Why Charlie Baker is beatable

Ignore the conventional wisdom and study the numbers

PEOPLE FREQUENTLY ASK ME about the race for governor this November. Their interest often gets boiled down to one question: “Is Charlie Baker beatable?” They usually make clear that they’re pretty sure the answer is no. They are certainly not alone in that view.

My answer? Of course he is!

But he’s the most popular governor in America, you may say. He can boast of early poll numbers that make his reelection look all but certain. And everybody on Beacon Hill really likes him. That Charlie Baker?

Yes, that Charlie Baker. Not only is he beatable, he and his team know it.

The first clue: With all his enviable poll numbers and pals, isn’t it at least a bit curious that Baker thinks he needs to bend all the rules to control $30 million — much of it dark money — for his campaign? The fundraising tear he is perhaps the clearest telltale sign that he and his team know this race will be close.

To start with, let’s forget about the predictive value of early polls. You doubt me? Ask Jeb Bush.

The way I see it, campaigns are usually decided by three factors: values, numbers, and organizing.

On the first of those, the real challenge for Team Baker is what the governor stands for — or doesn’t. Baker and his team have done a decent job of promoting him as “not really a Republican.” That’s a problem on two fronts for the governor. First, it seems that a number of Republicans believe him – and they’re not too happy about it. Did you see the guy who almost a third of them voted for at the Massachusetts GOP state convention? Yikes!

But how many conservatives can there really be in the Massachusetts GOP? To understand why this question keeps Team Baker up at night thinking of new schemes to circumvent Massachusetts’s campaign finance limits, start with this fact: Donald Trump got more votes in Massachusetts than Charlie Baker did.

As much as he tries to put distance between himself and his party’s man in the White House, Baker can’t afford to alienate Trump voters. In 2014, Baker won by an average of only 18 votes per precinct in one of the lowest turnout elections for governor in 50 years. Conservatives may not be his base, but they most certainly were his margin of victory four years ago.

That leads to the second “values” problem the governor is facing. Team Baker fears that as the campaign unfolds, Democrats and unenrolled voters may start paying more attention to what Baker’s been doing than what he’s been saying.

While Baker may worry about alienating conservatives by promoting his bipartisan, centrist outlook, he’s frequently not governing from the middle. He knows he needs his party’s right-wingers, and that explains a few head-scratching moves that seem to belie his “not really a Republican” brand.

You may have wondered why Baker appointed the head of the Massachusetts affiliate of the NRA to a key spot in his administration. Think 2014 margin of victory. That’s what Team Baker is thinking.

You may have been shaking your head when he pushed for new mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Team Baker is thinking about his 2014 margin of victory – every day.

On immigration, Charlie wants us to believe he doesn’t support Donald Trump’s polices.  So, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down Baker’s policy of making our police part of Donald Trump’s deportation force, why did he file a bill that suspended due process rights for “certain people?” And why did he just recently send sophisticated technology and personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard to assist Trump’s southern border patrol?

When Baker was badgered into signing the transgender rights bill, he did so behind closed doors with no public ceremony. Think margin of victory.

On health care, thank goodness the Democrats in the Legislature blocked Baker’s plan to move 140,000 people off Medicaid and squeeze the poor and the sick with restrictions and higher costs in the process.

So a focus on values lays the foundation of how Charlie Baker can be beat.

The second factor, “the numbers,” actually may form the strongest case for why Baker can be beat – and I think they lay out a pretty clear path to victory for someone like Jay Gonzalez, who will stand up for the little guy.

Over the last 50 years, a time in which we’ve elected mostly Republican governors, some patterns have emerged with remarkable consistency. The first is that during elections in gubernatorial years, the number of people who vote in Massachusetts is consistently between 2 million and 2.2 million.

In 2014, Baker got 1,044,000 votes. Two years later, Donald Trump got 1,090,000. Even with Trump’s extra 50,000, Hillary Clinton beat him by a million votes because of the far higher turnout in presidential elections.  Viewed another way, there are 1 million 2016 Hillary voters in Massachusetts who are unlikely, based on historical patterns, to show up this November – unless we motivate them.

More numbers that help explain why Charlie Baker can be beat: Remember when Scott Brown scored his upset victory for US Senate? He got 1.1 million votes.  When Mitt Romney won the governorship – 1.1 million votes. How about when Mitt came back to run for president with Paul Ryan? 1.1 million votes. McCain-Palin? 1.1 million votes. Bush-Cheney in ‘04? 1.1 million votes. Bush-Quayle in ’88 and Reagan-Bush way back in ’80? 1.1 million votes.

Maybe there just are 1.1 million Republican voters in Massachusetts, and good for them, they vote consistently.

If the turnout in gubernatorial years is consistently 2 to 2.2 million, and if Republicans in Massachusetts can count on a consistent turnout of 1.1 million, they win fairly consistently.

Turnout will determine whether Charlie Baker, with his high poll numbers, overstuffed bank accounts, and everybody-likes-him “inevitable” campaign, wins another term. What he believes – or doesn’t – and what he has been doing rather than what he has been saying will set the table for a close result. In the end, the extent of grassroots organizing that impacts turnout will determine the winner.

The bottom line is that Democrats need to move voter turnout up to 2.3 to 2.4 million in November. If we do, Charlie Baker is beatable. One way of thinking about how doable this is: A turnout of 2.4 million would still be 1 million fewer voters than the turnout just a year and a half ago in the presidential election.

What else will impact the turnout and election in Massachusetts this year?

To start, at the top of our ticket will be Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Keeping her voice loud and proud in the US Senate will motivate progressive Democrats to get to the polls. And the rest of the Democratic ticket, including our rock star attorney general, Maura Healey, will add urgency for progressive Democrats to work to get out the vote.

In addition to the candidates, the Fair Share Amendment, if cleared to appear on the ballot, will asks voters to approve having people who make more than $20,000 a week pay a little more to support education and transportation needs. Those Hillary Clinton voters will also have a chance to approve other policies they really like, such as paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage.

On top of that, progressive voters will be motivated to turn out to counter a question right-wing activists have put on the ballot to repeal the transgender rights law – the measure that Baker refused to sign in the light of day.

Candidates and what they stand for still matter in elections. Important issues drive interest in voting. And all those candidates and issues advocates will be organizing like crazy on the ground to remind people that this election is important. It all sets the stage for a higher turnout in November than usual in an election for governor.

If you think, like I do, that grassroots organizing matters in elections, there is one further wild card to toss into the mix: 2018 will be the first gubernatorial election in Massachusetts history with early voting, meaning activists will have weeks to help drive up turnout.

Add it all up and the Democratic nominee is by no means a lock to win in November. But contrary to all the punditry and early polling, I think it explains why Baker, regarded by many as a shoo-in, is actually beatable.

Meet the Author

See you in November, Charlie.

John Walsh is the former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and served as campaign manager for former governor Deval Patrick’s insurgent victory in 2006. He was a strategist for former Newton mayor Setti Warren, who dropped out of the Democratic race for governor in April, and has since endorsed Jay Gonzalez.