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It's A Long Way Until The Election, But Gov. Baker Is In A Very Strong Position07:20
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Gov. Charlie Baker (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Gov. Charlie Baker (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Even though Gov. Charlie Baker says he won't announce whether he'll seek a second term until September, he appears to be in an exceptionally strong position to win re-election. His impressive fundraising machine is gearing up, and a recent poll suggested he's the most popular governor in America.

The Morning Consult poll showed Baker with a 75 percent approval rating in Massachusetts — numbers that most politicians can only dream of. So is it already a lost cause for Democrats?

"It's a long shot for the Democrats," said Jeff Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.

Berry says Baker's popularity reflects the fact that the overall economy in Massachusetts remains pretty strong. And he says this week's Boston Globe story that Baker's finance committee is aiming to raise a staggering $30 million to overwhelm his eventual challenger sends a powerful message to Democrats.

"It's a warning shot over the bow," Berry said. "It's communicating to Democrats, 'Don't bother, we got this, you're not going to be able to run a competitive race against us,' and it's pretty intimidating."

3 Dem Challengers So Far

Intimidating or not, there are three Democrats challenging Baker so far: Jay Gonzalez, a former finance chief for Gov. Deval Patrick; Bob Massie, an environmental activist and entrepreneur; and Newton Mayor Setti Warren. All three make the case that Baker is beatable.

For his part, Warren is focusing on economic inequality, arguing that the state's economy is not working for everyone.

"We have students — families — with crushing student debt right now, not being able to make ends meet in this economy," he said, "and I don't think Beacon Hill is hearing them."

So Warren wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and provide free public college and a single-payer health care system. And he faults Baker for resorting to the budget ax to fix the state's finances.

"This governor cut opioid addiction funding for this fiscal year. It's wrong," Warren said. "He's cut transportation funding, he's cut higher ed funding. These are the very areas we need to be investing in in order to address economic inequality in our state."

The other two Democrats make similar cases against Baker. Gonzalez proposes spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make child care and preschool more affordable. To pay for it, he supports the so called millionaire's tax, which will be on the ballot next year.

"This is something I think we desperately need," Gonzalez said. "Our governor has said 'no new taxes.' He's taken no position on this ballot question. This is another example of him sitting on the sidelines and not being honest about the fact that we need additional revenue for our transportation system, for the T, for things like early education and care, which will make a huge difference for families in this state."

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And then there's Massie, who argues that Baker thinks too small at a time when the state should be making bold investments in renewable energy and transportation while addressing growing inequality across the state.

Although Baker has criticized some of President Trump's policies, Massie faults him for not pushing back hard enough.

"Gov. Baker has taken down his periscope and gone underwater," Massie said. "He didn't show up at the Women's March. He didn't go to the airport at the time of the Muslim ban. He didn't go to the Copley Square defense of our constitutional rights. He didn't go to the Science March. He's doing whatever he can to keep his head low, and as a result I think he's actually betraying our politics and our citizens."

Strong words that could play well with many Massachusetts Democrats — though recent polls show Baker is just as popular among Democrats as with Republicans.

And Baker has been critical of the president on several issues. He urged Trump to stay in the Paris climate agreement. He's criticized the president's travel ban and efforts to repeal Obamacare. But it's clear Trump presents him with a difficult balancing act.

Here's Baker last week when a reporter asked if he could grade the president: "I don't grade people. I haven't and never have. But I'm really concerned and disappointed about some of the issues around health care."

While three Democrats have begun their campaigns against him, Baker won't announce whether he's seeking re-election until the fall, and barely acknowledges his challengers, dismissing them with statements like this: "I'm pretty focused on my day job and I plan to stay focused on it. And as I've said before, people make decisions to run or not run in the best interests of whatever constituency their choosing to represent."

Scott Brown, seen here on Election Night in 2012, could be a cautionary tale for Baker, because Brown too was quite popular before he lost re-election. (WBUR file photo)
Scott Brown, seen here on Election Night in 2012, could be a cautionary tale for Baker, because Brown too was quite popular before he lost re-election. (WBUR file photo)

Still A Long Way To Go

Despite Baker's popularity and plans to amass a daunting campaign war chest, Democrats say he can be beaten.

"Well, of course he's beatable," said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Crawford. He says with the election more than a year and a half away, voters have yet to focus on Baker's record.

But Democrats are already mobilizing in response to the Trump agenda, which Crawford says will mean a heavy Democratic turnout in 2018.

"And the Baker team strategy seems to be that with all these Democratic voters, 'Gee, you like Charlie, give him a pass.' And that, in my judgment, is not a strategy for victory," he said.

For evidence that Democrats can beat Baker, Crawford says look no further than the governor's failed effort last election to pass Question 2, which would have raised the cap on charter schools. And Crawford points out it had big money and Baker behind it.

"Question 2 was written, [its] campaign was managed by Baker and the Baker team," Crawford said. "They did the same thing on Question 2 that they're doing now: 'And we have lots of money that we're going to spend and we're going to win.' They got crushed."

But supporters of Baker say that won't happen in 2018.

Jennifer Nassour, a former chair of the state Republican Party, says Baker can run on a record of good fiscal management, including holding the line on taxes, reforming the MBTA, and being a national leader in the fight against the opioid addiction crisis. And Nassour says Baker's ability to work across party lines is particularly attractive to many independents — those unenrolled voters who represent a majority of the state's electorate.

"They believe in checks and balances," Nassour said. "That's exactly how he's been governing. His cabinet appointments are a perfect example; he has some Democrats and some Republicans. He cuts across all party lines. He just wants the best for the commonwealth."

Despite Baker's popularity and his likely financial clout, Steve Koczela, who heads the MassINC Polling Group, says it's way too soon to count the Democrats out. He says two recent Massachusetts elections offer evidence of that.

"Deval Patrick's approval ratings were down in the 30s, even in the year he won re-election," Koczela said. "And you look back at [former Sen.] Scott Brown and his numbers looked a lot like Baker's: numbers in the high 60s, low 70s, a year, year and a half before he lost re-election."

So Baker can feel pretty good about his popularity today, but that's no guarantee of victory in 2018.

This segment aired on June 1, 2017.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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