Popular governors defy anti-Republican wave
Hogan, Baker tread carefully with partisan ideology in deep-blue states
Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland are the two most popular governors in America, and they are cruising to re-election in two of the bluest states in the country.
While the rest of the country braces for a potential anti-Republican wave, Mr. Baker and Mr. Hogan have overseen strong state economies and found ways to avoid the nasty divisions over President Trump that have ensnared the political conversation in so many other races.
They have hewed to the center on hotbutton issues such as immigration and have avoided Trump-style rhetorical bombs, leaving them with approval ratings that would be the envy of any governor.
“They are not in love with Donald Trump even though they are in the GOP,” said Louis Jacobson, a political analyst who handicaps gubernatorial races for Governing magazine. “It’s a combination of political realities that they’re sort of bending to, and also their own personal preferences and ideology.”
Mr. Baker had a 70 percent approval rating, and Mr. Hogan was at 67 percent — first and second in the country, respectively — according to Morning Consult’s latest tally sheet.
That’s partly because they retain solid Republican support and have been able to build bridges across the aisle.
Indeed, more Democrats than Republicans said in a Suffolk University poll released last month that they approve of the job Mr. Baker is doing.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said that survey was taken right after a Sept. 4 primary in which Mr. Baker fended off a conservative challenger, which may have affected the numbers. But he said it’s clear that Mr. Baker runs strong among independent voters, whose bloc is the real “big prize” in Massachusetts.
Fifty-nine percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independents said they approve of the job Mr. Baker is doing.
“Baker’s independent stances on a wide variety of issues play to those voters,” Mr. Paleologos said.
Mr. Baker is pro-choice and signed legislation this year to repeal pre-Roe v. Wade abortion restrictions as an insurance policy in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 decision that created a national right to abortion.
He also wrote a letter to the Trump administration challenging its moves to restrict federal funding for certain family planning services.
The balancing act has created some headaches.
At a recent debate with Democratic opponent Jay Gonzalez, he initially declined to say whether he would personally vote for Republican Geoff Diehl, a staunchly proTrump Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He eventually said he would back the Republican nominee.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Hogan have also tacked toward the center in some cases on the issue of gun control. Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, recently endorsed Mr. Baker for re-election.
Mr. Hogan also said this year that he would reject any endorsement from the National Rifle Association after winning its support in 2014.
Such calculations appear to be working. Political handicappers say both incumbents are likely to win next month.
Mr. Hogan has close to a 19-point lead over Democratic challenger Ben Jealous in the latest Real Clear Politics average, and Mr. Baker is in an even stronger position, leading Mr. Gonzalez by 35 points.
Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell said Republican voters will give some leeway to the governors on key party issues such as gun control and abortion if that’s what it takes to win in tough areas.
“There’s no point in being able to push the map and go to places where we don’t normally go just because someone isn’t a pure polemic and then cut off our nose to spite ourselves,” Mr. O’Connell said.
Left without room to campaign in the center, the governors’ Democratic opponents have countered by advancing sweeping left-wing agendas such as universal government-sponsored health care, hiking the minimum wage and offering debt-free college.
The Jealous campaign said it thinks that tactic is working in Maryland. He pointed to an uptick in absentee ballot requests as evidence that the blue state is energized over a liberal champion.
Voters “want Maryland to get back to delivering on big achievements, whether that’s leading the nation in public education or making sure we all have access to affordable and high-quality health care,” Mr. Jealous said.
Still, polling suggests that voters are content with their moderate governors — even as both states are poised to re-elect avowedly liberal U.S. senators. That means many voters in Massachusetts will cast a ballot for Mr. Baker and for left-wing champion Ms. Warren.
Those crossover voters could be people who like the direction their states are going but oppose Mr. Trump and want that opposition represented in Washington, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“[Mr. Hogan] has nothing to do with what’s happening in Washington,” he said. “It points to voters as being a bit more sophisticated than sometimes people think they are, and I think that’s something that we sometimes lose sight of.”
Both men have also been willing to break publicly with Mr. Trump when necessary, particularly on immigration. Both withdrew state National Guard troops from the southern border this year over the administration’s zero-tolerance border enforcement policy.
Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland (left) and Charlie Barker of Massachusetts, have steered clear of hot-button issues in Washington.