How Charlie Baker ditched Trump to become the most popular governor in America

BOSTON — Donald Trump got crushed by Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts. And after his first year in office, polls show the president is now even less popular here.

Trump’s rock-bottom ratings should be dragging Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to defeat in 2018. Instead, the opposite is occurring. Baker is not only more popular than any other politician in solidly Democratic Massachusetts, he’s the most popular governor in the nation.

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His defiance of the laws of political gravity is proving maddening to opponents who once viewed him as a certain one-termer. And it offers a ray of hope to the handful of other Republican governors facing blue-state electorates in November with the prospect of an unpopular president in the background.

“Charlie Baker is the Flying Wallendas of Massachusetts politics,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, referencing the famed stunt performers who execute daring high-wire acts without a safety net. “None of the Democrats running against him right now can beat him.”

Baker’s unique talent has been his ability to get as much distance as possible from Trump without thoroughly disowning him and alienating his own party. He works with Trump when necessary, but more frequently speaks out against his policies.

Baker was a vocal opponent to the Republican health care plan, which was poised to deliver a serious blow to funding for the state’s health care structure. He’s also spoken out against the travel ban and Trump’s immigration policy.

Not everyone in his own party is happy with Baker’s arms-length treatment of the president. But so far, GOP criticism has been mostly muted. When Baker refused to support Trump in the presidential race, many Republicans went out of their way to avoid openly criticizing the governor. He has a lock on his party’s nomination for governor this spring, with only a longshot challenge from a hard-right, anti-gay rights perennial candidate.

One reason Baker has been able to keep Republicans in line: He is selective in his mode of opposition to Trump and restrained in his tone. He expresses his measured positions through letters and statements to the press but draws the line at joining press conferences and events held by high-profile Democrats.

The governor is one of the state’s few elected leaders not to show up at anti-travel ban protests, demonstrations, or the Women’s March last year.

“He hasn’t really done the direct and loud confrontational approach that you’re seeing from other leaders nationally,” MassINC Polling Group President Steve Koczela said. “And whether that’s driving his job approval, it’s certainly not hurting him.”

Baker’s job approval rating registered at a stratospheric 74 percent, according to a WBUR/MassINC poll released Wednesday the same sky-high level he’s been at since his 2014 election. Even among Trump-hating Massachusetts Democrats, 67 percent approve of the job he is doing. Among unenrolled voters, the biggest group on Massachusetts voting rolls, Baker’s approval is at 75 percent.

“Even today, the numbers look like honeymoon numbers,” said Koczela.

Trump essentially has the inverse of Baker’s numbers — just 29 percent approve of the job he’s doing and 65 percent disapprove, the poll found. Only 33 percent of Massachusetts voters say Trump is fit to be president.

“It’s quite clear that some of [Baker’s]positive numbers come from the fact that he doesn’t support the president and he never said he voted for the president,” said Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford. “He has, as best he can, done his best not to associate himself with the administration. Unfortunately he’s not going to benefit from that closer and closer to Election Day.”

Despite Massachusetts’ deep-blue reputation, the state has a history of electing Republicans to its top executive position. Five of the state’s last six governors have been Republicans, with Democrat Deval Patrick as the lone exception.

Baker’s team describes as the governor’s stances toward the Trump agenda as ‘Massachusetts-centric,’ an approach that keeps him out of the national fray and limits his involvement on issues to how they relate to the state.

“Gov. Baker has become the most popular governor in America because of his commitment to managing a bipartisan government focused on the issues that voters really care about, and making government work better,” Baker’s senior adviser Jim Conroy said in a statement. “Rather than engage in the hyper-partisan rhetoric that is so common in today’s political discussion, the Baker administration has concentrated on doing the work they were elected to do.”

At times, Baker has collaborated with the Trump administration, most notably with the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, an issue he previously championed with the National Governors Association.

Former Mitt Romney adviser and Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman says it’s all about setting voters’ expectations. “People understand the difference between the kind of person they want and what they expect out of their national candidates and senators. It’s totally different from any governor.”

Democrats concede Baker has done a good job of managing the Trump blowback. But with 10 months until he is up for reelection, they are increasingly critical of how he’s doing it and turning their attention toward more substantive criticisms of the incumbent.

Bickford says the path to victory for any of the three Democrats vying to defeat Baker will include an indictment of Baker’s handling of core state issues related to education and transportation.

“He can’t play the ‘I’m a liberal governor of Massachusetts.’ He can’t get away with that anymore. He has to fix education, he has to improve transportation,” Bickford said.

Some Democrats expect the tide of public opinion — or at least Baker’s standing among Democrats — to start turning when caucus season begins in February and hundreds of Democratic activists converge across the state to nominate delegates to the state party convention this summer. Those delegates will then select the party’s candidates on the Democratic primary ballot.

But Baker currently hold big leads in polling match-ups with his three declared Democratic challengers: former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, former Deval Patrick administration budget chief Jay Gonzalez, and environmental activist Bob Massie.

To date, the governor has made few mistakes for them to pounce on. Polling shows a plurality of Massachusetts voters not only approve of the job Baker has done with the transit system, but believe that the system is doing a better job of handling the winter than in previous years – a key issue into which the Baker administration has plowed time and resources during this first term.

Even a misstep like skipping last year’s Women’s March — which drew hundreds of thousands of women to the Boston Common on a chilly January Saturday — doesn’t seem to have left a big mark. According to the WBUR/MassINC poll, he is more popular among women in Massachusetts than home-state Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“At this point, you have to say this is Charlie Baker’s race to lose,” Marsh said.