BOSTON (AP) — A popular Republican who seems nearly unbeatable. To his left, a pair of little-known Democratic hopefuls vying for attention and struggling to raise cash. To his right, a GOP challenger who claims the incumbent isn't nearly conservative enough.
It sounds like a red-state political scenario, but this is what the governor's race looks like in typically deep-blue Massachusetts, which holds its primary next Tuesday.
Republican Charlie Baker, a moderate seeking a second four-year term, has amassed more than $8 million in campaign funds, and polls consistently place him among the nation's most well-liked governors. This in a state with an all-Democratic congressional delegation and an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, which hasn't voted Republican in a presidential election since 1984.
Still, independents comprise more than 50 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, and Baker has found support from both middle-of-the-road voters and those who lean Democratic but are disgusted by hyper-partisan politics.
Voters, Baker said, often tell him "the thing they appreciate the most ... is that we really do focus on the work, not on the noise."
Baker has distanced himself from President Donald Trump, frequently criticizing administration policies and questioning Trump's temperament. He's scored points with many Democrats by signing bills to protect abortion rights; prohibit discrimination against transgender people; allow guns to be temporarily removed from dangerous individuals; raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; and require utilities to increase reliance on renewable energy sources.
Jay Gonzalez, one of two Democrats hoping to unseat Baker, isn't convinced.
"A lot of people's starting point is, 'Yeah, he's popular and he seems nice. I'm glad he's not a crazy Republican and aren't we so lucky,'" Gonzalez said. "But when we ask people why (they) think he's doing a good job, it's never, 'He's done a great job fixing our transportation system,' or other issues."
Gonzalez and the other Democrat, Robert Massie, contend the incumbent's effort to appease both conservatives and progressives ultimately misleads voters.
"Charlie Baker has been trying to straddle a barbed-wire fence for a long time, trying to pretend he's a liberal and a progressive over here, and a Trump guy over there, and not standing for us," Massie said.
Neither contender has significant name recognition outside of Democratic activist circles.
Gonzalez served as secretary of administration and finance under former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, an experience that he says prepared him for the complexities of managing state government.
Massie points to his nearly four decades of activism, beginning with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and later founding organizations that promoted corporate accountability and environmental sustainability.
Among Baker's weaknesses, both candidates say, is his failure to significantly improve the performance of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — the transit system better known as the "T'' — which was crippled by a brutal stretch of winter weather in 2015 and continues to frustrate riders with frequent breakdowns and delays.
Baker cites progress in stabilizing finances and modernizing equipment, while acknowledging the T "has a long way to go." Democrats fault him for not seeking additional taxes for transportation and for never riding the trains himself to experience the issues commuters face.
For their part, neither Gonzalez nor Massie have outlined specific plans for new taxes after their favored approach, a proposed surtax on high earners known as the "millionaire tax," was ruled unconstitutional by the state's highest court.
Baker's sole Republican challenger is Scott Lively, an ultraconservative minister from Springfield with little money or staff. He calls Baker a RINO ("Republican in Name Only") while promoting an unabashedly pro-Trump agenda. So far, Trump hasn't returned the favor with an endorsement.
An organization Lively founded, Abiding Truth Ministries, was listed as a U.S.-based hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT rhetoric. Lively disbanded the organization earlier in the campaign, and has made non-specific references to "mending fences" with the gay community.
The Democratic primary winner will likely struggle to compete financially in the general election. Gonzalez, endorsed by delegates to the Democratic state convention, reported a campaign balance of about $367,000 in mid-August. Massie, backed by the Bernie Sanders-inspired Our Revolution group, ended the same period with only $83,000 and has twice made personal loans to help keep his campaign afloat.
Their predicament isn't unheard of in Massachusetts, where four of the last five governors — including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney — have been Republicans.
"I haven't been unhappy with (Baker) but I've never voted for a Republican in my life," said Stephanie Manzella, a history teacher from Yarmouth, who is undecided about how she'll vote this fall and won't simply cast a "kneejerk" ballot for the Democratic nominee.
"I feel Massachusetts has done well" under Baker, she said, adding: "I'm going to do my homework."