BOSTON (AP) — Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday he won’t seek a third term as governor of Massachusetts, where his party is bitterly split between supporters and foes of former President Donald Trump.
Baker called the announcement “a very complicated and difficult decision” at an afternoon press conference with fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
“We both love the work. We love the people and we love the experience that comes with this, and the opportunity to help communities and to help people build bigger and stronger possibilities,” Baker told reporters at the Statehouse.
Baker’s decision comes near the end of a second grueling year in which his singular focus has been trying to cope with a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baker said the decision frees his administration to zero in on the state’s ongoing pandemic response.
“There is a ton of work that’s left to be done as we come out of this pandemic to rebuild, recreate, reimagine many of the things that were busted during the course of all this,” he said. “We believe it’s most important that we spend the next year focusing on that and not focusing on, let’s call it the discourse — and that’s probably an insult to the word discourse — that comes with political campaigning.”
Trump issued a statement following Baker’s announcement calling him “very selfish” and “bad news for the Republican Party” and said Baker opted not to run because Trump wouldn’t endorse him. Baker has been a critic of Trump, twice refusing to vote for him.
Baker has long been among the nation’s most popular chief executives. His decision means there will be an open race for governor next year.
A number of Democrats have already announced their candidacies, including Harvard professor Danielle Allen, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and former state Sen. Ben Downing.
Another possible Democratic contender is Attorney General Maura Healey.
Healey issued a written statement Wednesday calling Baker a friend and “a valued partner to my office and to me,” but declined to say whether she planned to jump into the 2022 race.
Downing said in a statement that Baker’s decision “marks an opportunity to both upend the culture of complacency on Beacon Hill.” Allen thanked Baker and Polito for their dedication, saying, “It is a true sacrifice and profound public service.”
Polito said she’s not interested in running for the top spot.
“My whole idea of running with the governor was to come into office with the governor, to serve as a team with the governor, and to finish with the governor,” Polito said.
Geoff Diehl, a former Republican state representative, has already announced his candidacy. Diehl remains popular with the conservative base of the state GOP and has been endorsed by Trump.
Baker’s departure gives Massachusetts Republicans a chance to rebuild their party, said state GOP Party Chairman Jim Lyons, a Trump supporter.
“Our party remains committed to the America-First agenda advocated by President Donald J. Trump, and it’s clear to me that Charlie Baker was shaken by President Trump’s endorsement of another Republican candidate in Geoff Diehl,” Lyons said in a statement.
Baker dismissed that analysis.
“No,” he said. “Not shaken.”
Baker said his administration’s focus on issues over personalities is a big reason for his success with voters and stands “apart from a lot of the bipartisan noise that’s created in politics generally these days and amplified by social media platforms and all sorts of other people who are jockeying for attention.”
Baker, who served in the administrations of former fellow Republican Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci, first ran for governor in 2010 and lost to incumbent Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick.
Four years later, Baker ran again, defeating former Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. In his second run for governor in 2018, Baker easily defeated Democrat Jay Gonzalez.
During his second term, the sudden emergence of COVID-19 pushed much of Baker’s political agenda to the side as he, and the rest of the state, raced to respond to the implications of a fast-spreading and deadly virus.
Baker took a series of dramatic steps, shutting down nonessential businesses, requiring the use of face masks in public, closing schools and issuing stay-at-home recommendations.
While some bristled at the restraints, polls showed Baker’s response generally earned high marks from the public, although there were serious errors. The state saw one of the nation’s deadliest nursing home outbreaks, in which nearly 80 people succumbed to the virus at a veterans home.
Baker has also had to weather the ire of Trump.
Massachusetts Republican governors have long leaned to the moderate and progressive wing of the national party, but Baker made that divide even more explicit, refusing to endorse — or even vote for — Trump during his 2016 run. Baker again refused to vote for Trump’s reelection bid last year.
That public stance earned Baker the rebuke and moniker of RINO — Republican In Name Only — from Trump, but likely only strengthened Baker’s popularity in Massachusetts, where voters rejected Trump by double-digit margins in both elections.
Trump repeated that criticism Wednesday in a written statement.
“RINO Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has announced that, because I didn’t endorse him and he is incapable of getting the Republican nomination, he will not be running for reelection. He’s been very selfish, and is bad news for the Republican Party — actually, he shouldn’t even be considered a Republican. We wish him well!” Trump said.