How 3 GOP Governors Defied Blue State Voting Patterns

How 3 GOP Governors Defied Blue State Voting Patterns
AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File
How 3 GOP Governors Defied Blue State Voting Patterns
AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File
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The oxymoron of the 2018 elections is that three deep-blue states elected Democratic U.S. senators by wide margins while also electing Republican governors. In the so-called “People’s Republic of Vermont,” voters overwhelmingly re-elected both progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Gov. Phil Scott. It was the same story in reliably liberal Massachusetts where voters bestowed second terms on Elizabeth Warren and Charlie Baker. Ditto in Maryland for Ben Cardin and Larry Hogan. So how did Republican governors win in states where Hillary Clinton had some of her largest margins of victory in 2016?

In our age of intense polarization at the national level, voters at the local level are still open to ticket splitting. Despite party registration being at least 2-to-1 in Democrats’ favor, a more nuanced voter-ideology breakdown can create a path to victory for a Republican. According to a University of Maryland poll in October, 42 percent of voters in the state refer to themselves as moderate with 25 percent identifying as liberal and 20 percent as conservative. With this kind of distribution, Hogan put together a winning coalition of independents and moderate Democrats and Republicans.  

The campaign playbook was the same in all three states: stick to local issues while being socially liberal and fiscally conservative; ignore everything at the national level almost to the point of having no opinion on Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi. All three governors have actively worked at bringing people together, reaching across the aisle and being pragmatic. It also helps that each is considered affable and competent.

The results can also be explained as a mini-tax revolt in high-tax blue states. All three governors campaigned on a Republican message of growth, jobs and lower taxes, and each has been able to produce results with a Democratic-controlled legislature. “In Maryland, Hogan’s message about people paying too much in taxes resonated with voters. They view him as a check on the Democrats’ tax-and-spend agenda,” said Mileah Kromer, director of polling at Goucher College.

In 2014, Hogan ran on the slogan of “open for business,” and four years later was running on the message that he had delivered $1.2 billion in tax, toll and fee reductions without any tax increases. Specifically, he’s credited with lowering the annoyingly high toll on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which many Marylanders frequent during the summer, eliminating what Republicans had labeled “the rain tax” championed by his Democratic predecessor -- a disliked property assessment on storm-water runoff that was applied inconsistently by counties.

In Vermont, Scott (pictured) reined in taxes and government by using his veto power 14 times in his first term. He rejected the state budget three times to keep property taxes from rising, and blocked a minimum wage hike and a paid family leave program. In 2014, as lieutenant governor, he was part of an effort to stop the enactment of a single-payer health care system, calling it “unaffordable”; however, he recently signed into law a mandate requiring people to purchase health insurance by 2020.

In Massachusetts, Baker has had mixed results on taxes, having back-pedaled on a “no new tax pledge” and recently enacting a so-called “grand bargain.” That bill increased a payroll tax while making permanent one weekend of a sales tax holiday. The bill also implemented a guaranteed paid family and medical leave program and increased the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The moral of the story: In the state dubbed “Tax-achusetts,” even a Republican governor couldn’t achieve meaningful tax reduction or limit the role of government.

Despite these leaders’ popular appeal, the Democratic state legislature majorities increased in all three states. In Vermont, the gain was large enough to be veto-proof against Scott. “The popularity of these governors did not translate to down-ballot candidates running in state legislative races,” said Sarah Rosier, news editor at Ballotpedia.  “This will make right-of-center governing even harder.”

Patrick O’Keefe, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, noted that “Democrats and independents were willing to make one exception with Hogan, but then would go back to extreme straight party-line voting down the ballot.”  

When examining the national landscape, these three governors represent the exception, not the rule. After the 2018 election, there are now 37 states – 23 Republican and 14 Democratic - with trifecta government, meaning that the governor’s mansion and the state legislature are controlled by one party. That leaves just 13 states with divided government. The governors of Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland and the other 10 states “are successful because of their personal appeal, ability to get things done and manage effectively,” said O’Keefe. “It’s not more complicated than that.”

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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