Whereas a few months ago it seemed that no one could pose a serious threat to any re-election campaign mounted by Governor Deval Patrick, a recent string of missteps — including the doomed appointment of State Senator Marian Walsh to a high-paying, long-unfilled position — has suddenly made him very vulnerable. Measuring the political winds, State Treasurer Tim Cahill has of late thrust himself into the spotlight to mount a realistic challenge to Patrick, either in the Democratic primary or, more likely, as an independent in the general election. In fact, at this juncture, most insiders see a Patrick-Cahill showdown as all but inevitable.
Whatever comes of the State Ethics Commission's investigation into Cahill's friend Thomas Kelly, this is exactly the wrong political atmosphere in which to have ethics and pay-to-play charges swirling around. The allegations involving Kelly are troubling, and could get worse. If it does — and Cahill suddenly finds the "pay-to-play" microscope is on him — other behavior could then look bad in that context. Cahill's abundant fundraising has always included large sums from those with business before him: money managers who make percentages of what Cahill invests through them, for example, and liquor distributors who deal with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
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But it hasn't seemed to cause much of a stir with those inside the Patrick camp. In fact, it may be that this is exactly the match-up they would like to see.
Cahill has always been talked about as a likely gubernatorial candidate — someday. He is a prolific fundraiser, with roughly $3 million in his campaign account — far more than Patrick himself, let alone other potential challengers. He has a statewide organization. And, he has been a vocal critic of Patrick's proposals, particularly accusing the governor of spending too much, taking too much from state reserves, and proposing taxes, tolls, and fees to raise revenue.
But few insiders thought that Cahill would run against Patrick — until just recently. That's evident in recent conversations the Phoenix has had with Beacon Hill politicos. It's also manifest in a Suffolk University poll conducted for WHDH-TV, which included only one head-to-head match-up for governor: Patrick versus Cahill.
The results, which showed Cahill with a slight lead (35 to 30 percent), have further fanned the flames around Cahill's potential candidacy.
The emergence of Cahill as a presumed challenger to Patrick is also likely to change the political dynamics of the entire would-be field. Potential Republican candidates — such as Harvard Pilgrim president and CEO Charlie Baker, who served in Governor Bill Weld's administration — who may have been considering a challenge to Patrick, may now conclude that they would be stuck in a three-way race (presuming Cahill runs as an independent), splitting the anti-incumbent votes with Cahill.
Whether or not Cahill really intends to run as an independent — and one person close to Cahill's inner circle says that his preference is still to run as a Democrat — the very rumor may keep Republicans like Baker on the sidelines.
And the Patrick folks may be happy to let Cahill do that.
While Cahill has stepped up his criticisms of the governor, Patrick's political team has refrained from striking back, which even Patrick insiders acknowledge. Perhaps that is merely an attempt to avoid further distractions. But some observers say that Patrick wants Cahill to emerge as the only serious challenger, because they believe that, when the time comes, they can beat Cahill like a drum.
Cahill has two obstacles in running as a Democrat against Patrick. First, as the more conservative of the two, he would suffer in the Democratic primary, where votes skew more progressive. (Running as an independent in the general election would allow him to successfully court the votes of independents and Republicans.)
Cahill's second problem is the Democratic Party nominating convention. To get onto the primary ballot, Cahill would need to win at least 15 percent of the delegate votes at next summer's convention.
That might sound like a low threshold, but it could be a major hurdle. Party delegates are not going to be eager to offend the governor or party leaders — mostly Patrick people — by voting for any opponent.
They're even less likely to take that risk for Cahill, who has had a rocky relationship with party insiders.
A minor tempest highlighted this rift in May 2008, when Cahill was denied a last-minute attempt to get elected as an uncommitted delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Cahill took it as a slap in the face.
In fact, Cahill has never been a favorite of the Democratic Party establishment.
In 2002, most party insiders backed James Segel to succeed Shannon O'Brien as treasurer. Boston City Councilor Stephen Murphy was also running. Cahill, who was Norfolk County treasurer and Quincy city councilor, was seen as an interloper. When Michael Cahill, a fourth candidate unrelated to Tim, was also allowed onto that primary ballot, Tim blamed party insiders for what he saw as a threat likely to siphon his votes due to confusion over the name.