Popular Republicans: The New England Enigma

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Greg M. Cooper/Reuters)
In a sea of deep blue, flinty Yankees are rediscovering their fiscally conservative roots.

Riddle me this.

What do the following sundry and colorful characters have in common: a TV magnate, a convicted felon, and a social-studies teacher? And what do these characters have in common: a venture capitalist, an anti-nuke advocate, and a mayor who didn’t have to pay rent?

Surprisingly, these groups do not describe Agatha Christie suspects — but, rather, the leading candidates for governor in Connecticut and Rhode Island, respectively. Even more extraordinary than their backgrounds, though, is the fact that, in both of these deep-blue New England states, the Republican in each of those trios has an excellent chance of winning.

In Connecticut, incumbent governor Dannel Malloy, first elected in 2010, has faced exceedingly high disapproval ratings (72 percent according to a Morning Consult poll published in October 2017), making him the least popular governor in the country. “Voters feel Connecticut’s economy is going down the drain, and they are sending Gov. Dannel Malloy’s approval ratings down the same drain,” Quinnipiac pollster Douglas Schwartz said. “Even Democrats disapprove of the way he is doing his job.” According to a September 2017 Sacred Heart poll, moreover, 62.1 percent of Nutmeggers “strongly oppose” raising existing taxes, which Malloy has done for both personal income and businesses. According to that poll, 93 percent also consider the cost of living as their biggest concern, and according to a 2014 Quinnipiac poll a majority also believes that businesses’ leaving the state is a major issue.

In April, Malloy announced that he would not run for a third term, yet those low ratings have had an adverse effect on Connecticut Democrats across the board. One of those Democrats is Ned Lamont, a TV magnate, famous for beating Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primaries and then losing to him in the general election in 2006. His main primary opponent is Joe Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport and a convicted felon who, after prison, effected a remarkable political comeback in 2015. Both Democrats, however, have to shake off the specter of the wildly unpopular Malloy. The leading candidate on the Republican side is Mark Boughton (the social-studies teacher, by the way), who won the Republican Committee’s nod but has to beat four opponents in the August 14 primary.

Right next door, in Rhode Island, incumbent Democratic governor Gina Raimondo, a venture capitalist, is running, unlike Malloy, but she is also extremely unpopular — the fifth-least-popular governor in the country, according to that Morning Consult poll, largely because of a number of blunders and sharp spending cuts. While she is generally viewed as business-friendly, and she has attracted businesses to the state because of tax incentives, most Rhode Islanders are still concerned about pocketbook issues and the spending cuts that have diminished government services without being offset by tax cuts. Her main opponent should be Allan Fung, the Republican mayor of Cranston, whom she narrowly beat in 2014, but it seems to be fellow Democrat and former secretary of state Matt Brown, an anti-nuclear-weapons activist. Brown has been castigating Raimondo for not being progressive enough; specifically, he wants to reverse her spending cuts and baselessly claims that she does not support abortion as much as she says. On Fung’s part, he was hit with a scandal last week when it was revealed that he had not been charged rent for his campaign office, though the uproar seemed to die down quickly. Polls conducted by The Providence Journal and GoLocal: Providence show Raimondo and Fung neck-and-neck; only time can tell whether Brown will play a major role in the outcome.

Both Connecticut and Rhode Island are deeply blue states; both have gone for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1992; both have all-Democratic congressional delegations. Why, then, are Republicans doing so well?

If Boughton and Fung are able to pull off wins in Connecticut and Rhode Island, every New England state will have a Republican governor, an unprecedented situation in modern times.

Certainly, one can point to the unpopularity of incumbents such as Malloy and Raimondo (and, in particular, Malloy’s unprecedented unpopularity). But Democrats have been unpopular before in these states without the governors’ mansions’ going to the Republicans. Perhaps it’s better to look at what is popular in New England. Three of the most popular governors in the country are also in New England, and they’re Republicans: Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Vermont’s Phil Scott, and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu. (The only exception to this trend is Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, who has a 42 percent approval in that Morning Consult poll.) If Boughton and Fung are able to pull off wins in Connecticut and Rhode Island, every New England state will have a Republican governor, an unprecedented situation in modern times.

Again, why?

New England was largely a Republican bastion until the 1960s, and several areas did not even begin to go Democratic until much later. Vermont, now considered one of the most reliably blue states, did not (with the exception of 1964) vote Democratic until 1992. Its Republicanism was of a moderate or even liberal stripe, though — the Rockefeller wing of the party, which was largely excised with the Reagan Revolution. The old, flinty, Republican New England Yankees were almost completely gone already. Newer New Englanders, with their social liberalism, were ready to try the Democratic party — and not look back. In terms of presidential and congressional politics, New Englanders still aren’t looking back; many still see federal-level Republicans as too out-of-touch and too socially conservative for their taste.

At the state level, however, a kind of Rockefeller Republicanism seems to be rising once again in recent years. Local, well-known Republicans (such as Governor Sununu, whose father was also the Granite State’s governor) are a reminder of the fiscally conservative, socially moderate conservatism that is rooted deep in Yankee soil. Governor Baker’s predecessor, Democrat Deval Patrick, ended his two terms in Massachusetts with very low ratings and several scandals, prompting voters to look for a change; the same was true for Governor Scott’s predecessor, Democrat Peter Shumlin. But Baker, Scott, and Sununu are still riding on sky-high polling numbers. And all three are socially liberal, fiscally conservative moderates in blue states, like Boughton and Fung. All three governors have cut taxes and reduced spending, and all three state economies have improved. Are Connecticut and Rhode Island voters looking at their neighbors and desiring the same? It’s entirely possible.

As always, and especially in light of 2016, we cannot know what will happen on Election Day. But the very fact that Republicans have odds this good in states this blue bespeaks, perhaps, a kind of Republican renewal in a Democratic dominion.

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