Eagan: Crisis may give governor longshot his niche

You mean you’ve never heard of would-be governor Jeff McCormick?

That may soon change.

The fight over Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to shelter immigrant children in Massachusetts is heating up. It spilled into a Beacon Hill debate yesterday. And today Republicans opposed to bringing the children here will hold a State House summit with sheriffs and elected officials who don’t want them here, either.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steve Grossman and pediatrician Don Berwick all support the governor’s plan. With certain caveats, so does Republican Charlie Baker.

But McCormick, the millionaire businessman running as an independent, opposes housing the children.

“I’ve traveled throughout the entire commonwealth, 20, probably 30 cities and towns in the last three days,” McCormick told me yesterday.

“I’ve seen struggling families firsthand. I walk to work and give money to homeless veterans and I’ve served hundreds of homeless people from Pine Street Inn. The need in the commonwealth is very real. We can’t continue to burden our system when we have to get our own house in order.”

McCormick has languished in single digits in polls. But his backers now hope immigration is his ticket. Their dream scenario: Come Labor Day, when voters are finally paying attention, the feds, to no one’s surprise, have reneged on paying for these children. Or more likely, most of the kids are not being sent back to Central America, but instead are staying with local relatives. Officials in Brockton, Lynn, Chelsea or wherever the kids end up scream about betrayal and broken promises. And there’s Jeff McCormick spending big money on TV ads that proclaim, “I was the only one who predicted this mess.”

Suddenly he’s a contender.

Me, I’m skeptical.

One GOP operative told me conservatives can put up with gay marriage and abortion rights but, “You just can’t wimp out on illegal immigration.”

McCormick supports in-state tuition and drivers’ licenses for illegals. Baker does not.

To Baker supporters, caving on tuition and licenses defines wimping out. Offering temporary and carefully monitored shelter to children defines the kinder, gentler conservatism we like around here.

Yet McCormick doesn’t have to be a contender to become a huge factor in the general election, much as Tim Cahill was in 2010.

Democrats are already praying he will peel away enough votes from Baker to swing it their way.

“A point here, a point there,” one Democrat told me. “All you need is a couple of points, and you win.”