The difference is stunning: Governor Charlie Baker was sitting on more than $8 million in his campaign account by mid-May, while his two Democratic challengers had less than $132,000 combined.
If Jay Gonzalez and Robert Massie are looking for someone to blame for that cash chasm, they don’t have to look far. Over the past two years, House Democratic leadership has repeatedly blocked campaign finance legislation that could have cut off a big source of funds to Baker and candidates on the GOP ticket.
“It’s very frustrating,’’ said Senator James B. Eldridge, Democrat from Acton and chief sponsor of the bill. “It seems like a lot of my colleagues [in the House] are not interested in electing a Democrat to the corner office.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, seen by many Democrats as a Baker ally, did not respond to a request for a comment on why he has held up the legislation. His press aide referred questions to the joint committee on election law, whose House chairman, Representative John J. Mahoney of Worcester, said he was focused on other bills. When the committee held a hearing last year, Mahoney said, only Eldridge appeared to testify in favor of his proposal.
There are other factors that help explain Baker’s seemingly insurmountable fund-raising lead. He is the incumbent, he has received high marks in public polling throughout his first term, and his blend of fiscal conservatism and liberal social positions allows him to pull from a broad range of donors.
But the governor’s fiscal firepower has been bolstered by his ability to take advantage of money raised by the state Republican party and other third parties under federal campaign finance rules. The federal rules permit bigger donations than does Massachusetts law, and in some cases they allow corporate and other contributors to remain secret.
The Senate bill would attempt to end this kind of fund-raising by making clear that state political parties can only use state funds to support candidates. It seeks to close loopholes cited by state campaign finance regulators in 2016, when they said that Baker was not violating a 1998 statute that bans the use of federal donations in state campaigns.
The governor’s unique joint fund-raising operation with the national GOP — the Massachusetts Victory Committee — raised $7.4 million for the state party by March 31. Under federal rules, the committee can accept donations from individuals of up to $43,900 a year, compared with the $1,000-a-year cap on state-regulated contributions.
Democrats have yet to take advantage of the fund-raising loopholes, instead relying on the multitude of party officials who dominate the state’s ranks and third-party spending from unions.
Campaign finance watchdogs complain that the Baker operation essentially circumvents the state’s post-Watergate laws designed to regulate money in Massachusetts politics and bring transparency to political financing. These days, the public’s interest in campaign finance accountability has faded.
“It is the Democrats that could do something, but they don’t, and that’s because there is a lack of salience over the issue of money in politics,’’ said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has written extensively about campaign finance issues. “It’s so complicated it doesn’t resonate.”
Indeed, Democratic political operatives seemed resigned to a new era of campaign financing that the US Supreme Court created with its 2010 decision to allow unlimited spending by corporations in elections.
“We are just moving into a new world of politics,’’ said John Walsh, the former state Democratic Party chairman, who advised former Newton mayor Setti Warren until he dropped out of the gubernatorial race, citing the high financial hurdles to challenging Baker.
The Senate bill would address another Baker fund-raising tactic that netted close to a $1 million and was used by the governor to gain control of the state party in 2016. In an unprecedented move, Baker’s team raised money through a nonprofit entity to back a slate of candidates that won a majority of the 80 seats on the Republican State Committee.
Campaign finance laws do not require disclosure of the source of the funds in such races, and Baker has refused to voluntarily release the names of the donors. The bill would require a listing of contributors and expenses stemming from the state committee contests.
Beyond the joint fund-raising enterprise, Baker’s finance team has taken advantage of national fund-raising that supports the campaign and governor-backed causes.
For instance, Baker has raised large amounts of funds for the Republican Governors Association — hundreds of thousands of dollars each from corporations and wealthy individuals, some of whom have business before his administration. The RGA has, in turn, spent heavily in Massachusetts, such as in 2014, when it spent $11 million to support Baker’s election.
The RGA and its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association, pour tens of millions of dollars into races across the country every election. But they file quarterly finance reports with the IRS, so the sources of their funds are not readily available to voters and the media during campaigns.
Separately, the governor’s finance aides have used a nonprofit as a vehicle to raise money for Baker-backed initiatives to expand charter schools and defeat the legalization of recreational marijuana. Strong Economy for Growth spent $1.17 million in the 2016 election cycle, but its attempt to hide its donors list failed last year when state regulators forced the group to make them public and pay a $31,000 fine.
The Senate bill does not address fund-raising through entities such as the RGA or nonprofits.Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.