The Pattern of Electing a New Governor

It's becoming clear that Massachusetts voters seem to want one thing in an open gubernatorial race: change.

Associated Press

Associated Press

The people of Massachusetts seem to have a pretty good idea of what they want in a governor. The last four times they have pondered an open race with no incumbent (acting or full) on the ballot, they have chosen a handsome man with little or no elected office on his resume, making vague promises to use his extra-political skills to reform Beacon Hill. Deval Patrick is a little shorter than Bill Weld, Mitt Romney, and Charlie Baker, but the pattern is pretty clear.

Baker deserves a considerable amount of credit: In addition to the lucky breaks beyond his control, he needed to run a nearly flawless campaign, and he did. He clearly self-analyzed from his 2010 race, and made adjustments—not just in his strategy, but in his choice of who to listen to, or not. He made a particularly wise choice to listen to veteran Democratic consultant Will Keyser, who will now be the hot commodity among the unfortunately minimal market of progressive Republicans running serious campaigns for high office. With Keyser’s help and a strong staff, Baker maintained tight message discipline, carried out an unexpected but savvy strategy of combining a serious field operation with relentless targeted personal appearance in urban centers. Baker stuck with the strategy, trusting its wisdom through months of little apparent return. He also showed, by switching media firms late in the game, that he was willing and able to reassess and redirect as necessary.

In effect, Baker brought his analytical and managerial skills to the task of running for governor, and the result augurs well for his performance in that office.

He should enter with considerable good will, both with the citizenry and, within bounds, of the Beacon Hill establishment. They and their culture have outlasted all the previous avowed reformers sent by the people, and know they will outlast the new one. Baker arrives far better versed in both the policy and politics of the State House corridors than Weld, Romney, or Patrick did, and that will help him considerably—but make no mistake, the budget he submits in a few months, chock full of fresh ideas and re-thought approaches, will go immediately into the bin just like those that have come before it.

Baker also does not enter with a partisan wind at his back, as Bill Weld did in 1990. This was a purely personal selection that voters made between the two candidates, and, indeed, Tuesday’s election was remarkable for the Commonwealth’s refusal to mark any other Republicans below Baker on the ballot. Richard Tisei didn’t just lose to Seth Moulton in the 9th Congressional district; he got blown out. None of the GOP’s other statewide candidates topped 41 percent, even with two open offices. Expectations of significant gains in the state senate, with even Democratic insiders expecting the GOP to snare at least eight seats, failed to materialize—they won only six in the 40-seat chamber, and made very modest gains in the house as well.

As for the state Democrats, they now enter a land of a thousand bosses. Deval Patrick will remain influential but no longer in control of the party. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Stan Rosenberg and Robert DeLeo, Richie Neal and Jim McGovern, Tom McGee and Marty Walsh, they and more hold some claim to power, but none has ultimate authority.

What the Democrats do have going for them is not just that they hold pretty much every office going forward other than the one they want most, but that they are well-stocked with great next-generation political talents.

Unfortunately, those talents are all office-holders, and as noted above, the voters of the Commonwealth have made pretty clear they don’t really care much for those. The four biggest winners of this election cycle—Baker, Moulton, Treasurer-elect Deb Goldberg, and Attorney General-elect Maura Healey—have in common no elected office higher than town selectman. Their paths to victory left a trail of current and former office-holders as roadkill behind them. But they have all just become part of that tainted club they stood apart from until yesterday.

As for Martha Coakley and her campaign (not to mention her odd election-night shutdown), I’ll join the large chorus of chatterers on that topic a bit later. For now, let me say this: She worked her tail off, stood on her principles, and deserves credit on both fronts. But voters chose once again to go with a very familiar notion of change.