get a response like this:

“I’d like to see him be out and be successful, so sure, I think that’d be great,” Shannon said. “…I’d love it if he could.”

Elizabeth Shannon of Dover. (Photo by Patrick Strohecker)

Ask a Democrat and you might get a response like this:

“The Republican Party doesn’t have any room for Charlie Baker, especially on these social issues like abortion,” Dukakis said. “You’re dead if you’re that kind of Republican.”

But, we’ve seen the Republican Party undergo significant, cyclical shifts over the past half-century. Back during the Richard Nixon administration, many of his policies would now be considered extremely far left-wing in today’s climate. He was a huge believer that the government had a role to play in the economic well-being of American citizens. The view of the government being hands-off didn’t come into effect until Ronald Reagan came into office a decade later.

It’s been those shifts every couple decades further and further right that has brought the Republican Party to where it is now. At its current state, it doesn’t seem like there’s much more to the right of where the Republicans currently sit on the political spectrum. Perhaps the more likely thing that could happen is a correction in the other direction if 2020 goes at all the way the midterms went for the party. And that could be Baker’s time to strike as a moderate. He could be the ultimate correction.

So far, Baker hasn’t hinted at the idea of what his next move will be in politics. There are still plenty of issues that plague the state, which includes upgrading the struggling MBTA system. When Democrats try to take down Baker, it starts with public transportation. But, he has a plan in place for that, too.

The Baker administration has spent $1.9 billion over the last three years on fixing the T. According to Baker during the first gubernatorial debate, there’s funding on the books to spend another $8 billion over the next five years, which would be $5 billion more than what was spent on the transportation system in the five years prior to him taking office.

Massachusetts has tremendous pull when it comes to politics. When done right, this state has launched the careers of so many prominent political figures, from the Kennedy family dynasty, to the presidential campaigns of Dukakis and Romney in 1988 and 2012, respectively. Even Warren is being heralded as a potential Trump-slayer should she throw her hat in the ring for 2020.

Baker already has the popularity that all of those names previously achieved by representing the state. In some ways, his popularity within the state has already made him a national figure.

Now, all that remains to be seen is if Baker believes – and the nation believes – that he is the type of Republican that can bring the nation together.

“We definitely have seen the Republican Party undergo this identity transformation – identity crisis – in the age of President Trump and a lot depends on whether Trump gets a second term in office,” Scala said. “…If he faced off against, like, a Ted Cruz-type of candidate who only could attract really, very conservative Republicans, but not many others, (then) maybe.”


Patrick Strohecker