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Joanna Weiss

Which insider will play best as outsider?

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 30, 2010

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IT’S A GOOD YEAR to be an outsider running for office, though it’s unclear when it isn’t a good year for that. “My elected representatives are trying really hard under difficult circumstances’’ seldom captures the zeitgeist as much as “throw the bums out.’’ Given the general lack of love for Beacon Hill — because, really, what’s to love? — this year’s gubernatorial election should be no different.

That’s why Charlie Baker’s “Had Enough?’’ is a fitting theme for the race. (The answer is, “duh?’’) The trouble, for fed-up voters, is finding the right standard-bearer. Is it Baker, the one-time government insider who decamped for the hard-to-love health care industry? Deval Patrick, the reformer-turned-incumbent, who thinks the opposition is seditious? Tim Cahill, the lifelong government guy who claims outsider status because he quit his party? (Jill Stein is sufficiently outside the tank, but she hardly shares the views of the raging Scott Brown crowd.)

It’s early, of course, but last week’s Suffolk University/7 News poll gives some indication of where things might be going. Among registered voters, 42 percent said they’d vote for Patrick, 29 percent broke for Baker, and 14 percent went for Cahill.

That was a 9 percent drop for Cahill since the previous poll, no doubt influenced by a barrage of Republican Governors Association ads against him. Given the latest infurating news of Beacon Hill’s Beacon Hill-ness — Cahill played a starring role in the Globe Spotlight Team’s report on widespread patronage in the Probation Department — it’s hard to imagine his numbers going anywhere but down.

On the other hand, some portion of his supporters are clearly dug in, said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center. That’s good news for Patrick, since third-party candidates historically help the incumbents, peeling off just enough outsider-loving votes to help the insiders win. Plus, despite all those unflattering pictures of Patrick in the anti-Cahill ads, the former Cahill votes broke for Patrick, not Baker. Some voters clearly don’t yet equate Patrick with a lifelong government hack — and some may not yet have had enough of Patrick’s on-again, off-again reform.

The glimmer of hope for Baker is his anonymity, Paleologos said. Some 60 percent of voters say they don’t know much about him, and his campaign has reason to believe that when he starts spending all of that money he’s been raising, some people will like what they see. Among voters who say they know who both Patrick and Baker are, Patrick’s lead already slips from 13 points to 9.

But Baker and Patrick share the same challenge in their fight for Cahill votes and for the mantle of reform. Both have enough outside-the-State-House experience to know, in theory, how things get done. But both have also spent enough time on Beacon Hill to lack plausible deniability. They know this is a look-the-other-way culture, where a governor has to choose his battles carefully, where the public’s lack of attention allows a few corrupt and entrenched legislators to wield far too much power. They know that no swashbuckling outsider, whether in the form of Patrick or Mitt Romney or Baker’s old boss Bill Weld, has ever been able to change things, or seen fit to really try.

So how do you convince voters that you’re the bearer of reform? Eight years ago, Romney did it by touting his private-sector competence. He had the fortune to have an opponent who was a longtime government player. Four years ago, Patrick did it by peddling hope and inspiration. He had the fortune to have an opponent who was uninspiring.

Now, we’re in murkier territory. Massachusetts hasn’t had an incumbent to choose from in years. And it’s hard to predict how much patience, or lack thereof, the voters will have come November. Maybe they’ll have sufficient hope to give an incumbent more time to fulfill his promises. Maybe they’ll have had enough to let a former inside-player back in to try again. One thing is clear: If they want to ride the outsider wave that’s sweeping the nation, they’ll have to decide who’s the lesser of the insiders.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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