Feb 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Massachusetts' Charlie Baker joins governors facing COVID criticism

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is seen embracing Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito at their 2016 inaugural.

Baker and Polito at their inaugural celebration in 2015. Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who has regularly polled as the most popular governor in the country, is facing declining fundraising numbers amid rising criticism for his handling of the coronavirus, stirring questions about whether he'll seek re-election next year or even try to pass the torch early.

Why it matters: Increasingly, the nation's governors are under growing scrutiny for their states' infection and death rates, economic losses and vaccine plans. Democratic governors representing two of the most populous states — Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York — are fighting for their political survival.

  • The departure of Donald Trump as president has removed a foil many governors used to explain problems with their state COVID relief efforts.

Details: In Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has sharply increased her fundraising while Baker’s has declined. They are up for reelection in 2022.

  • Campaign finance reports show she ended last month with $1.95 million cash on hand; he finished with $590,000. She grew her balance by nearly 10% during 2020; his declined by over 35%.
  • Seniors in the state are complaining about long lines and confusing vaccination signups.
  • Lawmakers at every level are angry, too, and there are lingering questions about why a medical mecca has had high case and death rates.
  • A recent Boston Globe headline questioned the vaunted management skills of Baker, a former health care executive and state budget chief.
  • A Boston Herald columnist recently raised the specter of Baker taking a golden parachute by heading two newly merged health care companies — Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where Baker previously served as CEO.
  • Campaign spokesman Jim Conroy said: “Governor Baker's top priority and focus remains managing the Commonwealth through the pandemic, rather than electoral politics.”

The intrigue: While Massachusetts is an overwhelmingly blue state, it has a history of electing Republican governors. Two recent ones — Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci — presaged Baker and Polito by running in tandem with their lieutenant governors before passing off the corner office.

  • Weld left Cellucci as governor in 1997 during a failed quest to become U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Cellucci left Jane Swift as governor in 2001 after winning confirmation as ambassador to Canada.
  • Baker served both Weld and Cellucci as secretary of Administration and Finance. Polito has been a loyal Baker ally, and Massachusetts has a relatively thin Republican bench.

But, but, but: Local politicos have noted that Baker spent much of the past year coping with COVID-19, impinging on his political activity and making fundraising appear unseemly.

  • He also raised money during his first two campaigns in large chunks through a political action committee that could accept donations exceeding the $1,000 limit on individual contributions.
  • One Baker adviser told Axios that once Baker leaves office — almost certainly not before any term ends — the governor is unlikely to assume a CEO role.

Baker's problems could be worse — just look at some of his counterparts. In California, Newsom faces a threatened recall effort. In New York, Cuomo faces the wrath of state lawmakers — and potential legal jeopardy.

What we're watching: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, has been weighing a bid for governor, and a Democratic former state senator has already declared his candidacy.

  • Another high-profile Democrat, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, lost a primary campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey last fall. He has said he has no immediate plans to run for any other elective office, but recently launched a grassroots organizing effort.

Editor’s note: Updates with comment from Baker spokesman, and adjusts speculation about potential next jobs.

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