We are at a once-in-a-blue-moon political moment when three of the most reliably Democratic states in the union—Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont—are led by Republican governors.
In fact, such an occurrence is rarer than a blue moon, which space.com tells us occurs every 2.7 years. The last time all three of these blue states chose Republican executives at the same time was 2002, when Mitt Romney was elected in Massachusetts, Bob Ehrlich in Maryland, and Jim Douglas in Vermont.
Now you find Republican governors Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland, and Phil Scott in Vermont—with Baker and Hogan consistently ranked as the two most popular governors in America, and Scott in the top 10. (On the down side, Republicans Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sam Brownback of Kansas are among the nation’s least popular governors, with approval ratings around 25 percent.)
From state to state, the recipes for political success are different at different times. In the 1990s, the centrist Angus King left the Democratic Party and ran for governor in Maine as an independent. He won two terms and then was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. But in 2010 Maine elected the renegade Republican Paul LePage as governor—once described by a Washington Post editorial as “completely unhinged”—and then reelected him in 2014.
Gubernatorial races are often determined more by personality than by partisan allegiance—as when the former wrestler Jesse Ventura won as an outlandish Reform Party candidate in normally staid and sensible Minnesota in 1998, the land of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Yet there is something notable about the current Republicans who are succeeding in heavily Democratic states: their success comes from being competent, not colorful.
At least in the cases of Baker, Hogan, and Scott, they are their party’s mirror image of Trumpism—serious, knowledgeable, and capable of bipartisan compromise. And they represent a moderate tradition that is all but extinct in national Republican politics.
Baker is perhaps the best illustration of this—he’s in the mold of the socially liberal, fiscally conservative New England Republican, who also tends to have a conservationist or environmentally conscious ethic. He’s not just un-Trumplike—he’s the anti-Trump.
Think of any Trump trait—his bombast, his inconsistency, his anti-immigrant animus, his sense of politics as TV-and-Twitter-driven entertainment—and Baker is the opposite. He’s a lifelong policy wonk. He’s worked in state and local government. Before he ran for governor in 2010 (he lost that race to Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick, but came back to win against state attorney general Martha Coakley in 2014) he was the chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Naturally, his approach to health care reform has nothing in common with Trump’s scattershot attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which Trump declared during his campaign would be repealed (“Obamacare has to be replaced and we will do it very, very quickly”), before he reacted to the failed plans in Congress by saying “Let Obamacare fail, it will be a lot easier.”
Baker joined in July with other Republican governors (including Maryland’s Hogan) in urging the Senate to responsibly amend the ACA—and to reject its “flawed bill,” which the governors said “threatens coverage for millions of hardworking, middle class Americans.” Baker had written a letter earlier this year urging House leaders to give states “flexibility to achieve the goals inherent in the Affordable Care Act.” He noted that Massachusetts had made significant strides toward universal health coverage, with 96.4 percent of the state’s residents insured in 2015, the highest rate in the country.
The health care debate is one of many that showed Baker to be not just at odds with his president but out of step with the national GOP. His stances in favor of abortion rights and gay rights (he has a brother who is gay) made him more palatable to the large bloc of suburban Democratic-leaning independents who sway elections in Massachusetts.
But as the Trump presidency has veered off to the far right in matters of race and immigration, Baker has tried to put more distance between himself and Trump. After thousands of white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, for example, Baker took issue with Trump’s equivocations, saying, “I think he should have come out and said . . . white supremacists have no business and no place in American political dialogue. Period. End of discussion. Case closed.”
That reaction is in keeping with Baker’s obvious distaste for the president, which became public in 2016 just before the New Hampshire primary. Baker wanted to remain neutral among the GOP candidates but then made a last-minute endorsement of New Jersey governor Chris Christie (Hogan was an early supporter of Christie’s).
“I have been concerned about the slide of the party,” Baker admitted, telling the Boston Globe, “I don’t believe Mr. Trump has the depth of experience, the temperament or the seriousness of purpose to be our next president.” When he voted in November he told reporters he had left the top of the ballot blank, voting for neither Hillary Clinton nor Trump (Hogan, of course, wrote in the name of his father, former Congressman Lawrence Hogan Sr.).
No Profile in Courage
Such stands, however, are hardly profiles in courage in Massachusetts, where both Trump and the national GOP are unpopular. Trump won only 33.5 percent of the Bay State vote in November, to Hillary Clinton’s 60.8 percent (very close to the Maryland margin, where Trump won 33.9 percent to Clinton’s 60.3 percent). And the conservative tilt of the national Republican Party has driven many New England voters out of the party. Only about 11 percent of Massachusetts voters register as Republicans; the largest voting group, at 54 percent, is “unenrolled.” (Registered Democrats make up 34 percent.)
The question for Baker now is whether Trump’s unpopularity, combined with the GOP’s weak state party apparatus, will jeopardize his expected bid for reelection in 2018. There are three Democrats currently angling to run against him—none with high statewide name recognition. They will surely work hard to tie Baker to Trump. But at the same time, they will make the argument that his governorship has not yielded any high-profile accomplishments.
Robert Massie, a Democrat who has jumped into the race (he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1994 and has since worked as an environmental and social justice activist), recently told CommonWealth magazine that Baker’s popularity derives from his habit of hedging. “It’s really easy to be popular when you don’t do anything, when you don’t take a stand,” Massie said. “He has this high approval rating. Why isn’t he using it as governor?”
And it’s true that Baker does not have a signature landmark achievement to boast about. At least nothing that compares, for example, with the massive education reform law that passed in 1993 under the tenure of the governor he once worked for, Republican William Weld. Or the innovative health care reforms that were created under Mitt Romney in 2006.
Baker’s record so far is that of a caretaker governor. And yet, in a period when the current Congress and president are in constant turmoil, Baker’s quiet competence—almost devoid of ideological posturing or even partisanship—seems almost radical. It makes me think back to an interview I did with him in November of 2006, when he was already beginning to consider a campaign for governor against the just-elected Deval Patrick. He was still at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and I was asking what he thought of Patrick’s chances for a successful governorship.
Baker began by talking about the years when he served in the Weld administration. Weld, he said, was able to draw some of the most talented people in the state—from both parties—into government. That’s what Patrick needed to do:
“As he starts choosing people to fill some of these jobs, I would argue that ‘boring is better,’” Baker said. “If I were him, I’d be looking for talent, competence – I sound like Mike Dukakis here, I guess—and a little less for ideology. At the end of the day, most of the voters of Massachusetts are pretty pragmatic. They just want stuff to work. And his challenge is going to be that he’s going to get tremendous pressure from a lot of places to take philosophy and ideology first and experience and skill set second.”
Imagine that: a Republican governor who echoes Michael Dukakis’s famous wonky call for competence over ideology. And yet that is how most governors, Republican or Democrat, succeed. Will we ever see national politics go back to that commonsensical style of governance?
— DAVE DENISON
Dave Denison was the founding editor of CommonWealth magazine, which covers Massachusetts government and politics. He’s now associate editor at The Baffler, a political and cultural magazine and website.