Thursday, August 24, 2006

Massachusetts Governor Race

Race of the Day

August 24, 2006
75 Days Until Election Day

Massachusetts Governor

Status: Republican Open
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

It has now been a generation since Democrats were last able to capture the Massachusetts State House’s Corner Office and this fact has generated a great deal of frustration among the party within what is perhaps their most favorable state in the country. Since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991, four different Republicans have served as Governor, and in one form or another, every one of those Governors has decided to walk away from the job. A big part of that may be the constant wrangling with an overwhelming Democrat majority in the state legislature.

The most recent of those Governors is the current incumbent Mitt Romney, who is leaving after just a single term and is considered one of the top Republican Presidential hopefuls for 2008. In order to receive that Presidential nomination, Romney has had to position himself somewhat more to the right than he was when he had run for office in Massachusetts, and while he is far from despised in the state, a difficult reelection battle as a bona fide conservative, would have been far too risky for his future ambitions. However, I happen to think that he maybe should have sought reelection as the person who would have been the best prospect to keep the office Republican. Even if he would have lost, he could have sold himself as a martyr for conservative values in the land of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and the conservative base of the national party might have appreciated that.

Nonetheless, the Republican nominee in 2006 will be Lt. Governor Kerry Healey, who will seek to become the first woman to be elected Governor of the Bay State. Healey is more moderate than Romney on such issues as abortion and gay rights and that positioning may help her in the state. She has a lot of hurdles to overcome however, as the frequent turnover of Republican standard bearers in the state has had to thrust her into the limelight perhaps before she would have otherwise been ready. It was her hope that she would be more prominent within in the state as a way to carve out her own distinct image, but as of late, it has been Governor Romney who has been the one to appear in charge, dealing with such controversial matters as a scandal related to the Big Dig construction project in Boston. While Romney certainly wants to help Healey, it is in his interests for 2008 to come across as a strong leader.

As for the current election for Governor, all the political attention seems to be focused on the three Democrats that want their party’s nomination with the September primary fast approaching. Those candidates are Attorney General Tom Reilly, Deval Patrick, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney General under President Clinton, and a fairly late entrant, wealthy investment banker Chris Gabrieli who has previously lost bids for Congress and Lt. Governor.

For a while, it appeared that the nomination would be that of Reilly’s for the taking. He had the most name recognition, political experience, and a sense of inevitability. However, his campaign has been pretty poorly conducted for a variety of reasons and he has been tainted by some questions regarding his integrity. Reilly has been forced to admit that he is a subpar politician but that he hopes to get the chance to serve nonetheless. For several months, his lone opponent was Patrick, who while considered someone who was well-known in Washington political and legal circles, but little known back in Massachusetts. With strong support from liberals within the party though, Patrick, who would be his state’s first black Governor, has run an impressive primary campaign and in early June received the state party’s official endorsement. Shortly before that convention, Gabrieli had sensed an opening and jumped into the race, pledging to spend a good deal of his personal wealth. The end result to all of this activity is that Gabrieli has surged in the polls and he and Patrick each lead in at least one with Reilly in third place, but certainly not out of the running. It is fair to say that when the primary comes around, it looks like all three candidates might finish anywhere from first to last. Conventional wisdom seems to give a slight edge to Patrick though, although the momentum of Gabrieli makes an impressive case for him as well.

One other wildcard to this intriguing race is that businessman Christy Mihos, a maverick Republican, has earned a right to be on the ballot as an Independent along with his Democrat Lt. Governor running mate. Mihos has been polling in the double digits in all general election polls and for a time it looked like a three way race may be close enough for him to have a chance to actually pull a Jesse Ventura or an Angus King and win the whole thing. However, the more recent polls show his support as low as the 10 percent level. That figure is nothing to sneeze at for an Independent but it now looks like he would be destined to finish third in November and he will have to decide if he would be content with spending from his considerable personal resources to simply play the role of spoiler. A couple weeks back, a Gubernatorial candidate in Oregon with a similar situation decided to end his campaign as to not want to be that spoiler. Mihos is giving no signs of wanting to drop out though, so the question will be what kind of spoiler he will be. A case can be made for him hurting the Republican nominee more or hurting the Democrat nominee more, depending in large part on which Democrat it will be. While it is not a cut and dry issue, Mihos does seem to be taking a little more from the Republican Healey, and thus the GOP would probably love to get him out of the race, as they made a serious effort to earlier in the year, offering him their support for a kamikaze U.S. Senate campaign.

As for the three-way general election polls, all three Democrats are leading the field and seem poised to pick up the Governorship. Healey is far from out of contention though. The support for both Reilly and Patrick is typically the thirties while Healey is usually in the twenties but within single digits in some polls. When the number of undecided voters is taken into consideration as well as the prospect of Democrats not being able to unite after the primary with less than two months before the election, it can be seen how she can theoretically still win. The one big difference though is that Gabrieli has a larger share of the vote, up into the forties. It clearly looks like he would be by far the most formidable candidate for the Democrats to put up, but he of course has to win the primary first. Gabrieli’s current strength may come from his being considered as somewhat more of a non-ideological moderate Democrat (by New England standards at least) and a successful businessman who is keyed into the high-tech community. Such a model is different from the past losing candidates Massachusetts Democrats have offered. Mihos would find it toughest to steal votes away from Gabrieli as he could against the other two Democrats. Gabrieli got a late start to the race however and perhaps may still be somewhat of an unknown quantity to many and could potentially look more vulnerable either in a primary or general election contest once people find things about him that they do not like as much.

The other two Democrats would start off the general election favored to win, but with some noticeable vulnerabilities in a state that has seen Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before. Patrick could be painted as an overly combative left-winger who would find it difficult to get a lot of things done, as people in most states seem to show a preference for more non-ideological executive figures. There would also be the age-old concern that working-class white ethnic Democrats in the state may have some reservations about voting for a black candidate, in a Commonwealth that does not have huge numbers of racial minorities as compared to other large population states. If that is the case, Mihos may be more of a viable option for those Democrats who would take advantage of having a non-Republican designated alternative. A woman will also be on the ballot this fall representing the Green Rainbow Party and any votes she gets will likely come from people who if they voted, would otherwise vote for any of the Democrats.

Reilly would perhaps be the best potential Democrat target for Republicans with his political deficiencies and concerns about his ethics, such as a case where he may have intervened in a fatal car crash investigation involving the daughters of a campaign contributor. Reilly can also be negatively labeled as a career politician who would simply offer more of the same on Beacon Hill along with the overwhelmingly Democrat legislature. Republicans may have won the last two Massachusetts Gubernatorial elections alone for the reason of voters not wanting to give the Democrats complete control of the entire state government. Keeping a sense balance on fiscal and spending matters will certainly be one of Healey’s main campaign messages.

Based on current polling data, the overwhelming Democrat majority in the state, Mihos’s presence on the ballot, a "16 year itch", and having an opportunity to regain the office for the first time during a sixth year midterm election of a Republican President, one has to now assume the Democrats have the edge to capture the Corner Office in this open-seat election. However, they have been up in the polls at this time of the year and later before, only to suffer defeat on Election Day. Healey will give it her all, and it would be unwise to count her out, especially if Democrats find it difficult to unite behind one of the three very dissimilar personalities that will be their nominee.

If Democrats cannot win the Governorship of Massachusetts this year though, it is hard to see when they ever might be able to.

Healey campaign link:

2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 5 D, 12 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 13 D, 18 R