(CNN)A recent Morning Consult national poll testing the approval ratings of the nation's governors produced a surprising -- to me -- result: The most popular governor in the country is Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. Even in the liberal Bay State, 71% of residents approve of the job the Republican Baker is doing. Seeking to explain the key to Baker's popularity, I reached out to Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
The most popular governor in the country is a Republican from Massachusetts. Yes, really.
Cillizza: Charlie Baker is a Republican in 1 of the most Democratic states in the country. He's also the most popular governor in the country in a new Morning Consult poll. What gives?
Pindell: Let's start with some context. Yes, Massachusetts is known as a liberal bastion of the country. Elizabeth Warren is serving in the same Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy. Another Kennedy represents part of the state along with an entirely Democratic delegation in Washington. The state house has lopsided Democratic majorities in both chambers.
But, like many places, the largest group of registered voters are independents. When it comes to governors, Bay State residents appear to like socially moderate/fiscally conservative Republicans, partly to serve as a check against Democrats. I write that because while I understand the premise of the first part of your question (how can a Republican lead Massachusetts) for locals it is actually not that surprising at all. Five of the last six Massachusetts governors were Republican.
The second piece of context: things are going well in Massachusetts so it shouldn't come as a shock that the governor's approval ratings are high. US News and World Report named Massachusetts the number one state to live in the country. The unemployment rate is low. The public schools are among the best in the country. The world's leading hospitals and universities are here. Boston is tied with New York for the amount of venture capital funding projects. In fact, Boston is undergoing its biggest building boom in the city's history. Among the buildings being built is the new world headquarters for General Electric, something that Baker is partially credited for bringing to the state. Hell, the Red Sox are currently in first place the AL East.
On top of all that context is Baker himself. When he ran in 2014 he did so as basically a non-partisan manager. He said he would watch the state's pocketbook after eight years of a Democratic governor who proposed a lot of new spending. At the same time Baker is for abortion rights and featured his brother's coming-out story in a legendary campaign ad.
After becoming governor Baker has avoided national politics. He didn't even vote for president. Right after he took office the state faced huge blizzards that crippled an aging public transportation infrastructure. He got good grades for his emergency management and has since made fixing the MBTA a top priority.
So in other words, Massachusetts voters have no problem with a Republican governor, things are going well, and Baker hasn't done anything so horrible to give people reason not give him high job approval ratings.
Cillizza: Baker first emerged in politics in 2010 when he ran an underwhelming race against Gov. Deval Patrick in a very good Republican year nationally. What's changed about him as a politician since then?
Pindell: Around here we say that there was Charlie in 2010 and then Charlie 2.0 in 2014. Learning the lessons of his defeat when he was seen as the angry white male, four years later he became the softer, gentler type. In 2010 Baker yelled at reporters, in 2014 he curried favor with them. In 2010 he said he was agnostic on the questions of global warming. In 2014, he believed in the science behind global warming. He favored abortion center buffer zones. He had a plan for homelessness. He was a guy you'd wouldn't mind having a beer with.
Cillizza: Baker seems to me in the Mitt Romney mold of Republicans who can win in Massachusetts: Businessman bringing practical principles to the government. Is the Romney comparison a fair one for Baker?
Pindell: You just described how Republicans become Massachusetts governor. There is some Romney in there with Baker, sure, but his models are former Republican governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci. He worked for both. And where Romney began running for president the moment he became governor, Baker has only flirted a few times with it and it is not his modus operandi.
Cillizza: Baker is up for re-election in 2018. He HAS to be a Democratic target -- good poll numbers for him or not. Who is going to run? And how does the race look?
Pindell: Even in Massachusetts and in President Trump's first midterm Baker appears like he will have a fairly easy reelection. A recent WBUR poll showed him beating all of his current opponents by roughly 30 percent in matchups. Yes, 30 percent.
As my colleagues at the Globe have well documented, one of the main themes of Baker's first term is that Democrats have really struggled with how to criticize him. At the same time he is raising record amounts of money for his reelection, with the goal of $30 million. That stunning amount of cash, combined with his high approval ratings has meant that the big Democratic names (Attorney General Maura Healey, and US Reps. Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy III) are all taking a pass at running. Those who are running are struggling for money and attention so far.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "If Charlie Baker gets re-elected in 2018, the next political office he will run for is _______." Now, explain.
Pindell: "Swampscott, Mass. Board of Selectmen?"
His next shot at the The Big Show would be 2024 where he would likely be the anti-Trump option in a Republican primary also likely featuring Vice President Mike Pence. That is a REALLY long time from now so let's set that aside because, as I mentioned earlier, that is not the current MO.
Of course, if he wins a strong reelection you can see a scenario where he will be encouraged to run for US Senate in 2020 against Democratic incumbent Ed Markey. I don't know what he would say to that if the time comes.