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How two GOP governors surfed the blue wave

On election day, as the blue wave washed into governor's mansions across the country, the governorships of t...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 12:21 PM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 12:21 PM

On election day, as the blue wave washed into governor's mansions across the country, the governorships of two of the bluest states remained high, dry and red.

Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland both won their re-election bids, buoyed by high favorable ratings and overwhelming fundraising. Their decisive victories stand in contrast to a midterm election cycle in which Democrats flipped seven governorships, seven state legislative chambers, and more than 300 state legislative seats.

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So, how did they do it?

Large majorities of voters in both states like their governors personally, and approve of their job performance, according to state polls as well as national polls comparing them to other governors. Large Democratic majorities in their respective legislatures make bipartisanship a necessary part of the job, and they both have taken advantage of opportunities to adopt policy from across the aisle.

Sparkling poll numbers boosted fundraising and galvanized support. Baker and Hogan built massive campaign coffers and were heavily supported by the Republican Governors Association.

Apart from their first few months in office, when many voters were still unable to rate them, neither have registered job approval ratings below the 60s in Morning Consult state-by-state polling.

These enviable ratings are due in part to support from groups typically elusive to Republicans. Democrats, women, people of color, and college educated voters have all given them consistently good marks, according to polls our organizations have each conducted in our respective states. Put simply, they built and maintained the support of voters beyond Republicans.

And they needed to. Self-identified Republicans comprised only 30% of midterm voters in both states, according to VoteCast data, an exit poll replacement from the AP, NORC and Fox News. When the dust settled, support for Baker and Hogan among Republican voters was as close to unanimous as you can get in electoral politics. Speculation Republicans would stay home rather than vote for a "RINO" (Republican in name only) turned out to be just that.

But where both men won was with their second base: Moderate Democrats and independents. According to VoteCast, Hogan won nearly a third and Baker won 47% of all Democratic voters in their respective states. Both won handily among independent voters. They also outperformed their challengers among key demographics: women and college-educated voters.

Baker ran nearly even with his Democratic rival in urban areas and among people of color in Massachusetts, a remarkable achievement in this racially charged and geographically polarized political moment. Maryland has considerably more African-American voters than Massachusetts, and Hogan earned support from just under 30% of them, all while running against an African-American opponent.

President Trump played a role, too. VoteCast data showed him to be deeply unpopular with voters in both states, and that was a significant factor in determining their vote. Baker and Hogan's Democratic opponents tried in vain to link them to Trump by any possible association, no matter how tenuous. It didn't work.

Their mix of strategic avoidance -- breaking with the President early and often while keeping open the possibility of working with the administration on certain issues -- effectively neutralized his very real threat to their re-election bids. Hogan and Baker won the majority of voters who said Trump was the reason for their midterm vote -- and those who indicated he wasn't, according to VoteCast data.

Trump may have even helped Baker and Hogan by making them look more moderate by comparison. The relentless Trump-driven Washington news cycle sucked much of the oxygen out of the room, and pre-election polling showed both challengers struggling to get even their names out to voters. The focus on Trump likely didn't help them with fundraising, either, as national donors were more focused on retaking the House or the handful of high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races, rather than long-shot challengers.

Despite their impressive wins at the top of the ballot, neither Baker nor Hogan had any discernible coattails. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ben Cardin cruised to re-election.

In Maryland, Democrats maintained their veto-proof majority in the General Assembly, picked up seats on county councils and won key races for county executive and all other statewide offices.

In Massachusetts, all other statewide Republicans and congressional candidates lost, and Democrats added to their supermajorities in both legislative chambers. It seems that the un-Trump brand Baker and Hogan worked hard to cultivate is independently earned, but not transferable.

The big lesson of the victories of Baker and Hogan may be the same one that Democrats used to win the House: Candidate quality matters. Both men are affable and personally likable politicians authentically comfortable bucking their party and working across the aisle. They represented both a check on power and the ability to get things done.

Ironically, those qualities are the same that may make both men pariahs in the national GOP, where moderation can hinder political ambitions. But if Republicans -- particularly Republicans frustrated by the direction of politics today -- are getting nervous about another blue wave building in 2020 and want to change course, the approach of these two governors could be a welcomed path to higher ground.

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