Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Moderates Always Have A Problem When Another Party Wins
Trump makes blue-state Republicans squirm
Popular GOP governors face fierce blowback from president's first moves in office.
The two most popular governors in America suddenly have a threat to their reelection: President Donald Trump.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, two Republicans riding high in the polls despite governing two of the bluest states, are trying to weather the fierce local blowback to the new president — and in particular, to his executive order limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
There’s no safe haven for them: Democrats are demanding they stand up against a president whom polls show is deeply disliked in their homes states, but their every effort to get distance from the White House risks alienating Trump’s hard-core supporters — voters Baker and Hogan cannot afford to lose in their overwhelmingly Democratic states when they face voters in 2018.
“Charlie Baker’s reelection will be a much closer contest [than 2014] and I know he understands that. There is a question of whether he’d face a primary challenge from a Trump-like opponent but nobody has emerged.” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a consultant and former advisor for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. “Baker is cognizant of that. That’s why he’s so obsessed with occupying the political center. That’s the best place for him to be in Massachusetts even as politics become more polarized.”
Baker’s popularity is high — his favorability rating is 59 percent, according to a recent WBUR poll. But Hogan’s is even higher— a January Gonzales Research poll put his approval rating at a stratospheric 74 percent. A stunning 66 percent of Democrats gave his job performance a thumbs up.
While neither governor publicly supported or voted for Trump — Baker says he left the top of his ballot blank, while Hogan wrote in his father’s name — both are already under siege, less than a month into the new administration. Massachusetts Democrats immediately zeroed in on Baker’s absence from the recent Women’s March, where nearly 200,000 people marched on the Boston Common one day after the Trump inauguration.
“I think Charlie’s going to try to dance through the Trump thing,” said John Walsh, Democratic strategist and adviser to Newton Mayor Setti Warren who is publicly weighing a run for governor in 2018, adding that Baker “is not a good dancer.”
“I suspect there’s not going to be flash points with Trump, I think he’s going to comply,” Walsh said. “And if there is something that ticks people off so bad that he comes out and says something, the 175,000 women that were on the Boston Common for the Women’s March are going to wonder why he didn’t come out and talk to them.”
Both Republicans drew heavy criticism over the weekend after Trump’s executive order on immigration, with opponents seizing the opportunity to tie them to the president and demanding they take a stand on the controversial policy.
“Governors Baker and Hogan have a difficult tightrope to walk over the next 2 years,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold said. “Every tweet by President Trump is another 140-character threat to Hogan and Baker’s re-election chances. Voters in Maryland and Massachusetts want a governor who will hold the Trump administration accountable — and Hogan and Baker have yet to prove they will do so."
Hogan’s message discipline has served him well so far. On route his 2014 upset victory, Hogan regularly brushed aside attacks over his record on gun control and abortion rights, and has continued to do the same with questions about Trump. When a local reporter asked earlier this month if he would ask the new Republican administration to uphold a consent decree reached by the Obama era Justice Dept. and the Baltimore Police, Hogan scoffed.
“You know, I’m just really tired of answering stupid questions about the Trump administration,” he said.
Baker, however, has cautiously tiptoed into the fray, issuing a statement Saturday denouncing the travel ban. Through the weekend, he and aides worked closely with state Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey to craft a brief to overturn the immigration order, but he did not appear alongside her at the Tuesday press conference announcing the formal challenge.
Massachusetts Democrats hammered him for it, accusing him in a statement of “refusing to speak out against bigotry in [the] Trump administration.”
The Massachusetts governor has also gone his own way on the Affordable Care Act. The threat of repeal, which has lit a fire under among Baker’s constituents and lawmakers he needs to work with in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, led Baker to send a nine-page letter to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy calling for flexibility for the states and defending the very idea of universal health care.
A former health care executive himself, Baker used his annual budget to lay out a path forward for the state to continue universal healthcare coverage under a Republican administration and Congress set on repealing the ACA. “You’ll see to the extent that Washington comes to Massachusetts you’ll see with him deal with it like the way he did on the health care,” said Will Keyser of Keyser Public Strategies and a longtime Baker adviser. “It’s a very substantive, very policy-oriented.”
If there are any concerns about bucking the president and his own party, Baker’s aides aren’t saying. “The governor’s focus is on what he can control and he will do his best to have a productive relationship with the administration,” said Jim Conroy, a political adviser to Baker.
Like Baker, Hogan’s deft navigation toward the center is at the heart of his popularity. But he doesn’t have to look back far to recognize how easily the White House can throw him off course. In 2006, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich had an approval rating in the high 50s as late as a week before he lost to Democrat Martin O’Malley by nearly 7 percentage points. Ehrlich was saddled by an unpopular Republican president in George W. Bush, whose approval rating was in the tank because of the Iraq War and his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.
Ehrlich sees parallels to his own experience but argues there are a few key differences: Hogan’s sky-high popularity, the lack of a clear Democratic frontrunner and the inability to predict Trump’s approval rating two years out from now.
“What’s really helpful to Gov. Hogan is his well-deserved reputation for independence,” Ehrlich said, noting Democrats won’t be able to directly link Hogan to Trump the way he was linked to Bush.
Mileah Kromer, who runs Goucher College’s public opinion polling, noted Hogan has easily sidestepped Trump’s unpopularity in Maryland and his more controversial statements, and that the governor has worked to embrace some Democratic policies. For this year’s legislative session, Hogan has decided to push a paid sick leave bill and legislation to create jobs in green energy.
“He’s phenomenal at identifying things everyone likes and putting his name on them,” she said. “It all will hinge on the fact of whether somebody could be guilty of political affiliation.”
Mike Leavitt, a Hogan adviser at Red Maverick Strategies, said it was by design — the governor won’t let Trump or anything else distract him.
“No one wants to get bogged down responding to everything another person says,” he said. “Gov. Hogan is always laser-focused on creating jobs in Maryland.”
Still unclear, however, is how much distance from Trump is too much. Within the Massachusetts GOP, there are lingering bad feelings toward Baker for his refusal to support the party’s nominee during the campaign, and occasional talk about a possible primary challenge.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement among the grassroots of our party in all the actions President Trump has taken over the last week, and many wish Gov. Baker seemed excited too,” said Chanel Prunier, a former Republican national committeewoman and a member of the state party’s restive conservative wing. “Gov. Baker says many nice, affirming things about his Democratic colleagues on Beacon Hill. He frequently finds a way to accentuate the positive with them, and I get the sense Republican activists would like to see the governor take a similar approach to President Trump and say encouraging things about the work of our president.”
“It’s a riff that I think the governor will have to work on over the next two years”’ said GOP state Rep. Geoff Diehl, the first elected official in Massachusetts to support Trump.