It’s been almost eight years since Massachusetts had a Republican governor, but for many it feels like a lot longer. Since Deval Patrick took office in 2007, Massachusetts has continued to confirm itself as a bastion of progressive politics. With the exception of Scott Brown’s two-year tenure as a US Senator, most major victories have belonged to the left. With the next gubernatorial election just over four months away, Massachusetts appears poised to elect another Democrat to run the state.
Recent polls show Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley with a commanding lead over Republican hopeful Charlie Baker. But it may be a mistake to assume that Coakley will run away with a victory. It was not too long ago that Massachusetts elected three consecutive Republican governors. In addition, polls show that a majority of Massachusetts’ voters don’t identify themselves as either Democratic or Republican. Last, Charlie Baker is taking a centrist stance this time around and Martha Coakley must prove that she’s got what it takes to survive a political dogfight.
In the ‘90s and early ’00s, Massachusetts elected three straight Republican governors. Bill Weld was a redheaded, quick-witted, Harvard graduate who reportedly played multiple games of chess simultaneously while blindfolded. As governor he was extremely popular; when he was re-elected in 1994, he received 71% of the vote. That proved to be the most lopsided win in Massachusetts gubernatorial history. Perhaps he was so popular because he understood the political value of diving into the Charles River with all his clothes on.
Weld was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor, Argeo Paul Cellucci. Cellucci ruled the State House from 1997-2001. Weld and Cellucci shared a political vision that emphasized fiscal conservatism, a concentration on the environment, and liberal social policies. Their approach appealed to pragmatic moderates.
Like Weld, Cellucci left office early to pursue a position as a US Ambassador. Jane Swift briefly filled his shoes, before the scientifically handsome Mitt Romney was elected in 2002. Romney campaigned by proposing to balance the budget without raising taxes. He appealed to voters by promising to reduce government waste and abuse. To many, it sounded great. His experience co-founding Bain Capital and serving as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics gave him considerable credibility. While in office, he kept his promise to not increase taxes, but raised the cost of several fees. Many scrutinized him for this approach, including the Obama campaign (perhaps unfairly) during the 2012 election. Romney’s approval ratings dropped precipitously from 66% in Nov. 2003 to 39% in Dec. 2006. It seems that Massachusetts’s voters never rekindled their love for Romney. In his attempt to become President in 2012, Romney only received 38% of the popular vote in Massachusetts.
Electing three straight Republicans as governor may have been an anomaly. But it was more likely an indication that Massachusetts’s voters are willing to elect a Republican governor if s/he can strike the right balance. In a recent Suffolk/Herald poll, 51% of Bay State voters identified themselves as Independents/Unenrolled. In the same poll, more Massachusetts residents reported turning to Fox News (20%) for coverage of politics than CNN (13%), ABC (10%), or any other television station.
If Charlie Baker wants to win the hearts of with Massachusetts’s voters, he seems better off modeling his approach after Weld’s than Romney’s. Conveniently, Baker recently received the endorsement of Weld. In a brief video statement, Weld championed Baker’s desire to cut taxes and provide the right social services, while growing the economy. It sounds like a winning message.
Massachusetts’s voters’ approval of Barack Obama recently hit an all time low. This is probably due to the troubled rollout of Obamacare. The pain Massachusetts voters experienced could prove to be a rallying cry for Republicans once again. Disapproval of Obamacare was a motivating factor to Scott Brown’s victory over Coakley in 2010. As Baker is likely to try to capitalize (he is a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a health insurance company) on Obama’s miscues, Coakley must toe the party line, without owning the mistakes of the federal and current state governments. She also must prove that she’s a fighter. In the runup to her loss to Scott Brown, John Stewart let her know that shaking hands outside of Fenway Park is the way you win over voters. Conversely, Baker has spent the past four years preparing for battle. He will be ready to take on a Democratic candidate that is less charismatic than Deval Patrick. Coakley can ill afford another botched run at a major office in Massachusetts. Her supporters will need to remain vigilant to secure. For Baker, the fight is far from over. But if history shows anything, he’s got a chance.