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Executive Privilege: In Not Quite a Shocker, Baker Bows out…

Executive Privilege is an occasional series on gubernatorial elections in Massachusetts

Unlooney tune Charlie Baker

The Commonwealth’s unlooniest tune says two terms and done. (created via images from Commonwealth of Mass. & Warner Bros.)

Charlie Baker will not become the first Massachusetts governor to serve three terms consecutively. Nor will his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, run for governor. For the political universe with a casual interest in the Bay State, these events were bewildering. Polito’s declination was certainly a shock, but no one should be surprised Baker decided to hang up his governing cape.

Former Boston Globe reporter Frank Phillips thrust Massachusetts political antennae into the sky with a tweet about Baker announcing his decision Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, Baker and Polito had told supporters. His Excellency addressed the press later in the day. Both Republicans said they wanted to focus on COVID, not politics. While true a point, the answer for their decisions rests closer to the basics and to realpolitik.

To the untrained eye, Baker has been flying high for years. Though his polling has settled into a lower earth orbit recently, his numbers are impressive for a Republican, here in the bluest of commonwealths. He won reelection easily in 2018. Barring resignation or divine intervention, he will become the first Republican governor to serve two full terms since Massachusetts’s executive offices switched to four-year terms.

But no more than that.

Some believe Baker was falling out of step with his party, which led to suggestions he run as an independent. He poo-pooed that idea earlier this week. Baker, a Brahmin caked in noblesse oblige however cold and bureaucratic, had no home but the GOP.

Still, the state GOP has flown farther and farther beyond Pluto, despite Massachusetts once being a land of Lodges and Richardsons and Brookes. Yet, Baker’s party remains central to his identity, especially as Baker has had little concrete ideology. Indeed, he has campaigned for several of his party’s extreme nominees.

The only option would be to run for reelection as a Republican. Despite Donald Trump’s gubernatorial endorsement of Geoff Diehl, the GOP’s 2018 US Senate nominee, Baker probably could have won the primary, but it would have been bloody.

There is a real risk of Baker would secure less than a majority at his party’s convention next year. Then there would be a MAGA-infused slog until September, premised on pulling independents away from usually-more-significant Democratic primaries. Baker would then face a Democratic party more anxious to take back power than it was in 2018.

Aside from his own ego, Baker’s third term cheering section included the state’s business elite and whatever rump of moderate Republicans exists. He had the vexing and undying love of many Democrats, especially in the state’s MetroWest, a key swing in competitive state elections. However, their devotion was unlike the frantic pleas of business and political heirs of Leverett Saltonstall.

This center-right, business crowd, once the backbone of the Massachusetts Republican party, were already terrified of the pending Fair Share amendment to the state constitution. It would tax the rich at a higher rate and use the funds for education and transportation. A Democratic trifecta, which only Baker’s boyish charm could stop, could unleash a panoply of progressive policy horrors (to them).

Some in what’s left of the establishment GOP couldn’t stand to let him go. (via YouTube/Mass Governor’s office)

Whether Baker cared about this or not, complete Democratic control of Beacon Hill will likely not be a doomsday for the old right any more than Deval Patrick’s governorship was.

Old-school Republican activists within this group, more simply, feared the loss of a patronage factory.

The deciding factor for Baker was likely closer to home, literally. He said he had discussed the matter with his family. Gossip mills have churned out whispers that Lauren Baker, his Excellency’s wife, is eager to have him home more often. Baker told GBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan that his wife would not want him laying around the house 24/7. However, that does not mean she wanted him planted on Beacon Hill evermore, either.

Being in office takes its toll, too. The Baker family has attracted attention and the family homestead in Swampscott has drawn protests. Baker, whatever his faults, presents credibly as a devoted husband and wants to enjoy his remaining years with family. This comes with worries dementia could disrupt the end of that time as it did for his mother.

In short, the Baker family won over the state’s monied interests.

Even if Baker wanted to run, he would be facing a tough road. Though he might beat Diehl, the battle would be a nasty, brutal fight to the death, likely with Trump cameos. Baker may be many things, but a masochist is not one of them.

Karyn Polito

Polito decided to not hurl herself onto a bed of knives and broken glass. (via Commonwealth of Mass,/wikipedia)

By contrast, Polito was long expected to dive in. Yet, over time she may have discovered only a massacre awaited her if she did.

The LT lacked the personal connections that Baker had with many reasonable activist conservatives. That disconnect is interesting as Polito, before becoming his number 2, was to Baker’s right. Her claim Wednesday that her job was done alongside Baker’s is laughable. She had been running across the state and raising princely sums. Every sign indicated she was eyeing Baker’s job if he bailed. She probably reviewed polling and figured if she ever felt like exsanguinating, she could donate blood not run in a Republican primary.

Beyond Diehl, The Boston Globe reported that Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell and former US Attorney Andrew Lelling are possibilities on the Republican side.

Baker’s exit probably puts Democrats in the best position to win back the governor’s office in decades aside from 2006. Three Democrats, Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, Boston Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and former Pittsfield Senator Ben Downing are all already in. Baker’s exit makes Attorney General Maura Healey’s much-speculated bid more likely. One-time Charlie bffl, former Boston Mayor and current US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is also a possibility, per Politico.

No matter what happens, Baker’s exit leaves a new game in his wake.