Gov. Charlie Baker likes to say he’s a “data guy” — someone who, when faced with a big decision, doesn’t just follow his gut or sudden shifts in opinion, but takes a clear-eyed, dispassionate look at key metrics before acting.
As Baker weighs whether or not to seek a third term, the data may be giving him pause. In October, a poll of likely Republican primary voters conducted for the Democratic Governors Association showed Baker trailing by 21 points in a hypothetical matchup with former State Rep. Geoff Diehl, who’s already announced he’s seeking the Republican nomination and wooing delegates for next year’s convention. That deficit grew to 32 points when respondents were told that former President Donald Trump, who’s derided Baker as a “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only, has already endorsed Diehl.
A more recent poll, from Democrat-aligned Northwind Strategies and Change Research, suggested that running as an independent might be the more prudent choice for Baker. If he took that course, the survey found, he’d be the frontrunner in a hypothetical general-election matchup with Diehl and Maura Healey, the Democratic attorney general and prospective gubernatorial candidate, garnering 32% support to Healey’s 26% and Diehl’s 21% among general-election voters.
But Monday, in his monthly appearance on GBH News’s Boston Public Radio, Baker all but ruled out an independent candidacy, saying he’s “pretty close” to deciding whether to run and that, if he does, he’ll almost certainly do so as a member of the GOP.
“I’ve been a Republican for almost all of my adult life, and I believe in my brand of Republicanism,” Baker said. “I don’t sit around and say to myself, you know, ‘Can I win or not?’ To me, the question always comes back to ... ‘Do I have the will, the desire, and the agenda that I believe would be in the state’s best interest, and the energy and the commitment to follow through and deliver on it?’”
“I assume that means is, if you run, you’ll run as a Republican or you won’t run at all — is that what you’re saying?” host Jim Braude asked.
“I think that’s a reasonable assumption to make, yeah,” Baker replied.
So why, with his political future on the line, is Baker moving toward a decision that seems to conflict with the data?
Perhaps because, in politics, recent poll numbers only tell part of the story. For Baker, there are compelling practical reasons to be wary of going the independent route — and more subjective considerations that loom large despite resisting easy quantification.
For one thing, early, upbeat assessments of how Baker might fare as an independent don’t reflect taxing such a campaign could be, both logistically and emotionally.
“My usual advice to people who come to me asking if they should run as an independent is, 'Don’t do it,'” said Tim Cahill, the former Democratic state treasurer who ran for governor as an independent in 2010 against Baker and Deval Patrick, the Democratic incumbent. “What I learned from that race is that unless you are very, very independent and very wealthy ... you’re very, very isolated. And you get hit from both sides.”
By “both sides,” Cahill means the sprawling, party-based networks that mobilize to support Democratic and Republican candidates every election cycle — often by hammering the opposition with expensive attacks funded through a national donor base.
In the 2010 campaign, early polling showed Cahill running ahead of Baker and in striking distance of Patrick. As the race unfolded, though, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent millions of dollars on ads that boosted Baker by questioning Cahill’s credibility — accusing him, among other things, of mismanaging the Massachusetts Lottery as state treasurer.
The impact of those advertisements was significant. In the campaign’s final months, Cahill launched a Treasury ad campaign aimed at boosting the Lottery’s image and was subsequently indicted in 2012 for allegedly misusing state funds. The proceedings against him ended in a mistrial. In the 2010 campaign, Cahill’s support faded over time, and he ultimately received just 8% of the vote.
Whether the RGA would target Baker if he ran as an independent is unclear. His relationships with his Republican peers, and questions about Diehl’s electability, might prompt the group to effectively sit out the race. At a minimum, though, Baker would almost certainly forgo the assistance he’s received from the group in the past.
