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Why Massachusetts Might Elect Another Republican Governor

In the bluest of states, Democrat Martha Coakley, best known for failing to win Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, is polling evenly in this year's race against Republican Charlie Baker.

Massachusetts is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. In a way, that might be hurting Martha Coakley, the party's nominee for governor.

Coakley, the state attorney general, is in a dead heat with Republican Charlie Baker. Despite its blue leanings, Massachusetts has elected plenty of GOP governors in recent years -- incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick followed Mitt Romney and a 16-year series of Republicans.

More importantly, the legislature is so strongly Democratic that voters don't have to worry that a GOP governor would move policy much to the right. Things may change after the election, but right now, Democrats hold 167 of the commonwealth's 200 legislative seats.

"There's a veto-proof majority," said John Berg, a government professor at Suffolk University. "The relevance of that is rank-and-file Democrats aren't necessarily thrown into a state of panic by the thought a Republican might be in the governor's office."

And Baker, a businessman and former state official, isn't much of a right-winger. Baker is presenting himself as someone who could manage the state prudently, while sharing the liberal values of most Massachusetts voters on social issues. He supports, for instance, abortion rights and gun control and speaks with pride about his brother being a gay man and married resident of the commonwealth. "In any other state, Charlie Baker would be a Democrat," said Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

If Baker doesn't scare Democrats, Coakley doesn't inspire them. She won the nomination by a narrower margin than expected in the September primary and has had a hard time winning over some doubters within her own party. "It's just been a real challenge for her to get the base engaged in the way they were really fired up for Deval Patrick," Jenkins said.

Coakley has been coy on many issues, saying at various times she is "open" to ideas such as increasing the earned-income tax credit, granting driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally and allowing a casino in Springfield.

By many measures, such as educational attainment and levels of health care coverage, Massachusetts leads the nation. The unemployment rate is lower than the nation's as a whole. "I personally think we're back on track in Massachusetts, and people are interested in electing a Democrat," said Kate Donaghue, who represents Massachusetts on the Democratic National Committee.

But Baker has had all the momentum in polling since Coakley won her party's nomination. Despite their overall political dominance, Democrats are not invulnerable, the party's image dragged down by a series of scandals involving recent state House Speakers.

The largest bloc of voters in the commonwealth now is independents, which gives Republicans a chance, at least at the gubernatorial level, Jenkins said. Coakley, meanwhile, is failing to fire up many members of her own base. "Voters view her as a bland, timid, white-bread candidate," Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker wrote last month, "and it's hard to get more exciting in your fourth run for statewide office."

Coakley is best-known for having lost the 2010 special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, which is the only time Republicans have won a congressional election in Massachusetts at any time in the last 20 years. If she manages to lose again this year, her political reputation certainly won't be enhanced.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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