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What The Outcome Of The Governor’s Race Says About Massachusetts Voters

Supporters of Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker cheer as they watch election results come in after midnight in a race still to close to call at Baker's election night event Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
Supporters of Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker cheer as they watch election results come in after midnight in a race still to close to call at Baker's election night event Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
This article is more than 6 years old.

On a night when Massachusetts stubbornly remained the deepest of blue states against a powerful wave that propelled the GOP to major victories across the nation, Charlie Baker found a way to prevail against Martha Coakley and will soon be preparing his transition team to become governor-elect of the Commonwealth. For its part, the Coakley campaign appeared to be in disbelief, refusing to concede the inevitable.

Massachusetts voters continued to roundly reject the national GOP agenda, as reflected by the losses of Republican congressional hopefuls Richard Tisei and John Chapman, who many in the party thought had reasonable chances of winning.

Baker, however, succeeded in methodically distancing his own campaign from the national GOP brand and undeclared voters, comprising a large portion of the electorate, bought into his message. Polls suggested this trend since early October as undeclareds began to make up their minds and leaned heavily toward Baker, providing him with a lead he would never concede.

[The voters] demonstrated clearly a capacity to discern between candidates -- no other statewide GOP candidate came within single digits of defeating their Democratic rival -- and actually split their vote.

The outcome speaks volumes about the Commonwealth’s voters. They demonstrated clearly a capacity to discern between candidates — no other statewide GOP candidate came within single digits of defeating their Democratic rival — and actually split their vote. They were also sophisticated enough to distinguish between those policies they found offensive on the national party level and the distinctly moderate themes that candidate Baker communicated carefully throughout his campaign.

Baker used his policy-wonk comparative advantage over Coakley to put forth detailed proposals about improving educational opportunities for children and developing jobs and the economy. He laid bare his plans to be picked apart by critics — something political consultants typically like to try to avoid. Kudos to his campaign staff for going along with this plan. In doing so, Baker signaled to the electorate that he had confidence in his proposals and, after campaigning on and off for five straight years, he had nothing to hide. The well-timed gamble paid off.

For her part, Coakley refused to go into much detail on policy and, though criticized heavily for it, she kept on with business as usual. She lost some credibility by resorting at times to sloganeering over substance, and may have put off some undeclared voters — as well as given legs to some of the negative narratives about her as a candidate.

Charlie Baker greets supporters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Charlie Baker greets supporters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The unfortunate hyperbole used by some national media outlets to describe Coakley’s struggles was unfair to both her and to Baker. Yet, Coakley never connected fully with the electorate. She did not inspire a high Democratic turnout, nor did she sway voters from outside her base — a veritable death knell in a Massachusetts gubernatorial race. The party’s strategists will surely sort through the wreckage of Coakley’s narrow, painful loss and the inability of the vaunted Democratic “machine” to prevent it.

A good question would be how Coakley got to be the Democratic candidate in the first place. To observers, it appeared as if she was “next in line” — a common criticism of unexciting GOP presidential candidates from failed campaigns past. And because of that, she lacked the organic support she needed to carry the day against an experienced, skilled opponent.

Coakley remained stalled throughout the fall, rarely rising above the mid-40s in poll results. She hadn’t yet made the transition to become the leader of her party because she hadn’t figured out how to convey her vision of leading the Commonwealth. Simply being the heir apparent wasn’t sufficient. To voters it seemed arrogant, and the party paid dearly.

The party’s strategists will surely sort through the wreckage of Coakley’s narrow, painful loss and the inability of the vaunted Democratic 'machine' to prevent it.

Charlie Baker, on the other hand, was able to effectively convey his vision for the Commonwealth to voters. Moreover, Baker’s vision was attractive to many Democrats and to most independents. Over time, Baker earned a grudging respect from his opposition. After a crushing defeat in 2010, he could have easily walked away from public service and cashed in permanently as a corporate executive. Instead, he regained his drive and came back a better candidate, demonstrating a capacity to listen to the electorate and to learn from his mistakes. Baker will hopefully utilize these same skills to grow into the job of governor.

One thing is for sure: Baker is sincere in his rhetoric espousing bipartisanship. Legislators on both sides of the aisle trust this to be the case and do not anticipate gridlock because of divided government. Baker has demonstrated the ability to work with both parties, and he encouraged that attitude during his election eve pseudo-victory speech when he made a point of mentioning the importance of bipartisanship.

He then exercised restraint by graciously deferring to Coakley and not pressing her to concede prior to the morning. Baker had been in that position himself four years ago and had developed patience by enduring the pain of his own experience.

In that moment of thoughtful leadership, Baker transcended the campaign and became the governor-elect. Here’s to hoping Baker will have many more such leadership moments when confronting the myriad challenges that surely lie ahead.


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John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.

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