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Incumbency at issue in Massachusetts race

FixFelicia traveled to Massachusetts recently to take a look at the state's highly competitive governor's race. Here's her report.

By Felicia Sonmez

WEST ROXBURY, Mass. -- For Barney Steverman, the 2010 election comes down to two words: No incumbents.

"There isn't a Democrat that I would vote for today," said Steverman, an 86-year-old registered Democrat and World War II veteran who is supporting Republican Charlie Baker in his bid to unseat incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick (D).

"As far as Beacon Hill goes, it's the same old, old, old," Steverman said, noting that speaker after speaker of the state House has been brought up on criminal charges. "That's why I say, no incumbent for me. I want a complete change."

Voters such as Steverman are just the kind that Baker will need to reach out to if he is to succeed against Patrick -- and with less than two weeks until Election Day, the Republican is doing everything he can to rally those voters.

The question for Baker -- as well as for Patrick and the other major player in the race, state Treasurer Tim Cahill, a former Democrat running as an independent -- is whether that anti-incumbent sentiment will be enough to turn Massachusetts red again, nine months after Sen. Scott Brown's (R) come-from-behind win in the special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D).

By all indications, the race will be a closely contested one. A Suffolk Poll last week showed Patrick taking 46 percent to Baker's 39 percent, with Cahill taking 10 percent and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein taking 1 percent. Baker's camp released its own internal polling showing the Republican taking 42 percent to Patrick's 35 percent. And late last month, a Boston Globe poll showed the race in a statistical dead heat, with Patrick taking 35 percent, Baker taking 34 percent and Cahill trailing with 11 percent.

Also at issue in the race is the Cahill factor; he has plummeted in the polls following a barrage of attacks led by the Republican Governors Association. But a round of recent accusations and counter-accusations between his camp and Baker's -- leading ultimately to a lawsuit filed by Cahill accusing Baker's camp of conspiring to sink his candidacy -- led both candidates to go off message for more than a week, while Patrick stayed above the fray.

"I don't know if it helped either one of us, to be honest with you," Cahill said when asked about the scuffle. "I got into this race to be governor, and to be governor, you have to beat the incumbent, who is Governor Patrick. So I've been focused on trying to give people a reason why I'm different from him and why I can put the state on the right direction and back on track."

Massachusetts has a reputation for being among the most Democratic states in the country, but when it comes to party registration its voters are famously independent-minded. As of early September, 37 percent of registered voters were Democrats, 11 percent were registered Republicans, and 51 percent were un-enrolled in any political party, according to the most recent statistics from the state Secretary of State's office.

Given the comparatively smaller base of Republicans that he has to work with, Baker's mission has been to reach out to independents and disaffected Democrats, much as Brown did in his upstart campaign in January against state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D).

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Baker visited a neighborhood Irish pub and restaurant where Steverman, his niece and brother were getting ready to have lunch. Steverman put his arm around Baker as the candidate chatted with the trio for several minutes; at the end of the conversation, Baker exchanged high-fives with the three.

Later, the 6-foot-6 Baker, clad in a light blue button-down shirt and blue jeans, got behind the restaurant's bar and tried his hand at pouring a few drinks.

"That last round was on Charlie!" the bartender yelled as the patrons cheered.

"Don't tell my wife!" Baker responded, to laughs.

In an interview, Baker took aim at Patrick's record, pointing to the state's $2 billion budget deficit and the fact that the state is ranked the 26th lowest in terms of its unemployment rate and 31st in personal income growth.

"You hear the governor talk all the time about how we're doing the best we can. I don't think it's good enough. I think we should do a lot better," Baker said.

Ryan Oag, a 30-year-old Boston firefighter, and his wife Becky, a 30-year-old consultant, were sitting at the bar watching the Patriots game when Baker walked in. The candidate draped an arm over their chairs and chatted for a few minutes with the couple, both non-affiliated voters. Ryan Oag bought Baker a Guinness; after the conversation, he said that Baker was "down to earth" and had likely won his vote.

"I don't see Deval walking in here and having a pint with this crowd," Oag said.

To hear Patrick's supporters tell it, however, it's the Democrat who is the more "down to earth" of the two.

The previous day, Mike Thibodeau, a 35-year-old land surveyer from Quincy, said that Patrick will win because he's "more of a man of the people." Thibodeau and Alicia Scott, a 32-year-old ophthalmologist technician from Waltham, had both woken up at 5 a.m. to get to downtown Boston by 7:15 a.m. to get in line for President Obama's rally for Patrick. The two proudly showed off their handmade T-shirts as they waited in the blustery winds to enter the rally.

The turnout at the event -- an estimated 15,000 -- was worlds away from the last time the president visited Massachusetts to make an eleventh-hour trip on behalf of a candidate, stumping for Coakley in January. On that visit, which was hastily scheduled to try and save Coakley's struggling campaign, Obama drew about 3,500 people.

In an interview, Patrick pointed to the turnout at the presidential event as evidence that Democrats are fired up this November.

"Anybody who was still asking themselves whether there's an enthusiasm gap, they ought to come and get a good look at the folks that were there," Patrick said.

And while Republicans hope to replicate the gains that Brown made in his unexpected win over Coakley, Democrats interviewed at the event saw the governor's race as a different matter entirely.

"People don't have the same icky feelings about Deval Patrick as they did about Coakley," said Phoebe Holtzman, a 22-year-old student from Cambridge. Holtzman said that leading up to Brown's win, Democrats in the state "were just really cocky," and that after Republican Mitt Romney left the governor's office in 2006, many Democrats had just assumed that Republicans "didn't have a chance."

At the Patrick event, the campaign's ground organization was in full force. As supporters waited in line for hours outside the venue, volunteers worked the crowd, carrying large boxes in which they collected cards with voters' contact information. The next morning, Patrick's camp sent out a release claiming that Obama's appearance helped the campaign generate 7,500 new volunteers.

A Patrick adviser pointed to the fact that in 2008, 1.2 million Democrats turned out to vote for Obama. In the Senate special election, only 800,000 turned out for Coakley. This time around, the Patrick camp is aiming to get closer to the 1.2 million number, the adviser said.

And just as Baker is working to pick off independents and Democrats dissatisfied with Patrick, there are also some Brown voters who are (already) disillusioned with their new Republican senator.

Jane Carlyle, an unaffiliated voter from Newton who attended Obama's rally for Patrick, said that she voted for Brown in the Senate special election because he "was the right candidate for the time" and because she thought he'd be an independent voice in the Senate.

But when it comes to the gubernatorial race, Carlyle said that Patrick's "probably going to be the best choice."

"It's been a tough couple of years in Massachusetts, so I think that change can sometimes be what people want to see, but sometimes you're working on something, you've got to keep going," Carlyle said. "I think the message today was, we've been down in the dumps and Deval Patrick's been working hard along with many others in the state to bring us up, and I think President Obama's been doing the same thing. So sometimes you need more time to keep us going forward, so I think you've got to support that."

The Fix caught up with Baker and Patrick on the trail over the weekend. Click below for videos of our interviews.

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 20, 2010; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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