A moderate Republican with enduring support among Democrats and independents, Baker was the GOP’s best hope of holding onto the governor’s office in deep-blue Massachusetts and Polito was widely seen as his heir apparent. But Baker, who eschews national politics, has been increasingly at odds with his own party as it coalesced around Donald Trump. Running for reelection presented plenty of obstacles, including a conservative primary challenger backed by the former president and attacks from across the political spectrum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“After several months of discussion with our families, we have decided not to seek reelection in 2022,” Baker and Polito wrote. “This was an extremely difficult decision for us. We love the work, and we especially respect and admire the people of this wonderful Commonwealth. Serving as Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts has been the most challenging and fulfilling jobs we’ve ever had. We will forever be grateful to the people of this state for giving us this great honor.”
Those close to Baker, who recently turned 65, had recently described a two-term governor torn over whether to seek what in Massachusetts would be an unprecedented third consecutive term. He kept operatives, donors and observers guessing late into the year even as he ramped up fundraising throughout the fall after pausing those activities for most of the pandemic. The governor was actively debating his next move heading into Thanksgiving and huddled with family over the holiday before communicated his decision to allies shortly after, according to a person familiar with his conversations.
Baker said in a Boston-area radio interview earlier this week his calculus wasn’t about “can I win or not” but whether he has “the will, the desire and the agenda that I believe would be in the state’s best interest, and the energy and commitment to follow through and deliver on it.”
But the math didn’t look so good for a governor who’s claimed to be a “data guy.”
The stratospheric approval ratings Baker enjoyed throughout most of his seven years in office took a dip during Covid-19, and he faced some of the worst criticism of his gubernatorial career over the state’s initially rocky vaccine rollout. One recent survey showed Baker with higher job approval ratings among Democrats and independents than among members of his own party. Other recent surveys from Democrat-aligned firms showed him trailing Trump-endorsed former state Rep. Geoff Diehl in a Republican primary and suggested the incumbent had a better path forward as an independent rather than continuing with his own party — though Baker repeatedly rejected the idea of deserting his party.
He said he blanked his ballot for president in 2016 and 2020 so as not to vote for Trump, and emerged as a persistent critic of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Baker also supported Trump’s second impeachment and rejected the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was rife with fraud — prompting direct attacks from Trump and the endorsement of Diehl for governor. Baker has increasingly and publicly clashed with the pro-Trump chair of his state party as well, a bitter intraparty feud that would have muddied the Republican primary waters and provided ample fodder for the Democrats next year.
Still, the Republican Governors Association wanted Baker on its team. RGA officials said they hoped Baker would run again as a Republican during the group’s meeting in Phoenix last month. At the event, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan mentioned himself and Baker as examples of effective Republican leaders in Democratic states. Baker featured prominently in the RGA’s latest video touting GOP governors — right after the party’s star du jour, Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. And the RGA posted a local news clip of Baker supporting small businesses on its YouTube page just last week.
RGA co-chair Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona said he had “no doubt [Baker] would have easily been re-elected” in a statement Wednesday that also lauded Baker’s management of the pandemic and the state’s economic recovery. He made no mention of Diehl.
Baker’s retirement will likely rocket Massachusetts up the target board for national Democrats, who are eager to reclaim some of the governorships held by Republicans in otherwise deep-blue territory. Democrats argued that the state would be competitive well before Baker announced plans to retire — despite his generally high approval ratings — and are eager to capitalize on the opening.
“Not having to run against an incumbent makes it a really strong likelihood that a Democrat will win,” Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford said in a phone interview. “But we have to focus on the basics and the fact that the people come first — that’s what the Democratic party stands for.”
State Attorney General Maura Healey, widely considered the Democrats’ best chance to reclaim the corner office, will now be expected to say whether she’ll join a field of progressive Democrats that already includes state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, former state Sen. Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. Healey’s decision is likely to spur movement within the state’s deep Democratic bench for down-ballot races as well.
Baker’s retirement will also likely further Trump’s mission to increasingly mold the broader GOP in his own image as he has seeks to squeeze out perceived enemies in the party and install loyalists across the country.
One of his earliest post-presidency endorsements was backing his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the open race for the Arkansas governor, making her an eventual field-clearer and effectively governor-in-waiting in the deep-red state.
But he has also waded into some of the most competitive races on the map. He made an early endorsement of Kari Lake, a former news anchor who has embraced Trump’s election conspiracies, in Arizona, one of the toughest defensive states for Republicans. Ducey is term-limited, and Trump’s endorsement of Lake was in part a thump to the outgoing governor, who the former president has repeatedly clashed with over not aiding him in overturning his narrow loss in the state in 2020.
Trump has also targeted other incumbent governors seeking reelection. He has made an anti-endorsement of sorts of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, not yet backing a candidate in the primary to challenge him but repeatedly savaging Kemp for similarly not supporting his bid to install himself for a second term in the White House despite his loss. Trump’s team is trying to goad former Sen. David Perdue into challenging Kemp.
Trump also endorsed Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s primary challenge against incumbent Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Trump’s endorsement was a shock because Little has not publicly crossed him and Trump had thanked Little at a gala just days before the endorsement. The endorsement against Little could present Republicans across the country with an existential challenge, because deference to the former president might not be enough to stop him from derailing their political futures. The RGA has said it will support its incumbents, regardless of who Trump backs.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, another Republican who has prominently bucked Trump, is term-limited, and Trump has already endorsed a state lawmaker who comes from the MAGA wing of the party to try to replace him. Hogan has thrown his support behind Kelly Schulz, his state commerce secretary, to succeed him, but Democrats are bullish about the state despite a crowded primary.
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.