The debate will air live on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7p.m. on Channel 2. You can also listen on 89.7FM or stream it here.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his Democratic opponent Jay Gonzalez square off in their second debate Wednesday night live on WGBH News.
The contenders bloodied their knuckles in their first debate last week moderated by WBZ host Jon Keller. But because the debate on Channel 38 was shown while the Red Sox were in a heated playoff game, this week's rematch, moderated by WGBH's Margery Eagan and Jim Braude, could prove to be the most important public engagement of the governor's race.
As more voters start to become aware of the race, Gonzalez's will have to double down on his case against Baker and the governor will be expected to toughen the defense of his record. Gonzalez has a lot of work to do. According to a UMass Lowell poll, as of the first week of October, 29 percent of registered voters had never heard of him.
"It is a really, really sleepy race and Gonzalez hasn't seemed to be able to get any traction on any issues to make a dent in Baker's popularity, as far as I can tell," UMass Dartmouth political science department chairperson Shannon Jenkins told WGBH News.
Though Baker is about as far from President Donald Trump's brand of Republicanism as someone with an 'R' after their name can get, the partisan divide between the candidates may be Gonzalez's most exploitable asset.
Gonzalez's proactive platform relies heavily on long-term plans to increase taxes on the wealthy and on university endowments. Over the last four years, Baker has proven to be a consistent protector of taxpayer pocketbooks and simply wants to manage the funds the state has instead of increasing revenues and services.
“Jay looks forward to the opportunity to present the clear choice between he and Charlie Baker. A choice between a status quo governor who is leaving too many working families behind— and Jay Gonzalez, a bold leader who will offer an ambitious agenda to move Massachusetts forward.” Kevin Ready, Gonzalez's campaign manager, told WGBH News a day before the debate.
Gonzalez hopes to intensify the drumbeat he established in the first debate: build clear distinctions between himself and Baker in order to rally not only Democratic votes, but left-leaning independents who will be necessary to the incumbent Republican polls suggest has a commanding lead. The margin seems to be in Baker's favor at the moment, but make no mistake: If Gonzalez can excite hardcore Democrats and Elizabeth Warren voters about his own qualifications, and give independents enough reasons to think of Baker as a "status quo governor," the challenger could pull off a win. In a volatile political year, Democrats insist this is a possibility.
"I would bet that the really liberal base is inclined to vote for Gonzalez and they're energized by that, but I think people who are more middle-of-the-road look around and say 'the status quo's not so bad,'" Jenkins said.
Gonzalez's message is that Baker simply does not go far enough championing the values Democrats say voters want. When Gonzalez uses his campaign slogan as a debate refrain, "aim high" it means he wants to be a more active and liberal governor than Baker has shown himself to be.
Gonzalez will do that by pointing to the weak spots in Baker's record. The ongoing State Police scandal has expanded to almost 50 troopers under investigation with eight indictments. Baker will say the corrupt culture of payroll abuse at the State Police predates his time in office and that he's done everything he can to investigate and clamp down. Gonzalez will point out that Baker has been in charge for almost the last four years and shares responsibility.
On Gonzalez's consistent call for the dismissal of State Police Col. Kerry Gilpin, Baker will likely repeat what he's been saying for the duration of the scandal: that Gilpin's investigation has been key to the state and federal charges levied against troopers.
Baker needs to rebut Gonzalez's claims that his administration hasn't been effective. Playing defense is easier when the governor has favorable statistics and accomplishments to push back with. Baker can tout increases to funding for local municipalities, roads and k-12 education and the governor can stake a claim in virtually any of the legislative accomplishments Democrats put on his desk to sign.
"Governor Baker looks forward to the opportunity to continue to share his record of bipartisan leadership that’s delivering results for the people of Massachusetts, including a thriving economy that's created over 200,000 new jobs, record investment in public education, and stronger communities across the Commonwealth," Baker-Polito campaign spokesman Terry MacCormack told WGBH News.
Another way Gonzalez could try to remind voters of Baker's party label is the governor's tepid support for the party's conservative U.S. Senate candidate. There's no better symbol of Trump's presence in Massachusetts than Whitman State Representative Geoff Diehl, who won the GOP nomination to face Sen. Elizabeth Warren after a lengthy record of siding with the most right-wing elements of the Legislature and helping Trump win the state presidential primary in 2016.
Jenkins said tying Baker to Diehl and Trump may be the best argument the Gonzalez has with moderate voters who find the president's politics appalling.
"Trump is deeply unpopular and to the extent that Diehl supports Trump, that may help Gonzalez," she said.
Gonzalez could extend his attack on Baker's record and urgency to the governor's commitment to the environment. If the recent UN climate change report doesn't come up directly, expect the environmental issue to be raised as a response to the natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley last month. Baker has been on board with the incremental expansion of the state's use of renewable energy passed by the Legislature, but he's never vowed to stop gas expansion the way environmental activists want.
Stop me if you sense a theme developing, but Gonzalez will say that Baker has not gone far enough committing to clean energy over dirtier (but affordable) fuels like natural gas. Gas expansion was important to environmental voters worried about that state's contribution to climate change, but the explosions in Lawrence and Andover elevated the question of more gas infrastructure into a potent public safety issue that will resonate with anyone who catches a whiff of gas coming from a utility line.
You can watch the debate live on WGBH Channel 2, on WGBHNews.org and listen live on 89.7 FM.