In these days of intense partisan polarization, politicians who can appeal to voters across the red-blue divide sometimes seem to be few or far between. When, for example, Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat in bright-red Alabama in a 2017 special election, it was a very big deal, even though the peculiar nature of the GOP nominee (theocratic twice-removed-from-office judge accused of preying on very young women), Roy Moore, made it less shocking.
But at the gubernatorial level, it’s an entirely different picture. As Morning Consult’s latest quarterly measurement of approval/disapproval ratings of the nation’s chief executives show, there’s a hardy band of blue-state Republicans who are quite popular. Indeed, four of them (in order of popularity, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, and Phil Scott of Vermont) are among the most popular five governors in the country.
What makes the story even more interesting is that three of these governors have been elected and reelected in very blue states. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 27 points in Baker’s Massachusetts, and by 26 points in Hogan’s Maryland and Scott’s Vermont (Sununu’s Granite State is technically blue, having been carried by Democrats in the last four presidential elections, but it has been extremely competitive).
A closer look at the dynamics of these states shows how these Republicans have thrived and survived. In the three very blue states mentioned above, the GOP is so weak that it has eschewed the usual conservative ideological litmus tests in favor of surviving on patronage from governors who are allowed to be as liberal as is necessary to win elections. They essentially serve as counterweights to heavily Democratic legislatures, without getting far from dead center. All of them (plus Sununu) are pro-choice, which becomes remarkable when you realize there is no longer a single pro-choice Republican in the U.S. House, and just two in the U.S. Senate. These are birds with highly adapative colors. No wonder one of them, Larry Hogan, has discussed running against Donald Trump in the 2020 GOP primaries without getting much guff from Maryland Republicans. Everyone understands that in the unlikely event Hogan takes the plunge, he’d lose massively and immediately and then end the nonsense and come home.
Outside this exotic four, there are no blue-state Republican governors at all, though it should be noted that six red-state Republicans are popular enough to give the GOP a clean sweep of the top ten (the most popular of these, Alabama’s Kay Ivy, had the good fortune of replacing a scandal-plagued predecessor in that heavily Republican state).
There are currently six Democratic governors serving in states that Trump won in 2016. Three of them (Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan), however, are from states Democrats regularly won before Trump, with the latter two taking office after the 2018 Democratic-wave elections. Another, Jon Bel Edwards of Louisiana, won in 2015 after scandal-plagued Republican senator David Vitter tried to replace failed Republican governor Bobby Jindal. Another, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, won a razor-close victory in the razor-close 2016 election in his state. The real outlier is Montana’s Steve Bullock, who ran far ahead of the Democratic presidential candidates in his state in being elected in 2012 and reelected in 2016. No wonder he’s thinking about a late entry into the 2020 presidential field.
Bullock’s tied with Delaware’s John Carney for the honor of having the best approval/disapproval ratio (54/28) among Democratic governors, far below Baker’s 73/14 and Hogan’s 71/14, but not bad. The least popular governor is Republican Matt Bevin of Kentucky, at 33/52; unluckily for him and his usually dominant party, he’s up for reelection this year. While the GOP governors at the top have to prove regularly that they are not slaves of their party, Bevin needs to show he’s so nastily conservative that even Republicans find him embarrassing. It should be an easier task, but state politics are quirky enough that anything can happen.