Charlie Baker appears to be the most popular governor in the U.S., despite being a Republican in a predominantly Democratic state.
His popularity is partly due to his sounding non-partisan. Ideologically, he’s liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues, but he’s not viewed as inflexible or polarizing. His leadership style is collaborative. He and the two Democratic legislative leaders can seem like a triumvirate, settling their differences privately.
But what will Baker do about the GOP presidential race?
He has stayed out of this “demolition derby,” and there are many reasons for his neutrality:
Baker doesn’t want to be aligned with an extremely conservative candidate because that could hurt his moderate-liberal, nonpartisan reputation in Massachusetts.
He doesn’t want to endorse one of the more moderate candidates and then lose, because that could undermine his reputation as a leader on the national stage. Plus, if he endorsed a candidate it could backfire because Baker is considered quite liberal by national Republicans. Conservatives in the media would use the endorsement as “proof” that the candidate was a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only.
There is also a problem with timing. Baker’s endorsement wouldn’t help a candidate in Iowa (dominated by evangelicals), but if he waited to endorse right before New Hampshire his announcement could generate uncontrollable controversy. The media would be full of speculation: Why did Baker reject other candidates? Did he make a deal with the endorsed candidate? Could he become a running mate for the candidate he endorsed? Does Baker have the popularity with New Hampshire Republicans to make a difference? All of that news coverage would change Baker’s reputation of being nonpartisan. Would Democratic fans of his start to see him as a more “typical” Republican? Would media conservatives mock him?
What if Baker waited until the GOP primary in Massachusetts? That’s on March 1, “Super Tuesday,” when we vote with eleven other states. That’s not too late for Baker to make a difference because that day could be pivotal in narrowing the contest to two to three viable candidates. But does Baker have such popularity with Massachusetts Republicans to sway many of them on the presidential choice?
State Republicans are generally supportive of Baker as governor, but would they want to follow him on his presidential pick? That’s doubtful. Polls indicate surprising support for Donald Trump by GOP voters in Massachusetts — he has a commanding lead with 40 percent in the RCP average. (Marco Rubio is a distant second with 15 percent.) Trump fans don’t seem to care what arguments are made against him; they’re loyal, regardless of what others say. And they are outspoken in criticizing “establishment types” who dare to oppose The Donald. Would Baker want to engage in debate with Republicans in his own state? His neutrality to this point suggests that he would rather not walk into quicksand.
So Baker’s strategy of silence makes sense. It seems shrewd and predictable. But there must be a few nagging doubts in his mind, like these: What if one of the two GOP frontrunners — Trump or Ted Cruz — ends up winning the nomination? And what if that results in Republicans losing “big league” (as Trump would say) governorships, Senate and House seats, state legislatures and local offices? Would Baker be tormented by the thought that he might have made a difference by helping a more centrist alternative candidate win in New Hampshire or Massachusetts? (This same question, by the way, might also haunt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney if he doesn’t make a public endorsement — as I explored in a commentary a month ago).
Baker has channeled his ambitions into being a good governor. That seems to be his dream job, and he is doing it with more vigor than any Massachusetts governor in memory. But does he have national political ambitions as well? He is a realist so he must know that he would not be picked as a running mate by any of the presidential candidates running now. There’d be a rebellion by GOP convention delegates because of Baker’s liberal positions, and widespread conservative outrage.
Could Baker imagine that he might be a Republican presidential candidate who could win his party’s nomination in the more distant future? Might he imagine that if a Cruz were nominated and it turned out to be “cataclysmic,” as Bob Dole predicted, that he could come to the rescue in 2020 and win a victory as unlikely as when Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat? In fairness, Baker likely doesn’t envision such an improbable scenario. He’s pretty realistic about politics and understands that conservatives will continue to dominate the GOP. Where else would they go?
Baker has been successful in fundraising for his own reelection. He must be feeling confident about his prospects, given the polls — and given the fact that he’ll be running in 2018, not in a year when a Trump or a Cruz might be at the top of the ballot.
Nonetheless, he has to be worried about a later hurdle in this presidential race. If Trump or Cruz or someone else whom Baker considers too conservative to align himself with wins, what would Baker say when asked by reporters: “Will you campaign for your party’s nominee? Will you vote for him?”
However Baker might answer those questions, he would stir controversy. If he said he’d campaign for a Trump or Cruz, it would hurt him with Democrats and independents in his home state. If he said he would not campaign for the ticket — even with the rationale he offers now, saying he’s too busy with state duties — it would be reported nationally that he would not support the GOP candidate, and that would hurt him with conservative donors and activists. And if he refused to say whether he would vote for his party’s nominee, that would be played in the media as a signal that he preferred the Democratic candidate. Would he then have to worry about a primary challenge for governor, or at least a fracture of his party base?
Baker grew up in a home where his father was a conservative Republican and his mother a liberal Democrat. He learned how to get along with both sides, and learned that silence can be golden. But Baker will find it very difficult to remain silent in this tumultuous presidential race. At some point he’ll have to take sides — or at least acknowledge that he is being very political in choosing to be non-political.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.