The chameleon governor

Baker’s endorsement of Trump backers is his first campaign challenge

BOSTON HERALD COLUMNIST  Howie Carr calls Gov. Charlie Baker Tall Deval. Democratic rival Jay Gonzalez suggests Baker is indirectly backing the Trump agenda in Washington. And Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi portrays the governor as a timid, calculating wimp always trying to balance on a political tightrope.

Will the real Charlie Baker please stand up?

All of this comes to mind as Baker is grappling with his first major campaign challenge. After last week’s primary, Baker endorsed the entire state GOP ticket, including two candidates (US Senate candidate Geoff Diehl and attorney general candidate Jay McMahon) who are both big Donald Trump supporters. In these uncertain times, many are wondering whether the most popular governor in America could be undone by backing fellow Massachusetts Republicans who embrace a president reviled in Massachusetts.

Generally, endorsements don’t seem to matter all that much to voters. Just ask US Rep. Michael Capuano, who garnered the bulk of the big endorsements in the Democratic primary but nevertheless lost to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has taken hits for backing a bunch of losers in the primary, but no one is suggesting his position as mayor is in any danger.

Baker’s embrace of Diehl and McMahon is more problematic because they are Trump guys, and Trump is toxic to 62 percent of voters in Massachusetts, the highest percentage of any state. But most voters also realize the governor isn’t a big fan of the president. The Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld says Democrats’ efforts to tie Baker to Trump won’t work.

Baker’s bigger problem is that his endorsement of Diehl and McMahon makes him come off as cold and calculating – he’s backing fellow Republicans so as not to offend his base but he’s not doing it enthusiastically. For Vennochi, it’s a recurring theme.

“For all the political capital attached to his poll numbers, Baker is a cautious hoarder, afraid to spend down a penny of it,” she wrote in May. “He has carved out the safe, dull middle ground of Massachusetts politics, save for the obvious election year death-penalty swerve to the right. His preferred political position: extreme sphinx.”

After Baker’s endorsement of Diehl, Vennochi seemed to acknowledge the governor’s political math but she once again lamented Baker’s lack of backbone. “Imagine if Baker had stood up and said he couldn’t support Diehl because of Diehl’s support for the Trump agenda,” she wrote. “He’d lose Trump supporters, but he would win grudging respect from progressives for sticking to principle. Instead, the most popular governor in America will walk that ever-cautious and always defensive Charlie line. He will embrace Diehl but try to keep his distance from him.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Over the weekend, the Globe editorial page looked back at its endorsement of Baker in 2014 and came to the conclusion that he followed through on most of what the paper wanted him to do. He’s been a good manager, he’s provided an effective counterpoint to the Democratic Legislature, and he fought for charter school expansion (and lost). Interestingly, the Globe’s 2014 editorial criticized Baker’s opponent, Martha Coakley, for waffling on the charter school ballot question.

The editorial was a reminder that Baker, despite his cautious nature and his penchant for blending in with his political surroundings, is doing what most voters elected him to do.