SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won’t seek re-election to a third term next year, 12 News has learned, a seismic decision that will have ripple effects across the Bay State’s political landscape.

The news was confirmed to 12 News by a person familiar with Baker’s decision, and was first reported by The Boston Globe. Massachusetts governors are not term-limited, but no incumbent has ever won three consecutive four-year terms. (Former Gov. Michael Dukakis’s three terms were nonconsecutive.)

In a second surprise, Baker’s No. 2 and heir apparent — Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito — announced she won’t seek the Republican nomination for governor next year, either. The pair announced their decisions in a joint email to supporters around 10 a.m.

“This was an extremely difficult decision for us,” Baker and Polito wrote. “We love the work, and we especially respect and admire the people of this wonderful Commonwealth.” Both said the pandemic had led them to think about their desires to spend more time with family.

“We want to focus on recovery, not on the grudge matches political campaigns can devolve into,” they wrote, adding, “This next year needs to be about recovery, not about politics.”

A moderate Republican in a deep blue state, Baker has consistently ranked as one of the country’s most popular governors throughout his seven years in office. Voters, particularly Democrats and independents, rewarded his low-key personality and disinterest in partisan fireworks, though critics suggested he was too cautious.

Yet Baker’s disdain for former President Donald Trump and his centrist policy stances had put him increasingly at odds with the GOP base in Massachusetts, and he was facing a Trump-backed primary challenge next year from former state Rep. Geoff Diehl.

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The incumbent’s decision to exit the stage instantly creates a wide open race to succeed him in 2022 — and even more so with Polito’s decision not to run.

Three Democrats had already kicked off campaigns for governor before Baker made his decision: Harvard University professor Danielle Allen, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, and former state Sen. Ben Downing. But a fourth Democrat — Attorney General Maura Healey — looms over the field as a formidable contender with a huge war chest who has not announced her plans.

A poll of Massachusetts voters conducted earlier this month by UMass Amherst and WCVB-TV showed Healey with 35% support for governor versus Polito at 19%, while 38% were undecided about such a hypothetical matchup. But the number of undecided voters rose to more than half when the poll tested Polito against the lesser-known Democrats currently running.

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If Healey decides to run for governor, it would also create an open contest for the attorney general’s office next year that could attract multiple prominent Democrats. (A spokesperson for former Congressman Joe Kennedy III — whose name has been frequently mentioned after he lost last year’s U.S. Senate primary — said he has no plans to run for governor or attorney general in 2022.)

Healey offered no hints about her political future in a statement Wednesday afternoon that stuck to praising Baker for his service. “I have deep regard and respect for the way he has led, with a commitment to doing what is right on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth,” she said.

Baker came up in politics as a protégé of former Gov. Bill Weld, serving in Weld’s administration during the 1990s, and later worked in the private sector as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. (He was leading the insurer when it made the controversial decision to pull out of Rhode Island.)

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Baker first ran for governor in 2010, losing to incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick. He ran again four years later when Patrick retired, edging out Democrat Martha Coakley with less than 49% of the vote, then quickly saw his job approval soar due to his handling of an MBTA service crisis during the winter of 2015. He went on to win a landslide re-election victory in 2018.

“When the voters of this great Commonwealth gave us this opportunity to serve, we had plans. Lots of them,” Baker and Polito wrote in their message to supporters Wednesday. “They didn’t include 30 days of snow in our first 60 days in office. Or a natural gas explosion. Or a global pandemic. But with your support, and the creativity and resilience of the people of Massachusetts, we worked through these and other unanticipated crises and events to move our state forward.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook