Against the Grain

The GOP Establishment’s Last Stand: Governor Races

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker are cruising to re-election despite running as Republicans in blue states.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan
Kevin Wolf/AP Images for JPMorgan Chase & Co.
June 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

One of the last remaining confines where Trumpism hasn’t taken over the Republican Party is in governor races across the country. While most members of Congress on a ballot have all but surrendered in pledging their abject loyalty to the president, there are a handful of GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates who are running against the Trumpian tide—and thriving as a result.

Just outside of the Washington swamp, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is coasting with an unthinkable 74 percent approval rating in one of the most liberal states in the country, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. By focusing on tax relief, transportation improvements, and economic development, he’s leading all of his potential Democratic challengers by double digits (and is over or near 50 percent in all possible general-election matchups). It’s no coincidence that even one of Maryland’s leading Democratic officials called Hogan “as far removed from Donald Trump as anybody could possibly be.” In the blue confines of Massachusetts, Democrats are hardly even contesting the race against popular Gov. Charlie Baker. His streak of independence, including criticizing President Trump over health care and immigration policy, has made him one of the most popular governors in the country.

In Ohio, establishment-friendly state Attorney General Mike DeWine comfortably toppled a more Trumpian opponent (Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor) in last month’s GOP primary, even as he pivoted to the right to win the nomination. Mild-mannered former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who just left his job as head of the elite Financial Services Roundtable, is one of the top GOP gubernatorial recruits in the country. And in South Carolina, appointed Gov. Henry McMaster is finding that his early presidential endorsement of Trump isn’t doing him much good in a hotly contested Republican primary. Despite a presidential endorsement, McMaster won just 42 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary — and is vulnerable against Iraq war veteran John Warren in a June 26 runoff.

One reason Trump’s populist brand of politics hasn’t reached the governors’ mansions is that voters are more attuned to results when choosing the top boss of their state. In Congress, it’s a lot easier for GOP members in safe districts to bloviate about their ideological purity or fidelity to a president. But governors can’t rely on tribalism if they’re not delivering for their constituents. It’s why former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, draining the state’s coffers with deep tax cuts, left office with rock-bottom approval ratings despite representing a safely Republican state. It’s why Republicans feel they have a fighting chance to win the Connecticut governor’s race, given the state’s slow growth and high taxes under outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Similarly, becoming governor often moderates the impulses of some of the most outspoken hard-liners in Congress. Outgoing Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal was one of the most conservative members when he served in Congress, voting for tough crackdowns on illegal immigration and supporting the elimination of the income tax. But as governor, he’s enjoyed bipartisan support for backing criminal-justice reform, signing legislation to legalize medical marijuana, and even for vetoing a GOP-backed bill that would have offered legal protections to conservative critics of same-sex marriage. He signed a landmark transportation bill that raised some taxes in the state.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, now campaigning for the Senate, is another onetime conservative insurgent who has quietly moderated some of his views in office. An early Trump ally, he broke with the White House over the administration’s plan to allow offshore drilling, criticized the president over his immigration rhetoric, and signed a landmark gun-control package in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.

One of the more refreshing aspects of covering governors’ races is that they offer a respite from the toxic tribalism that has infected our politics. Even as Americans increasingly cast straight-party ballots for president and Congress, they pay closer attention to the actual policy proposals of gubernatorial candidates. When Ed Gillespie pandered to the GOP base by running a governor’s race about MS-13 gangs and sanctuary cities last year, he suffered a stinging rebuke because he wasn’t talking about the bread-and-butter economic issues that concerned most Virginians.

If there’s ever going to be a intraparty pushback against Trump, it will happen at the state level. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has become the president’s most outspoken GOP critic, and still enjoys high job-approval ratings back home. He’s trying to parlay his independent record into a long-shot presidential campaign, perhaps as a third-party candidate. But it’s the lower-key moderate governors like Hogan and Baker who are leading by example, and prospering politically in their states. They’re unlikely to ever run for national office, but are paving a plausible path forward for Republicans after Trump leaves the political scene.

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