Massachusetts has an opening in its corner office. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is retiring, and in a state with no shortage of ambitious politicians, you’d expect there to be a Central Artery-worthy traffic jam to take his place. But instead, more than two months before Election Day, it’s already safe for Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey to start picking out new drapes.
So how did the race to govern the nation’s 15th largest state, the birthplace of the American Revolution, the hub of New England (if not the universe) — and, if you couldn’t already tell, my home state — get so uncompetitive?
It wasn’t always. A year ago, it looked like Bay Staters were in for not one, but two competitive gubernatorial primaries. Harvard professor Danielle Allen, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and former state Sen. Ben Downing were all running on the Democratic side, while former state Rep. Geoff Diehl was challenging Baker in the Republican primary.
Normally, a primary challenge to a sitting governor would be a fool’s errand, but Baker is no favorite of the GOP base. Part of a long-running tradition of moderate, even liberal, Republican governors in the Northeast, Baker has worked with the Democratic legislature to fight climate change and protect abortion rights, and he even came out in favor of impeaching former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Baker’s approval rating among Republicans, in other words, wasn’t great. It was only 35 percent in November 2021, according to a COVID States Project poll. And after Trump endorsed Diehl, a Public Policy Polling survey sponsored by the Democratic Governors Association (admittedly, not a disinterested party) found Diehl beating Baker in the GOP primary by 21 percentage points.
Baker denied that fear of losing the primary had anything to do with it, but he pulled the plug in December 2021, and his decision not to run for reelection changed the trajectory of the race for both parties. On the very day of Baker’s retirement, speculation turned to whether Healey, a rising Democratic star, would launch a campaign. With Healey’s candidacy (and $3.3 million war chest) looming, Downing dropped out of the race a few weeks later.
Healey officially threw her hat into the ring in January, and she immediately crowded out the remaining candidates. A January poll of the Democratic primary from MassINC Polling Group gave her 48 percent to Chang-Díaz’s 12 percent and Allen’s 3 percent. Less than a month later, Allen was out of the race too. Chang-Díaz hung in there a little longer, but still facing a 33-point deficit in a June poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she announced on June 23 that she had “no path” to win the primary and was dropping out too. Although Chang-Díaz’s name is still appearing on ballots, Healey is now essentially unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
And it doesn’t look like she’ll have much trouble in the general election either. Poll after poll has given Healey a commanding lead, most recently Suffolk University in July (Healey 54 percent, Diehl 23 percent). And according to all three versions of the FiveThirtyEight midterm forecast, Healey has a greater than 99 in 100 chance of beating Diehl.1 That makes Massachusetts the most likely governorship to change parties in the 2022 election — just behind Maryland, another blue state where a moderate Republican governor is retiring and Republicans have nominated a diehard Trump supporter to replace him.
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It’s true that Massachusetts has elected only one Democratic governor since 1990, and it’s true that Baker is currently one of the most popular governors in the country. But as partisanship comes to hold greater and greater sway over gubernatorial elections, Massachusetts may simply be too Democratic (according to FiveThirtyEight partisan lean,2 it’s the bluest state in the country) to elect another Republican governor — especially one as Trumpy as Diehl.
Granted, Diehl still has to win his own primary on Tuesday — and some Republicans believe they could still win in November if they nominate self-described “pragmatic businessman” Chris Doughty. But Doughty’s belief that Trump lost the 2020 election and promise to keep abortion legal in Massachusetts are unlikely to fly in a Republican primary: An August poll from Advantage/Fiscal Alliance Foundation gave Diehl a 42-percent-to-27-percent lead. And even if Doughty were to upset Diehl in the primary, polls currently suggest he would do just as poorly as Diehl in the general election.
In other words, Healey is in good shape — not only to flip the Massachusetts governor’s office from red to blue, but also to make history. She would be the first woman elected governor of Massachusetts and the first openly lesbian governor of any state.3 So no matter what happens in the midterms elsewhere in the country, Massachusetts will give Democrats at least one thing to celebrate.