"I've been a Republican for almost all of my adult life, and I believe in my brand of Republicanism."Gov. Charlie Baker
There is, Cahill acknowledges, an important caveat when it comes to linking his own experience to Baker’s deliberations: As a popular two-term incumbent, Baker may be better positioned to weather a campaign run from political no-man’s land. Even so, Cahill said, “I still wouldn’t recommend it. ... You can run, and you can run hard, as I did. But you generally get outmanned by the money and power that comes from Washington, D.C.”
Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at UMass Dartmouth, is more bullish about Baker’s independent prospects, especially if he were to choose to leave the party prior to the GOP primary rather than after a (hypothetical) primary loss. By doing so, she says, Baker could avoid shifting rightward to try to win the Republican nomination, and instead “run right where he is, as a moderate.” In addition, Jenkins argues, leaving the GOP would make it harder for the Democratic nominee to link Baker to Trump, who was emphatically rejected by Massachusetts voters in both 2016 and 2020.
But Jenkins adds that, while running as independent might seem like an easy choice for Baker from afar, cutting ties with an institution that has anchored his public identity for decades could be quite difficult.
“I think Charlie Baker has some values, and he wants to stand for those values, and part of that is the future of the party that he’s been a member of his, I think, entire adult life,” Jenkins said. “There’s both the operational political decisions, and then there’s some very personal decisions for Charlie Baker that I think only he can understand.”
Baker’s Republican ties run deep. His father served in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and Baker rose to prominence in the administration of former Republican Gov. Bill Weld. In a recent interview with WCVB, Baker said he is “very comfortable” as a “Bill Weld Republican” — even though Weld, who challenged Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, struggled to generate any support and left the race early.
Todd Domke, a longtime Republican consultant and analyst who left the party after Trump’s election, foresees another complication if Baker chose to make an independent bid. Some voters, Domke predicts, would question the sincerity of Baker’s shift in identity.
“If he were to become an independent, he should have done that a long time ago,” Domke said. “Doing it this late would seem expedient. It would seem like, ‘Well, you’re leaving because you know you’re going to probably lose the Republican primary, and Trump is against you. You’ve kind of been chased out of the party.’ ... And there’d be some truth in that.”
While some politicians might be temperamentally suited to running against the two-party system, Domke adds, Baker isn’t necessarily one of them.
“He doesn’t really have the motivation, the fire in the belly, to really go out and fight on issues to make his independent candidacy meaningful,” Domke said. “He basically has positions in most cases where it’s kind of a compromise: not too far to the right, not too far to the left, and he’s basically in the middle. And being in what could be considered the mushy middle is a real disadvantage in a very polarized time like now.”
There is a counterargument here — namely, that based on Baker’s two wins and impressive approval ratings, the compromise-focused middle is exactly where most Massachusetts voters want their governor to be.
Ed Lyons, a moderate Republican activist who’s criticized the state GOP’s ongoing shift toward Trump and away from Baker, argued two years ago that Baker was already creating a de facto third party in Massachusetts. He cited the Baker-affiliated Massachusetts Majority Super PAC, which has funded both Democratic and Republican candidates at the local level.
Before Baker’s appearance on Boston Public Radio, Lyons predicted that Baker will try to win the Republican nomination by bringing unenrolled voters into the party’s open primary next September. But he also called Baker and his political team “geniuses about holding down a fortress in the middle of our state politics,” and noted that, on an operational level, Baker’s political apparatus has been effectively divorced from the Mass GOP for some time.
“There is no party-member governor better positioned to pull off an independent run,” Lyons said.
For now, though, it’s not even clear if Baker even plans to seek a third term. And if he does, the chances of him going the independent route seem to be growing slimmer by the day.
Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at UMass Boston, suggests another factor the data can't capture may be involved.
“I think Geoff Diehl is one of few reasons why Charlie Baker might run again,” O'Brien said. “Geoff Diehl is pretty much everything that Charlie Baker doesn’t like in the Republican Party. And Charlie Baker’s a competitive guy.
“For all this affable, Mr. Nice Guy governor, he wants to win,” she added. “I think Charlie Baker looks forward to crushing Geoff Diehl electorally.”