Politics & Policy

The GOP Governors Succeeding in Blue States

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Greg M. Cooper/Reuters)
They’re a nice bonus for the party, but they have no national political implications.

As we all know, the Republican party is facing a pretty tough election cycle. Most independent analysts think the House of Representatives is going to flip to the Democrats, and while the Senate looks likely to remain Republican, the GOP probably won’t expand its control of that chamber by any substantial margin.

And yet a handful of Republican governors in deeply Democratic states — Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland, and Phil Scott in Vermont — are highly favored to win reelection.

There is no current polling on Scott, but the data we have for Baker and Hogan paints an impressive picture. A recent Suffolk poll found that 68 percent of voters said that Massachusetts was heading in the right direction, and a strong plurality of 41 percent responded that Baker was the most responsible for this success, compared with 23 percent for the state legislature and just 3 percent for Donald Trump. Baker sported a 72 percent job-approval rating in the poll, including support from 71 percent of Democrats. Little wonder that Baker enjoyed a massive 28-point lead over Democrat Jay Gonzalez.

In Maryland, a Goucher poll taken earlier this month showed how Hogan is in a similarly commanding position. Hogan held a dominating 54–32 lead over Democrat Ben Jealous. That included 57 percent support from independents and even 38 percent from Democrats.

The striking juxtaposition between Baker, Hogan, and Scott on the one hand, and the national GOP on the other, raises an interesting question: Do these three blue-state governors offer a model for nationwide Republican success?

I would say, probably not. The ability of these governors to thrive in their Democratic states is itself a product of the fact that they do not have to deal as much with the divisive issues that have come to define American politics on the national level.

One of the consequences of the rapid expansion of the federal government following the Great Depression was the nationalization of politics. People came to see the national government, rather than the states, as the place where problems get dealt with. What this has meant in turn is that most major issues end up being litigated on the national level at some point or another. Taxes, regulation, social-welfare spending, education, and even culture-war issues end up dominating the national agenda. And because the federal government has such expansive powers, the states really are obliged to follow federal dictates.

This leaves the basket of issues that state governments have to deal with much more quotidian, and much less polarizing. There are hot-button issues, to be sure. Witness the various clashes between unions protecting their pensions and governors trying to keep spending in line. And some state leaders like to cultivate national issues for statewide purposes — as has often been the case with the Kansas Republican party. But state politics tends to be much less ideological and much more pragmatic than national politics.

It is this kind of climate where you can have moderate Republicans win in otherwise Democrat-dominated states — as is the case in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The opposite is also true for John Bel Edwards, a moderate Democrat who is a fairly popular governor in deeply Republican Louisiana. In these states, it is relatively easy to avoid the kinds of issues that divide national political constituencies and focus on the nitty-gritty of governing.

Yet it is their limited focus that makes such governors a poor model for national politics. Broaden the scope of political combat, and these governors are going to have to take positions on issues that are bound to alienate some constituency — be it primary voters on their own side or general-election voters on the other.

Mitt Romney ran into exactly this problem as he tried to parlay his term as Massachusetts governor into the presidency of the United States. He governed the Bay State as a moderate (at least relative to the national Republican party), but to align himself with the conservative primary voters who determine presidential nominees, he had to switch issue positions, which got him tagged as a flip-flopper and ultimately alienated the very sorts of moderate-to-liberal voters who elected him in Massachusetts in the first place.

So, it is a nice bonus for the Republicans to have a few outposts in deep-blue parts of the country, but it really has no national political implications. Indeed, the lack of such implications is why the party can hold those governorships in the first place.

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