FOR MOST MASSACHUSETTS voters, the race for governor will get under way in earnest around Labor Day. That’s only 15 days before the September primary and 64 days before November’s final election. But in recent weeks, the jockeying for position for that final sprint to the finish line has become increasingly intense and interesting. The wild-card candidacy of former secretary of labor Robert Reich, now an activist academic, has picked up more momentum than naysayers expected, engaging the public, intriguing the press, and altering the calculus of the Democratic race. Within the GOP, hopes of a run by dreamboat Olympian Mitt Romney, the strong and steadfast millionaire who had the considerable gumption to challenge Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, has filled once-anxious Republicans hearts with hope. Will Mitt, like former Democratic New York governor Mario Cuomo, play Hamlet and hover in a lofty cloud of indecision, or will he commit? The answer to that question will do much to define the race in the weeks and months to come. Here’s a look at how I see the race shaping up so far.
Treasurer Shannon O’Brien
Nomination chances: 29%
Chances against Swift: 63%
Chances against Romney: 56%
O’Brien’s chances to win the Democratic nomination still look strong. As the only woman in the race, she boasts numerous advantages. EMILY’s List, a national group that helps pro-choice Democratic candidates raise money, will introduce O’Brien to donors on Friday, March 8, in Washington. She also stands out as the only woman — and the only mother — in a field otherwise consisting of four men. This, combined with her generally centrist outlook, works in her favor.
Despite the entry into the race of former secretary of labor Robert Reich, whom the Boston Globe is now lauding as a "celebrity candidate," O’Brien is holding her own. The TV advertising of Senate president Tom Birmingham and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman has not seemed to harm her. She followed up an effective formal campaign launch at the Fairmont Copley Plaza with a credible performance at the New England Cable News environmental debate at the Kennedy School (not that O’Brien showed herself to be any kind of a Green candidate; she didn’t).
On the downside, two recent incidents indicate that, if tested, O’Brien may falter. She had a strange brush with Boston Herald reporter Steve Marantz, who asked her about an obscure environmental-disclosure bill at the New England Cable News debate. While Marantz’s question came out of left field, O’Brien could have brushed it off more gracefully. Second — and more important — is the contretemps arising from her conflict with Holyoke mayor Michael Sullivan. Sullivan claims O’Brien became unhinged and started threatening him when he told her he could not support her. O’Brien claims the mayor was the one who became unhinged. While it’s difficult to see who’s right in this affair, Sullivan readily admits that he called O’Brien a "bitch." His own version of the story is so personally unflattering — essentially, a city mayor cops to cursing out a popular female politician — that it has credibility. (That said, even if O’Brien threatened Sullivan in the way he described, it’s hard to see how her attack differed from what's often dished out by her male counterparts — other than that she was somewhat more explicit: Boston pols usually veil their threats. Politics — especially in Boston — is a tough, cruel business.)
O’Brien will also benefit from Governor Jane Swift’s latest gambit to take refuge in the charge that her opponents are out to get her because she’s a woman. Of Swift’s prospective opponents, only the treasurer nullifies this defense. Many Democratics — moved by gender-sensitivity concerns — may opt for O’Brien to prevent Republicans from being able to claim greater diversity among their candidates. At the same time, the extent to which Swift talks about sexism in general will help O’Brien, to whom Swift's comments apply just as much as they do to the governor. Globe columnist Joan Vennochi already linked the two in a March 5 op-ed piece headlined SWIFT’S GOP FOES MAKE IT ALL ABOUT GENDER.
O’Brien’s decision to tap millionaire entrepreneur Chris Gabrieli as her running mate looks good with the prospect that Romney might get into the race. Gabrieli can provide O’Brien with funds, and his record of creating jobs contrasts well with Romney’s history of cutting them.
Senate president Tom Birmingham
Nomination chances: 22%
Chances against Swift: 40%
Chances against Romney: 25%
On paper, Birmingham still has a strong chance of emerging as his party’s nominee. He boasts a powerful position, a war chest of nearly $3 million, and a tangible record of fighting both Republican governors and House Speaker Tom Finneran. In real political terms, however, things have only gotten worse for Birmingham since his January announcement — not better. A February 27 Boston Herald poll showed a slip in Birmingham’s popularity, despite several weeks of television advertising.
On the bright side, at the May 31-June 1 Massachusetts Democratic Convention, Birmingham will easily obtain the 15 percent of delegates he needs to get on the primary ballot. This puts him in position to "win" the convention by garnering the most delegates, which would give him a good bounce coming out of the event. However, he could lose even this if he mishandles the expectations game — as his handlers did prior to the February caucuses, at which convention delegates were elected. Talk of Birmingham’s relentless delegate-grabbing effort became so widespread that many assumed he was attempting to garner more than 51 percent of prospective delegates. Since a win of more than 50 percent of the delegates ends the convention on the first ballot, such a feat would likely prevent other candidates — Reich, Tolman, Grossman — from getting their required 15 percent and thus keep them off the ballot altogether. This tactic makes perfect sense, but the campaign was too public about it. By the time the press got wind of Birmingham’s strategy, it was too late for his team to keep expectations in check. When his handlers scoffed at the idea that he was attempting to win the convention, nobody believed them. Therefore, when Birmingham finished the caucuses with a strong but not overpowering show of delegates, he lost the expectations game. Clearly, he can win the battle but lose the war.
A couple of trends also work against Birmingham. The first is that Reich’s unexpected entry into the race cuts into what the Birmingham campaign believed would be overwhelming support from organized labor. Although Reich is by no means the union darling that his handlers would have you believe — he was sometimes at odds with the AFL-CIO leadership and always more of an intellectual than part of the labor movement — he nonetheless detracts from Birmingham’s labor support. His presence makes wholesale labor endorsements of Birmingham less likely. That translates into less tangible, get-out-the-vote assistance in September. Reich’s presence may also force Birmingham even further to the left in the primary — something that won’t help him in the general election.
Even if Birmingham secures the nomination, he faces a tough general-election fight against either Romney or Swift. Against Romney, now a prominent national figure whom Massachusetts voters remember from 1994, Birmingham will have to play the labor card aggressively. But this may turn off some of the independent voters, who make up 51 percent of the electorate statewide.
Birmingham enjoys a stronger position against Swift, if only because he can trumpet his opposition to her and her predecessor during their years in office. He can also use his record in the Senate to point out Swift’s deficiencies; her weaknesses and lack of political skill work in his favor. He can hope to defeat Swift on a basic-competence scale — although his consistent inability to outshine House Speaker Tom Finneran in budget negotiations and in other Beacon Hill wranglings somewhat minimizes this edge.