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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.

Go deeper

CNN says Chris Cuomo banned from covering brother, despite early pandemic exception

Screenshot via CNN

A CNN spokesperson told the Washington Post that a rule prohibiting anchor Chris Cuomo from interviewing or covering his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, "remains in place today."

Why it matters: Chris Cuomo hosted his brother for numerous segments of "Cuomo Prime Time" to discuss the coronavirus last year, when New York was at the epicenter of the pandemic and the governor was winning plaudits for his crisis management. Gov. Cuomo is now facing a federal probe and calls to resign over his handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Dave Lawler, author of World
32 mins ago - World

Americans increasingly see China as an enemy

One in three Americans, and a majority of Republicans, now view China as an enemy of the United States, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

By the numbers: Just 9% of Americans consider China a "partner," while 55% see Beijing as a "competitor" and 34% as an "enemy."

Scoop: Leaked HHS docs spotlight Biden's child migrant dilemma

A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fresh internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show how quickly the number of child migrants crossing the border is overwhelming the administration's stretched resources.

Driving the news: In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, according to documents obtained by Axios. That's up from a weekly average of 203 in late January and early February — and just 47 per day during the first week of January.