The Most Popular Politician in America

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, can lay claim to the title, with sky-high approval ratings despite running a Democratic stronghold of a state.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the Dedication Ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on March 30 in Boston.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
May 1, 2015, 1:38 a.m.

In an era defined by un­re­lent­ing par­tis­an con­flict, ex­ceed­ingly pop­u­lar politi­cians are not only the ex­cep­tion to the rule but seem to be hov­er­ing on the verge of ex­tinc­tion.

And then there’s Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Charlie Baker. After four months in of­fice, the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor of this deeply Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing state is cruis­ing at high alti­tude, en­joy­ing sky-high ap­prov­al rat­ings. And Baker’s top ad­visers and out­side ob­serv­ers say the reas­ons for his pop­ular­ity are re­l­at­ively simple: He’s just keep­ing his head down and run­ning the state.

A Suf­folk Uni­versity poll in mid-April showed that 70 per­cent of Mas­sachu­setts voters ap­proved of Baker. Those fig­ures, the envy of vir­tu­ally any pub­lic of­fi­cial, wer­en’t an an­om­aly, as oth­er sur­veys have also shown the gov­ernor fly­ing high. What’s more, Baker’s high per­son­al rat­ings (74 per­cent of Suf­folk re­spond­ents said they viewed him fa­vor­ably) made him more pop­u­lar than the state’s highest-pro­file Demo­crat, pro­gress­ive star Eliza­beth War­ren.

Vir­tu­ally the only oth­er gov­ernors to notch rat­ings this high in re­cent years have been Demo­crats in deep-blue states or Re­pub­lic­ans in deep-red states. Re­cent polling in con­ser­vat­ive Utah and Mis­sis­sippi, for ex­ample, show those gov­ernors to be roughly as pop­u­lar as Baker. But giv­en that Demo­crats out­num­ber Re­pub­lic­ans around 3-to-1 in Mas­sachu­setts, the com­par­is­on hardly seems val­id.

Ob­serv­ers of all stripes point to the same few things ex­plain­ing Baker’s early suc­cess. Baker has demon­strated the ma­na­geri­al skills he prom­ised in his 2014 cam­paign, is build­ing good work­ing re­la­tion­ships with Demo­crats, and is ad­eptly tack­ling mundane but thorny is­sues that oth­er gov­ernors may not have had the pa­tience for.

The main ex­ample: Baker’s early in­terest in tak­ing on long-fes­ter­ing and ex­pens­ive prob­lems with Bo­ston’s crum­bling sub­way and com­muter rail sys­tem, an is­sue that be­came es­pe­cially press­ing un­der the weight of un­pre­ced­en­ted snow­fall last winter—the type of nat­ur­al event that of­ten can tor­pedo a politi­cian, not boost one.

“I think people view Charlie Baker as the kind of guy who wants to handle something like that. He wants to sur­round him­self with the data. He wants to be able to find the path for­ward,” said Peter Uber­tac­cio, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Stone­hill Col­lege.

Baker once was a mem­ber of then-Gov. Bill Weld’s Cab­in­et. Uber­tac­cio said Weld “has ad­mit­ted that when situ­ations like this reared their head dur­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion he would kind of raise his hands in ex­as­per­a­tion and turn to someone like Charlie Baker to handle it.”

Baker seni­or ad­viser Jim Con­roy be­lieves the gov­ernor’s bi­par­tis­an, hands-on ap­proach and gen­er­al af­fabil­ity are what’s driv­ing his pop­ular­ity. “It’s the con­stant back-and-forth and neg­at­iv­ity and the gotcha that isn’t hap­pen­ing here that makes him sort of unique,” Con­roy said.

“And then, you know, he’s twelve feet tall and just buzzed his head for can­cer re­search,” Con­roy said. “And he’s a crazy Drop­kick Murphys fan and clas­sic rock trivia buff. There’s just a lot of things about him that are dif­fer­ent and sep­ar­ate him from the politi­cians and polit­ics as usu­al that really turn people off.”

Baker has made a point of in­clud­ing Demo­crats in his ad­min­is­tra­tion and work­ing with Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in the le­gis­lature. The Re­pub­lic­an’s chief of staff is a Demo­crat, as are roughly half of his cab­in­et ap­pointees.

Baker has won praise from some loc­al Demo­crats for his hand­ling of the snow. Un­like some oth­er state budgets, the rol­lout of Baker’s budget plan in­cluded cuts to health care and job train­ing pro­grams but still man­aged to avoid sig­ni­fic­ant con­tro­versy.

Tim­ing also is work­ing in Baker’s fa­vor. Were this year’s re­cord snow­fall to have happened a year or two from now, voters would be likely to lay prob­lems with Bo­ston’s sub­way sys­tem at Baker’s feet in­stead of those who came be­fore him.

Baker already is reap­ing polit­ic­al re­wards from his early pop­ular­ity. Maura Healey, the state’s Demo­crat­ic at­tor­ney gen­er­al, de­clared last week (a day after the Suf­folk poll came out) that she has no in­terest in run­ning for gov­ernor in 2018.

Pri­or to that an­nounce­ment, Healey was con­sidered by some pun­dits to be Baker’s likely chal­lenger-in-wait­ing. But not only has a Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor not lost a reelec­tion bid since 1982, Baker has built up an un­usu­al level of strength on the job.

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