The Bluest Republican

Why staunchly Democratic Massachusetts loves its new GOP governor

John Cuneo

“Mark Wahlberg is asking me for a pardon?,” Charlie Baker said as he folded his lengthy frame into the backseat of a black SUV one evening in December. Until his election as governor of Massachusetts the month before, the only elected office achieved by Baker, a Republican, had been selectman of Swampscott (population 13,800), a position he held for a single term. He had also spent nearly eight years as a state-cabinet official in the 1990s. But some responsibilities, Baker was discovering, accrue only to the chief executive. Informed by an aide that the actor was seeking to have a decades-old assault conviction expunged from his record, Baker turned to me and said drily, “He seems to have overcome that.”

The rest of the country may have experienced a Republican wave in November’s midterm elections, but in the Northeast, that wave only lapped the shore. Yes, the GOP picked up a House seat in Maine and another in New Hampshire (previously, the party hadn’t held a single one in New England). Yes, Republicans took over the state Senate in Maine and the state House of Representatives in New Hampshire. And, yes, Maine’s firebrand GOP governor, Paul LePage—a Tea Party favorite who once told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” and who supports repealing child-labor laws—was reelected. And yet the Northeast remained overwhelmingly Democratic territory: GOP candidates lost close gubernatorial races in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, fell just short in his bid for New Hampshire senator. Even with the Republicans’ pickup of two House seats, New England’s new congressional delegation was 85 percent Democratic.

As they looked for bright spots on November 5, New England Republicans naturally directed their eyes to Charlie Baker (or “Chahlie Baykah,” as many of his constituents know him), who had narrowly defeated Martha Coakley, a Democrat, for the governorship of Massachusetts. Yet when I put it to Baker that, as the Republican governor-elect of a notoriously liberal state, he was a rather exotic specimen, he demurred. “It’s not that weird,” he said. In fact, as he pointed out, Massachusetts has a long tradition of plucky, iconoclastic GOP governors. On election night, the news Web site ran the headline “Dear America, Our Republicans Are Better Than Yours” over a photomontage of Baker, Mitt Romney, and fellow former governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci.

Massachusetts has a long tradition of plucky Republican governors.

Still, though Republicans have held the Bay State’s governorship for 16 of the past 24 years, no GOP governor since the 1990s has had enough votes in the legislature to sustain a veto. (In the midterms, the number of Republican seats in the state Senate increased from four to six, out of 40, prompting people to joke that the caucus would now require a minivan rather than a Prius to get around.) It seems possible that Massachusetts voters are simply sadistic Democrats who enjoy putting Republicans in high office while ensuring they can’t actually do anything that Democrats don’t like.

Baker has a more charitable theory. “Balance is a good thing—checks and balances are a good thing,” he told me. A major undertaking of his campaign, he continued, had been convincing voters that government ought not to be one-sided. “Competition in politics,” he said, “is just as important as competition in everything else.” It’s tempting to think of Baker as Romney, only taller (he’s 6 foot 6), blonder, and with an infusion of charisma: like Romney, he’s a technocrat who ran on his managerial know-how, he’s done time as a financier, and he has a special interest in health-care policy. Unlike Romney, he has an easy, natural likability. While Republicans elsewhere were railing against an oppressive president, Baker told me that Obama never came up in his campaign. “We really talked about bringing a hands-on approach to solving problems and making government work,” he said.

In fact, the Republican governors of Massachusetts have managed to work with the Democrats in the legislature to compile a respectable track record of accomplishment, from Romney’s signature health-care reform—considered, at the time, a conservative, market-based approach to the liberal priority of universal health care—to Weld’s balanced budgets in the 1990s. Like Weld (whose cabinet he served in, first as the secretary of health and human services and later as the secretary of administration and finance), Baker is a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. In Kansas, he would almost certainly be considered a Democrat, but in Massachusetts, he lands squarely on the right of the political spectrum. When I called Weld, he remembered Baker as an inveterate wonk with a “big beating heart.” In meetings, Weld said, “I found myself always agreeing with the guy, not just because we were both moderate Republicans, but because he would argue so well, it was hard to disagree with his conclusions.”

