Payne & Domke: In Tight Governor's Race, Plurality Is The Goal

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Gov. Deval Patrick, Timothy Cahill and Charles Baker (AP)
Gov. Deval Patrick, Timothy Cahill and Charles Baker (AP)

In many respects, the field in the race for governor is now set after Charles Baker's Republican challenger, Christy Mihos, failed to make the primary ballot at Saturday's state GOP convention.

The weekend's development means the top three candidates — Baker, Democratic incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick and Democrat-turned-independent Timothy Cahill — can hit the campaign ground running.

WBUR’s political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — offer their thoughts on the governor's race and how it is shaping up already.

Dan Payne (D): A new poll — which was conducted before Baker's GOP convention win — shows Patrick at 34 percent, Cahill surprisingly in second at 29 percent and Baker trailing with 27 percent.

The current narrative for the race is that this is a three-way with Cahill and Baker dividing the anti-Patrick vote, giving the governor a good shot at winning re-election. The next governor could win with as little as 35 percent of the vote.

Patrick has been less than stellar in political matters, but he has reconnected with his liberal base and is benefiting from a slight, but shaky improvement in the state's economy. Still, he must have a balanced three-way race.

Baker is trying to appear moderate to attract disappointed Patrick voters, but he is also being pulled to the right; for example, he cautiously said nice things about Tea Partiers and just came out against protecting transgendered people from discrimination.

Cahill couldn't win a Democratic primary so he decided to run as an independent and is now moving hard right. He’s so determined to replicate Sen. Scott Brown that he was wearing a barn jacket in a photo in Tuesday's Boston Herald. I hope he’s not planning to pose in the nude.

"The governor should follow the advice of the former Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. He used to say, 'Don’t judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the opposition.'"-- Political analyst Dan Payne (D)

Is Anyone The Outsider Here?

While there may be some debate over who is a maverick, the truth is they are all insiders. Baker was CFO for the state in the Weld administraton. Cahill has been state Treasurer for seven years and held county and local office for two decades before that. Patrick came to office with no public sector management experience, but will now be judged on the state budget and taxes.

Baker will argue that he turned around Harvard Pilgrim Health Care when it was on the brink of collapse. Cahill will say state investments have performed well on his watch. And the governor will say he is helping improve the state with improvements in transportation, education and public pensions.

What Could Baker Learn From Scott Brown?

Baker can first learn not to put the word "Republican" anywhere in his communications, website or yard signs, because that brand is not going to do any good.

Second, Baker can try to muddy up his past, as Brown kept people in the dark about his conservative voting record in the state Senate. Baker oversaw the financing of the Big Dig when he was the state’s CFO. But he now says he was one out of 50 people involved. Of course, when he's talking about turning around Harvard Pilgrim, he was the only one involved.

He is also trying to seem like an ordinary guy, but his salary at Harvard Pilgrim — a major health insurance company — was $1.75 million.

Finally, he should do jock radio, which Brown did often. And he should engage in vague generalities about government, taxes and personal freedom.

What Has Resuscitated Patrick?

Two things: He's a good campaigner, and campaigning has liberated him from the tricky footing of government. His job ratings are still low — 34 percent positive in the recent poll. But he has been out working his political base and arguing that the state's economy is coming around.

Second, activists who are in Patrick’s base have had a good look at Baker and Cahill. And as those two have run to the right, Patrick now looks better. The governor should follow the advice of the former Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. He used to say, "Don’t judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the opposition."

Fund Raising

Cahill has $3.3 million in the bank, Baker about $2 million and Patrick less than $900,000 on hand. But The Boston Globe pointed out that both Baker and Cahill have a faster "burn rate" — they are spending it almost as fast as it comes in. Baker is spending 72 percent of what he takes in, Cahill around 75 percent and Patrick about 61 percent.

And Patrick can make news just about any time he wants. When I was working for Sen. John Kerry against Gov. William Weld, we called this the “22 press secretaries problem." As governor, Weld could use any number of the state’s press offices to make news any time he wanted.

Todd Domke (R): It’s that rarest of things in American politics: a true three-candidate race. Each campaign has a different strategy to win a plurality. Patrick’s strategy is divide-and-conquer. He believes his liberal Democratic base is about 40 percent, and he wants the 60 percent who are unhappy with him to split pretty evenly between the other two.

Baker has the electable alternative strategy, trying to convince at least 40 percent of voters to accept him as the credible, electable alternative to Patrick. He may need to help that along by deflating Cahill — maybe with negative ads, or in debate.

Cahill has the trickiest strategy to execute. He needs to draw populist and social conservatives from Baker’s GOP base, draw blue-collar and ethnic conservative Democrats from Patrick, and win a plurality of independents. The glue that would hold his coalition together is the idea that he is a true independent — which is not an easy sell because his opponents will say, “This guy is an insider — an old-school, patronage politician.”

"There might be some candidate envy because of Sen. Brown’s rock-star popularity. If Cahill could buy Brown’s truck on eBay, I think he would."-- Political analyst Todd Domke (R)

Each candidate has a message of contrast. Cahill wants the contrast to be: I’m a regular guy, versus two know-it-alls. (Patrick and Baker are not know-it-alls. Maybe they're know-almost-alls, but anyway.) Cahill wants to be the populist, not an intellectual. Baker wants the contrast: I’m the non-politician, the outsider, the problem-solver against two insiders who have failed — the turnaround artist. His message is: “I know how to cut unnecessary spending. Don’t think of me as Republican — think of me as independent.” Patrick wants the contrast to be: I’m a progressive running against two conservatives who would slash spending and turn Massachusetts into New Hampshire. The governor is thrilled that Cahill has gone to the right, helping split his opposition.

Baker attributes Sen. Brown’s success to his same message of fiscal conservatism. It’s not that simple. Yes, spending was a big issue. But Brown also campaigned on the issue of terrorists being tried in civilian courts and opposition to the national health care bill. And personality was a factor, especially with swing voters. Brown came across as authentic, populist and independent. There’s no shortcut for Baker to become that kind of candidate. He can’t copy Brown. He has to project his own authenticity. He needs to connect emotionally with voters, not just agree with them on most issues.

There might be some candidate envy because of Brown’s rock-star popularity. If Cahill could buy Brown's truck on eBay, I think he would. Baker would like to have Brown's regular guy image, too. Maybe he'll change his name to Chuck. Chuck Baker sounds like a more populist name.


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