With Democrats and Republicans alike eagerly awaiting his decision on a third term, Gov. Charlie Baker will travel Tuesday to Nashville for meetings hosted by the Republican Governors Association, a group that in his past two campaigns has been hugely supportive.
Baker has stressed for months that his focus is on guiding Massachusetts through the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the state's remaining pandemic restrictions set to be lifted before the end of the week, the focus on the governor's political future figures to become increasingly intense.
The trip to Tennessee also comes as Baker is facing blowback over his own handling of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home early in the pandemic, which claimed the lives of dozens of veterans.
It is just the second trip the governor has taken out of state on business since the pandemic began in March 2020.
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The governor's office declined to answer questions about Baker's travel plans since last week, only confirming the trip Tuesday afternoon shortly before his departure. People close to Baker told the News Service his reengagement with the RGA could be a sign that he is leaning in the direction of running for a third-term, though he has yet to share a final decision with top aides.
Baker does not have any fundraisers planned while he is in Tennessee, according to a senior political advisor. He will be speaking to fellow governors and donors while there about vaccinations as part of workshop titled, "Shots in Arms - Finishing Fight Against COVID-19 in Our States." First Lady Lauren Baker is traveling with the governor. He plans to return to Massachusetts on Wednesday evening. Shots in Arms - Finishing fight against COVID-19 in our states"
Hints of his political future?
Over the past year, the governor's fundraising has slowed dramatically as the state went into and came out of lockdown.
While current and potential Democratic rivals in next year's election are working to bulk up their campaign accounts, the governor raised just $9,429 in April, bringing his total for the year to just $112,116.
Baker's campaign finance reports have been scrutinized of late for hints about his political future, and Baker had a balance of $520,000 in his campaign account at the end of April. Though his fundraising has been relatively stagnant, Baker has said he feels there is "plenty to do" post-pandemic to help Massachusetts recover and people close to him feel he could ramp up his finance operation quickly if he decides to run.
Baker, 64, is coming off of four years during which he did not support the Republican president and often disagreed with party leadership in Washington. The governor recently said Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney was "absolutely right" to defend the integrity of the 2020 election, which cost her a spot in House leadership, and more than once has been questioned about why he doesn't just leave the party.
But Baker has also said that governors share a kinship and common purpose that has allowed him since 2015 to work with Republicans and Democrats, and he continues to believe in the "core values" of the Republican Party that he joined in his 20s.
"I've had my differences, as everybody knows, with plenty of folks in the party over the course of the time that I've been in public life. But I'm a big believer in what the party fundamentally stands for, based on what I believe it stands for," he said recently, without elaborating.
The RGA is currently chaired by Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a state that flipped in 2020 to deliver its 11 Electoral College votes to President Joe Biden and send a Democrat -- Mark Kelly -- to the U.S. Senate.
Unlike the National Governors Association, the RGA is a mostly political organization that works to elect Republican governors around the country. In 2018, Baker was one of 11 GOP governors who won re-election as Democrats made gains not just in Congress, but also in state legislatures across the country.
Republicans lost seven governorships that cycle, including two incumbents, and saw their numbers in state capitols fall from 33 to 27, where the total still stands.
Baker did not face a particularly stiff reelection challenge in 2018, but still the RGA poured more than $6.6 million into the Commonwealth Future super PAC to support the popular Republican incumbent, paying for a heavy rotation of pro-Baker television ads throughout the general election campaign.
The group also spent $11.8 million in 2014 to support Baker and criticize the Democratic nominee Martha Coakley, making what Baker described as a "huge difference" for a Republican running in a tight contest in a state dominated by Democrats and independent voters.
Who would run against him?
If Baker does decide to seek reelection in 2022, who are the candidates likely to run against him?
Already, Democratic former state Sen. Ben Downing has announced that he is running for governor. The 39-year-old declared his candidacy in February, saying the state needs more "urgent" leadership and criticizing Baker's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harvard professor Danielle Allen has said she is exploring a bid, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is seen as another likely candidate. Both are Democrats.
And according to Politico's Lisa Kashinsky, activists began circulating a petition this week aimed at drafting Democratic state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz to run for governor as well. She announced in March that she was "seriously considering" a run for governor in 2022.