GOP Governors Thrive in Northeast, Despite Regional Trendlines

Posted October 7, 2005 at 6:14pm

They’re red-state politicians swimming in a sea of blue, yet they’ve assembled a remarkable winning streak since the mid-1990s.

How have the Republican governors of the Northeast done it? And can their experience yield any lessons for forlorn Republicans in an increasingly Democratic region? [IMGCAP(1)]

Five of the Northeast’s seven states have Republican governors: Donald Carcieri in Rhode Island, Jim Douglas in Vermont, George Pataki in New York, Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Just two Democrats preside over Northeastern states, John Baldacci in Maine and John Lynch in New Hampshire — and Lynch ousted Republican Craig Benson to win his seat last fall.

Moreover, the three considered most likely to seek another term in 2006, Carcieri, Douglas and Rell, have high-to-stratospheric approval ratings that have scared off top-tier Democratic challengers.

To be sure, Democrats may be poised for a partial comeback. The party has high hopes of reclaiming the governorship in New York, where state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer looks formidable in an open-seat race, and in Massachusetts, where Romney is likely to step down to run for president.

But even in those two quintessentially blue states, the most recent Democrats to serve as governor — Mario Cuomo, who lost to Pataki in 1994, and Michael Dukakis, who left office in 1991 — belong to a political generation that today seems positively antique.

Once Republican governors are elected in the Northeast, “unless they’re incompetent or personally greedy, they can have a decent run,” said former Connecticut state legislator Kevin Rennie (R).

One obvious explanation, but one that’s fiercely debated, is that voters in the Northeast elect Republicans to keep their heavily Democratic legislatures in check.

On the one hand, many political professionals say voters do not act so strategically. On the other, there’s certainly a statistical basis for the assertion.

In the five Northeastern states with Republican governors, only one of the 10 legislative chambers (New York’s state Senate) is controlled by the Republicans, and in the other nine, the proportion of Democratic legislators ranges from 58 percent to 87 percent. (New Hampshire’s legislative chambers are strongly Republican, while Maine’s are only narrowly Democratic.)

Republican gubernatorial candidates also benefit from a compelling profile: They’re able to style themselves as reformers who are ready to solve problems, rather than as leaders of a majority party that’s at least partly interested in preserving its own perks. Once a Republican has won office, he can further secure his position by using the Legislature as a foil.

Another, more prosaic reason for the regional GOP tide is sheer luck.

In the 1994 Republican landslide, New York’s Pataki ousted Cuomo, and in Connecticut, ex-Rep. John Rowland (R) emerged from a four-way general election with a 36 percent plurality. As incumbents, both Pataki and Rowland used their stature and record in office to win two more elections each. (Rowland later pled guilty to corruption-related charges and was sentenced to prison; Rell, his lieutenant governor, succeeded him.)

In Rhode Island, Carcieri had the good fortune of running against Myrth York in 2002; she had been the losing Democratic nominee not once but twice before. And in Vermont, Douglas eked out a 45 percent to 42 percent victory in a three-way race against two liberals — a contest that would have been decided by the state Legislature (since no candidate reached 50 percent) had Democratic nominee Doug Racine not conceded the race.

Then there’s Massachusetts, where the Democrats have been hampered for years by a quirk in the state’s political dynamics: The liberal and moderate wings of the dominant Democratic Party have failed to fully unite behind a candidate in almost every gubernatorial election for more than three decades.

“Even though Massachusetts appears to be dominated by Democrats, we are a one-party, two-ideology state,” said Michael Goldman, a former Democratic political consultant and radio host. “Here, conservatives who would be Republicans anywhere else run as Democrats.”

But however they get into office, Republicans have taken full advantage of their incumbency.

Of the five northeastern Republican governors who left office since the elections of 1994, one resigned in disgrace (Rowland), two were appointed to other offices (William Weld and Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts) and two decided not to run again (Steve Merrill of New Hampshire and Jane Swift of Massachusetts). Only one, Benson, was beaten by a Democrat.

“We’ve had good, solid governors in the Northeast who have done a really good job running their states,” said Mike Pieper, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “They’re not overly partisan, and they show up and do the job they were elected to do.”

Another burden for Democrats: Of the seven states in the region, all but Maine and Connecticut hold their primaries in September. “We’ve been stymied by that,” acknowledged one Democrat. “We often end up in a September primary with a candidate who’s broke and running against the incumbent GOP governor who has a boatload of money.”

If you’re a Republican, there are several secrets to winning — and keeping — a northeastern governorship, politicos say.

Don’t Be a Capitol Insider. Pataki was an obscure state Senator and former small-city mayor. Weld and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Almond were federal prosecutors. Benson and Carcieri were business executives. Romney was fresh from running the Winter Olympics for Salt Lake City.

Having such jobs bolstered the argument that they were not responsible for any perceived mess in the state Capitol. More importantly, it freed them from the party-line votes and GOP boosterism that gives many Democratic voters pause.

“When you come up through the ranks, it’s hard for someone not to toe the party line, especially in the last 10 years, when things are so much more partisan,” said Thomas Oppel, a Democratic consultant based in New Hampshire. “If you’re a businessman, you don’t have a voting record, and it’s that much harder to attack you.”

Push Some High-Profile Democratic Issues. In Vermont, Douglas bounced back from his bare plurality by championing such traditionally Democratic issues as prescription drug coverage and environmental protection. It helped him win an easy 59 percent to 38 percent re-election victory in 2004.

In some cases, the partisan makeovers were breathtaking. Roy Occhiogrosso, a veteran Democratic consultant based in Hartford, still marvels at how Rowland managed to transform himself from an anti-abortion Congressional Republican into an abortion-rights moderate as governor. Similarly, Goldman expresses amazement about Romney’s success in selling himself as a Massachusetts moderate — especially in light of his recent turn to the right as he mulls a presidential bid.

Focus on Fundraising. With GOP gubernatorial candidates in the Northeast generally veering left on social issues, they tend to veer right on fiscal policy and business regulation — a surefire way to get donations from big business. Add to this powers of incumbency and you have the ingredients for a money-raising machine.

Be Everywhere. In small states such as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island, voters expect to have a sense of their governor personally. That leaves an opening for a charismatic, or at least an energetic, Republican politician to break through.

For instance, Vermont’s Douglas has played off the semi-absentee final year of Democrat Howard Dean’s governorship by running himself ragged cutting ribbons around the state — a habit that’s earned him the nickname Douglas Scissorhands.

So, does all of this have any relevance for Republicans who want to break the increasing Democratic stranglehold on Congressional seats in the Northeast? The consensus among politicos is: Probably not.

Races for Congress are inevitably nationalized far more than governors’ races are, leaving House and Senate candidates more vulnerable to attacks that they are aiding the Republican domination of Washington, D.C.

But whether you’re running for governor or Congress in the Northeast, this last bit of wisdom is probably worth heeding: Leave “Republican” off your lawn signs.