At Wednesday night's WGBH News gubernatorial debate, incumbent Charlie Baker tripped himself up when characterizing his support for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Geoff Diehl. When pressed by Democrat Jay Gonzalez if he'd vote for fellow Republican Diehl — his officially, if tepidly, endorsed ticket-mate — Baker said he hadn't made up his mind. But when speaking to reporters immediately after the debate, Baker reversed course and said he would vote for the entire Republican ticket, including Diehl.
Linking Baker to the most conservative ranks of the GOP via Trump-loving Diehl is one of the few wounds Gonzalez has managed to inflict upon Baker.
But will voters care? Will the idea of moderate Baker voting for conservative Diehl be a game-changer?
"Some voters will care, but I suspect that those voters who really care about Geoff Diehl are already going to vote a straight Democratic ticket. Most voters don't know who Geoff Diehl is, and so they haven't really formed much of an opinion on him," said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist and dean at Stonehill College.
A poll taken earlier this month by UMass Lowell found Diehl trailing Democrat Elizabeth Warren by 25 percentage points and that 35 percent of voters had never heard of him. The same poll found that 65 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts disapprove of Trump.
Scott Ferson, president of Democratic political strategy firm Liberty Square Group, says Gonzalez's attempt to link Baker to Trump through Diehl could pay off, but only if he uses the sudden attention to his campaign to impress voters with his own candidacy.
"People don't care," Ferson said. "I mean, I'm a Democrat. I don't care. I think Gonzalez was successful in getting people's attention. Now what he does with it, I think, is the important thing."
There is Massachusetts precedent.
In 1994, for example, Baker's mentor, Gov. William Weld, crushed Democratic challenger Mark Roosevelt while Sen. Edward Kennedy handily beat back a challenge from a fresh-faced Mitt Romney.
Similarly, four years ago, Baker narrowly defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley, while Democratic stalwart Sen. Ed Markey trounced Republican Brian Herr.
UMass Boston political scientist Erin O'Brien said anyone upset that Baker would vote for Diehl is probably already on Gonzalez's side. They could even sympathize with Baker's conundrum since "voters are used to sort of voting for someone and holding their nose."
"The idea that Charlie Baker is voting for someone they might not find that palatable, and maybe they're giving him the benefit of the doubt that at heart he doesn't like him that much, but he's a Republican," O'Brien said.
Ubertaccio said it's a reasonable strategy to compare Diehl to Trump and then tie Baker in with the the deeply unpopular national GOP. The problem, he says, is that voters have built up trust in Baker over the last four years.
"While they may dislike his support for someone like Geoff Diehl and they may be confused by his performance last night in the debate, which I don't think helped him, I think it will take more than that for voters to suddenly decide over the course of couple of weeks that a person they've genuinely given high marks to over the course of years is suddenly not worth their vote," Ubertaccio said.