Baker mostly defending against GOP losses in legislative races

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STATE HOUSE – He’s watched the New England Patriots on television with fans at a bar in Springfield. He’s raked a homeowner’s leaves in Lawrence. And he’s knocked on doors on Cape Cod.

Over the past nine months, as the nation has been rapt by the contest to succeed President Barack Obama, Gov. Charlie Baker has been racking up miles across Massachusetts, lending his time, fundraising prowess and popularity to no fewer than 51 different Republican candidates seeking public offices.

Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have taken part in at least 95 campaign events for GOP candidates since February, including at least 64 by Baker himself, according to a New Service review of his campaign schedule. The bulk of the events on Baker’s schedule were listed as fundraisers, but there were also nine rallies and five door-knocking excursions.

Those events do not count the dozens of appearances he has made on behalf of Question 2 to expand access to charter schools and the “No on 4” campaign opposed to legal marijuana, or a number of additional candidates to whom he has lent his name without making an appearance.

“He’s extremely helpful on the trail. He’s the most popular governor in the country,” said James “Chip” Harrington, a Ludlow School Committee member who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Eric Lesser in Tuesday’s election.

Baker’s support for Harrington, who is challenging an incumbent, is something of an outlier. The governor has been forced to balance his desire to restore some semblance of bipartisanship to the heavily Democratic Beacon Hill establishment with the reality that the quadrennial presidential election cycle can be a tough slog for Republicans in Massachusetts.

Unlike Mitt Romney, who in his mid-term election in 2004 recruited 131 legislative candidates to challenge Democrats from the top to the bottom of the ticket, Baker has largely gone about his business of campaigning for Republican candidates without much fanfare.

Where Romney saw his “Team Reform” get swept at the polls and angered incumbent Democrats in the process, Baker has campaigned for just four challengers to incumbent lawmakers; Harrington versus Lesser; Caroline Collarusso versus Rep. Michael Day; Susan Laplante versus Sen. Barbara L’Italien; and Helen Brady versus Rep. Cory Atkins.

Asked if Baker had ever considered following Romney’s blueprint, political advisor Jim Conroy said, “The governor’s been happy to give his support and time to Republican candidates across the state, but has left it to them to make their own decisions on campaign strategy and tactics.”

Peter Ubertaccio, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Stonehill College, said the governor’s apparent strategy of defense first, offense second make sense politically.

“The governor is a good student of political history and there has been no real successful effort by Republican governors to significantly increase their numbers in the State House and seeing the writing on the wall he’s very strategically chosen who he will support and how he will spend his time knowing that at the end of this cycle he’s going to have to negotiate with significant Democratic majorities in both Houses,” Ubertaccio said.

Baker joined Harrington on the trail on the Sunday before Halloween, dropping by Nathan Bill’s Bar in Springfield to watch the second half of the Patriots victory over the Buffalo Bills. It was his third visit to the district to campaign for the part-time police officer and variety store owner who proudly refers to himself as a “Baker Republican.”

“That means that I’m somebody who’s fiscally conservative but certainly more open to social issues. In the Republican Party, I consider myself to be a moderate. I think he falls into that category as well,” Harrington said.

Being a Baker Republican has also meant finding himself a governor without a candidate in the 2016 presidential contest. Baker backed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Republican primary, but has been unwilling to fall in line behind the party’s nominee Donald Trump.

While Baker believes Trump lacks the temperament to be president, he also disapproves of Hillary Clinton as a potential commander in chief and intends to blank the presidential race when he votes on Tuesday, according to an aide.

Having divorced himself from national politics, Baker has been free to campaign for down-ballot Republicans in Massachusetts, which can be a tricky endeavor during a presidential election year.

Clinton is widely expected to carry Massachusetts by a healthy margin on Tuesday, and in light of the demographics the MassGOP set its sights this cycle on trying to defend incumbent lawmakers and compete in targeted areas, such as the two races for open seats on Cape Cod, where it sees an opportunity.

That strategy is reflected in how Baker and Polito have been deployed this cycle.

Of the 51 candidates who have welcomed Baker and Polito on the trail this year, 30 are incumbent House and Senate lawmakers, three are incumbent sheriffs and one – Jennie Caissie – is an incumbent member of the Governor’s Council. Baker also helped raise money for Rep. Geoff Diehl in his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat during a special election earlier this year.

Republicans Dean Tran and Stephanie Peach also ran in special elections earlier this year with Baker’s backing and lost, leaving seven Republicans on the ballot Tuesday who have benefited from Baker and Polito on the trail challenging for open seats and just four taking on incumbents.

Baker has also campaigned for Anne Manning-Martin, who is running for Essex County sheriff to replace retiring Frank Cousins; Brad Williams, who is challenging incumbent Governor’s Councilor Robert Jubinville; and Linda Bond, who is running Barnstable County commissioner.

The governor has made no appearances on behalf of the four Republican congressional candidates on the ballot, while Polito did hold an Oct. 18 fundraiser for Mark Alliegro, the Falmouth Republican challenging U.S. Rep. William Keating.

If Republicans manage to pick up any seats on Tuesday night, it will be viewed as a win for Baker, but should the GOP lose even more ground Ubertaccio said the political risk to Baker is probably small.

“There’s probably some risk among hardcore conservative elements within the Republican Party who may have some leftover anger for him over issues such as the transgender bill and they will blame him for not being more active in both recruitment or not campaigning enough, but the number of folks who will hold that position are likely very small and on the fringe of the Republican Party,” Ubertaccio said.

William Crocker, a former radio jockey who now works at the Bristol County House of Correction helping inmates earn their high school diplomas, is one of Baker’s backed candidates hoping to turn a blue seat red.

Crocker welcomed Baker on three different occasions to Barnstable where he is running for retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Mannal’s open seat, and ahead of Baker’s most recent door-knocking visit last Thursday said there’s no doubt about the benefits of having a sitting governor on the trail by his side.

“Absolutely. He’s one of the most popular governors in the country,” Crocker said.

— Written by Matt Murphy