In 1998, Baker left government to run the troubled Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, saving the company from collapse and returning it to profitability. He first ran for governor in 2010 but lost to the incumbent Democrat, Deval Patrick, after splitting the anti-Patrick vote with a centrist third-party candidate. Baker’s better fortune in 2014 could be attributed to his opponent’s weakness (Coakley, who’s been nicknamed “Martha Chokely” for her consecutive defeats in what were supposed to be slam-dunk races, notoriously lost a U.S. Senate race to Scott Brown in 2010, after such campaign gaffes as disrespecting Red Sox fans). But this explanation shortchanges both candidates: Coakley was a notably better candidate in 2014 than in the past—and so was Baker. He ditched his angry 2010 slogan, “Had enough?,” for the appealingly silly “Let’s be great, Massachusetts,” and aggressively promoted his liberal stances on hot-button issues. The campaign produced a video featuring Baker and his gay brother; his very first ad, released before the Republican primary, touted his support for gay marriage and abortion rights. During the summer border crisis, Baker endorsed housing migrant children in Massachusetts, to howls from the right wing. In the words of his spokesman, Tim Buckley, the campaign focused from the beginning on “showing he could say ‘screw you’ to the Republican Party.”

As I followed Baker around Boston, I kept coming across Democrats who raved about their governor-to-be. Early in the evening—before Baker was presented with Mark Wahlberg’s pardon request—I watched as he was interviewed onstage at a business forum sponsored by The Boston Globe, before a crowd of Boston’s movers and shakers. Vivien Li, a nonprofit administrator who had worked under Governor Michael Dukakis, told me she believed Baker had exceptional expertise in state government. Sitting next to her was Bill Walczak, a lifelong Democrat, who thought Baker had the potential to be “transformative.” Sheila Green, a public-relations executive and political independent, offered that she and Baker knew each other both professionally and through their children; she’d voted for him in 2014, she said, but not in 2010. Baker’s Democratic fans were firm in their belief that he was different from the Republicans on Fox News. “We don’t have a lot of Republicans here who would fit in in Texas,” Walczak said. “He’s the kind of Republican you hope the Republican Party turns back toward.”

Boston liberals seem grateful to Baker for being a Republican they can get behind; it makes them feel open-minded. But when I told Baker that he might be a Democrat’s ideal Republican, he got a little defensive. “People forget that I got 85 percent of the vote at the Republican convention,” he said. “So there are a fair amount of Republicans who supported me too.” Despite liberal stereotypes about a party of gun-toting impeachment enthusiasts, he suggested, plenty of Republicans wanted politicians who were practical problem solvers. At least, they did in Massachusetts. After the election, Baker began assembling a bipartisan cabinet that included several Democrats and independents. It was Weld, his political mentor, who taught him that “a good idea’s a good idea no matter where it comes from,” he told me. For example, he said, while some were surprised that he’d appointed the Democratic city manager of Chelsea as his secretary of housing and economic development, he viewed the appointee as having the right skills for the post. “The fact that he was a Democrat—for me, anyway—was kind of beside the point.” I asked about “Let’s be great, Massachusetts.” Baker made sure to clarify that he loves Massachusetts, a great state filled with great people. “But at the same time,” he continued, “we have a lot of neighborhoods that aren’t great.” Pockets of the state prosper while others suffer from double the state unemployment rate; many schools are excellent, but others struggle. “If you want to be great, you should be great everywhere, not just here and there,” he said.

If Baker’s win suggests a return to Rockefeller-style liberal Republicanism in the Northeast, he does not appear eager to claim the mantle. He told me he does not like to think of himself as a model for any other politician, and he declined to offer prescriptions to the national GOP. In this, he may be the antithesis of Romney, who alienated many of his former supporters at home when it became apparent, halfway through his term, that he had his eye on the presidency. Would we soon be seeing Baker in Iowa?, I asked. “I love this state, and I really want to do everything I can to make it great,” he said. “That is going to be my plan, my objective, and my mission.” He wasn’t answering the question, and I began to think I was getting a politician’s suggestive nondenial denial. But then Baker’s tone turned serious, and he looked me in the eye. “You will not,” he said emphatically, “see me in Iowa.”