Can a Democrat unseat popular GOP Gov. Baker?
BOSTON — Even in a blue state, and amid signs that liberal Democratic enthusiasm is surging nationwide, Jay Gonzalez likely faces a steep climb in his bid to unseat Massachusetts' popular Republican governor in November.
Gonzalez handily won the Democratic nomination, but now must quickly figure out a way to channel into his campaign the energy and thirst for change that powered Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley's primary election upset of longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano.
First he must get voters to start paying attention to the governor's race. Unofficial returns show tens of thousands of people who took Democratic ballots in Tuesday's primary didn't even bother casting a vote for governor.
Gonzalez, who served as a top official in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, describes himself as the "little guy ... both literally and figuratively," against Gov. Charlie Baker, one of the nation's most popular chief executives. The literal portion of the phrase refers to him being more than a foot shorter than Baker, who once played college basketball.
In the figurative sense, Gonzalez hopes to position himself as a champion of Massachusetts voters who've not necessarily shared in the state's economic prosperity over the past four years, and commuters frustrated by frequently unreliable public transportation and clogged highways.
"As more and more people start tuning in to this race and actually think about what Charlie Baker has done, or I think more accurately not done to make a difference in their lives, we are getting a lot of support and a lot of enthusiasm," said Gonzalez.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College who closely watches Massachusetts politics, expects Gonzalez will try to present himself as a "Pressley-like agent of change," but adds it won't be an easy sell given the lack of familiarity most voters have with the challenger.
"He has to compete with the popularity of Baker and the millions of dollars that Baker has to spend on his campaign," said Ubertaccio.
The Democrat, who according to state campaign finance records had less than $200,000 cash on hand after the primary, has called for limits on spending by political action committees and other outside groups in the race, but Baker's campaign doesn't appear receptive to the idea.
By one measure, Baker, a moderate who has distanced himself from President Donald Trump, may be more popular among Democrats than Republicans in Massachusetts.
A WBUR-FM poll of registered Democrats in June found 68 percent had a favorable opinion of the governor. In Tuesday's Republican primary, Baker got 64 percent of the GOP vote to 36 percent for his ultraconservative opponent, Scott Lively.
Liberal on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, Baker hired Democrats for several key posts in his administration and has carefully cultivated an image of bipartisan cooperation on Beacon Hill.
"At a time when our country is having trouble finding common ground on so many issues, we in Massachusetts are an exception," Baker proclaimed to supporters after his primary win.
Gonzalez, who planned to appear with Pressley and other Democrats at a Cambridge rally Sunday, has pledged what he calls an "ambitious, progressive agenda" that includes a single-payer health care system and greater financial support for public transit and education. It's a platform likely to resonate with many Democrats, though Gonzalez has yet to formulate a plan for raising additional tax revenue to fund such initiatives.
The state's highest court rejected as unconstitutional a proposed "millionaire tax" backed by Gonzalez and other Democrats that called for a surtax on the state's wealthiest earners. The ruling also spared Baker from having to take a position against the tax that could well have proven unpopular with middle- and low-income voters.
Perhaps the greatest risk to Baker's re-election bid remains being swept away in an anti-Republican, anti-Trump tide in November.
In Massachusetts, Baker will share the Republican ticket with several conservative, pro-Trump candidates including state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Jay McMahon, the GOP nominee facing Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey. Baker has endorsed his fellow Republican candidates, though it's unclear if or how much he'll campaign with them.
"They're not really Baker's style and they don't really share his politics, but he has to share a ticket with them," said Ubertaccio. "Democrats can hope that rubs off a little bit, and they are going to remind voters of that over and over again."
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