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Commentary: Baker's Blank-Ballot Bet — Will Neutrality In The Presidential Race Pay Off?

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker casts his vote in the Republican primary in March. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker casts his vote in the Republican primary in March. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gov. Charlie Baker has avoided picking sides in the presidential race. He said he couldn’t support his own party’s nominee, Donald Trump, or the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. And he said he couldn’t support a third-party candidate.

He went even further in declaring his neutrality. Instead of saying he’d write in someone on his ballot, he said he would leave the presidential race blank.

It seemed odd that in this historic home of democracy a governor would imply that not voting is a virtuous act. But what is the principle? Is deciding to be undecided months before a consequential election supposed to be good citizenship? Or is it just artful politics for a Republican governor in a Democratic state?

If voters in Massachusetts follow Baker’s example and leave the presidential choice blank, they will look down the ballot and discover that for most offices, there is no choice. In Massachusetts, there are no real contested congressional races. Most state legislators are running unopposed. Most local offices are also uncontested. So if voters follow Baker’s lead, they might then wonder: Why the hell did I bother to vote? Then, feeling despondent, they might think: “I’m so bummed by this no-choice election, I’m going to vote to legalize marijuana.”

When analyzing the Trumpian Republican Party, I often use quotation marks in writing about GOP “leaders.” Most failed to stand up to Trump after he said things they called “unacceptable.” For example, after criticizing Trump as not having the temperament or “collaborative nature” to be a good president, Baker allowed Trump to sweep to victory in the Massachusetts GOP primary. The governor would not urge voters to support one of the GOP candidates who challenged Trump here: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who reflects Baker’s ideological profile as a pragmatist, or the more conservative senator from Florida, Marco Rubio.

When it looked like Trump would win the nomination, GOP “leaders” started to evade, hide or capitulate. Some, like New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, tried to have it both ways for a while — saying she would vote for Trump, but would not officially endorse him. Many said they would support “the Republican nominee,” but would not say his name for fear that the endorsement sound bite could be used against them later. They were profiles in calculation, not courage.

Baker’s one-time mentor, Bill Weld, demonstrated again recently that he can be a very candid candidate when he delivered a “message principally to Republicans who believe their president should exhibit standards of decency and discipline.” He said Trump “has not exhibited the self-control, the discipline or the emotional depth necessary to function credibly as a president of the United States.”

But Baker has remained silent. After earlier supporting the GOP candidate who is arguably most like Trump -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- he has kept a low profile.

Supporters of Baker in the media think he’s done the smart thing, politically. They think he was in a no-win position — risking the wrath of Trump fans if he supported someone else, and risking the wrath of anti-Trump voters if he backed his party nominee. Short-term, it seems like Baker’s neutrality is good for him.

The media have not pressed him publicly for comment about the presidential race, and the lack of controversy helps keep his popularity high. And state Democratic officials have not pressed him on an obvious question: How can he say he’s neutral because of his personal blank-ballot announcement when the state GOP committee under his control promotes Trump? Baker’s GOP national committeeman, Ron Kaufman, even compared Trump to Ronald Reagan.

Baker’s neutrality may seem suspiciously like a straddle; he can tell Republicans that he did not actively discourage his party’s support of Trump, and he can tell Democrats that he bravely refused to back Trump personally.

But have political circumstances changed? Will Baker change his mind?

With one week to go, the presidential race seems to be tightening. It could end up being decided by a single state and that state could be New Hampshire.

That’s where Baker went to campaign for Christie before the New Hampshire primary. And it’s a state that Baker conceivably could influence if he decided to go there and speak out to wavering Republicans and undecided independents. New Hampshire has historically been receptive to Massachusetts leaders — like Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Mitt Romney — because they are well known via Boston TV coverage.

Will Baker follow Weld and speak out on the presidential race? Or will he continue with his blank-ballot bet and stay silent?

It’s not only his prospects for re-election that might be part of his political calculation. He must also wonder about his relationship with a new president. Will he have a partner in the White House who could help Massachusetts, or will he have someone who feels just as critical or neutral about him as he claimed to feel when he announced he'd blank the presidential choice on the ballot?

Related:

Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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