Scot Lehigh

With Baker in, a real race begins

By Scot Lehigh
July 10, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

SO HAMLET has decided to join the fray.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a genuine governor’s race, one that may well be the highest-caliber clash since the riveting 1990 contest that pitted Bill Weld against John Silber.

Republican Charlie Baker, CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care for the last decade, guaranteed as much with his Wednesday announcement that he would seek the state’s top job.

During his short press conference, Baker touched on his key themes. First will be the need to jumpstart a stalled state economy and improve the business climate.

“Frankly, it’s a pretty dark picture, and I don’t think we’re doing the sorts of things we need to do to make that picture better,’’ he said. Two others: restoring the “checks and balances’’ of two-party government and competing ideas to Beacon Hill and taking “a really serious run at reforming state government.’’

If the Weld administration’s former wunderkind wins the Republican nomination, he would face the man whose formidable oratorical and organizational skills returned the Democrats to the Corner Office for the first time in 16 years.

Deval Patrick’s star has dimmed considerably since the budget crisis rendered his expansive vision a receding dream and raised doubts about whether a Democrat constrained by constituency-group politics can make reforms of the magnitude the times require. Further, periodic missteps have left him vulnerable to charges of politics as usual.

Still, after a half-year that produced an important first step on pension reform and a pretty good ethics bill, Patrick could be poised for a rebound. At the very least, with Treasurer Tim Cahill quitting the Democratic Party to position himself for a possible independent gubernatorial bid, Patrick should have a clear path to his party’s nomination.

Contrariwise, some think Baker may have parachuted into double difficulty. He first faces a GOP primary campaign against convenience store king Christy Mihos, and then, should he prevail, the prospect of a general election campaign that may include Cahill. A three-man contest could split the anti-Patrick vote, perhaps letting the incumbent glide back into office.

But the view here is that Baker will benefit from a primary and that fall 2010 will feature a tough and tight Baker-Patrick contest. Yes, Mihos has money to burn, but if Baker lives up to his promise, he should come across as the more plausible governor of the two Republicans. His service in two Cabinet jobs - health and human services, then administration and finance - plus his five years on the state board of education put matters like the ongoing fiscal crisis, the next stage of education reform, and stabilizing the state’s landmark healthcare program squarely in his wheelhouse.

In contrast, after his 2006 independent bid for governor, Mihos has GADFLY firmly stamped on his forehead. (Actually, make that GENIAL GADFLY; informed of my view, he jokes: “Well, I think you’re a gadfly, Scot.’’) He has signed on politically ambidextrous negative-ad apostle Dick Morris, a move some had read as an attempt to give Baker cold feet. Actually, says Mihos, Morris wanted to do this race because he thinks David Axelrod and David Plouffe developed Barack Obama’s successful themes here, in Patrick’s 2006 race. So does Morris hope to hone an anti-Obama approach here? “I never talked with him about that,’’ says Mihos. Asked if he plans to run negative ads against Baker, Mihos replies: “I don’t intend to, no. I don’t think it does anybody any good in a party down to 11 percent to go negative.’’ We shall see.

As for Cahill, he comes off less as a potential governor than a lone wolf - and a paranoid lone wolf, at that - consumed with political calculation. Would he hold up in a three-way race? Doubtful. Trifurcated tussles usually develop into de facto two-candidate contests. And once voters come to sense that, relatively few stick with the odd candidate out.

A lot has changed since 2006. Back then, Patrick won because voters bought his optimistic but gauzy vision for the future. In the next campaign, expect the winner to be the candidate who persuades voters he’s best able to do the difficult things that tough times demand.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at

More opinions

Find the latest columns from: