In 2016, Vermont voters selected Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by more than 26 percentage points over Republican nominee Donald Trump, while also choosing Republican Gubernatorial nominee Phil Scott by over eight points. Contrariwise, West Virginia voters chose Trump with an overwhelming 68.7% of the vote. This was his biggest win in the country. However, those same Mountain state voters elected Democrat Jim Justice by approximately seven percentage points.
One could brand this phenomenon “split voter syndrome.” Actually, it fits a relatively predictable pattern. Conservative states will often elect Democratic Governors, and liberal states will often elect Republican Governors. Sometimes, opposite party governors have the upperhand and record stratospheric job approval ratings. The formula is often that the candidate runs as a non-ideological moderate, emphasizing where he/she differs from the national party. In states where the opposite party controls the legislature, the Gubernatorial candidate runs as a check, with a modest legislative agenda. Furthermore, the candidate often exploits internecine divisions within the other party.
The epitome of this phenomenon is Massachusetts. The state has had Republican Governors for 16 of the past 26 years. Yet less than 15% of the state’s voters are Republicans. In 1990, Republican Bill Weld won the Commonwealth’s Governorshipby calling himself “a fiscal conservative and social moderate.” He excoriated the outgoing Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Legislature for actuating a sales tax hike, and blamed them for the state’s economic decline. Weld did not run as an activist movement conservative who would make the state a laboratory for rightwing governance. With the State Legislature so heavily Democratic, voters knew he would be halted if he tried. Weld averred: “I believe in keeping the priorities list short.”
Weld was also aided by a schism in the Democratic Party between liberals who had supported former Massachusetts Attorney General Francis Bellotti or Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy in the primary and socially conservative Democrats who selected the eventual nominee, Boston University President John Silber. Silber’s temperamental personality benefited Weld. During an interview with WCVB’S Natalie Jacobson, Silber was asked what his greatest weakness was. He replied harshly:“You find a weakness.”
Many Democrats came to see Weld as less threatening. Weld captured nearly all Republican voters, a majority of Independents, and an impressive 30% of Democrats.
Weld’s fiscal conservative, socially moderate template led him to be re-elected with a record 71% of the vote. His Republican successor, Paul Cellucci, followed by winning with the same electoral blueprint in 1998. In 2002, Republican nominee Mitt Romney maintained: “I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, that my views are progressive and that I’m going to go to work for our senior citizens, for people that have been left behind by urban schools that are not doing the right job. So they’re going to vote for me regardless of the party label.”
Romney would often campaign with three photographs behind him: one of his Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, another photograph of the Democratic Speaker Tom Finneran, and another of the likely Senate President Robert Travelini. Romney tattooed the trio “The Gang Of Three.” He pledged to be a check on the overwhelming Democratic legislature. O’Brien had a hard time arguing why one party should control both legislative chambers and the Governorship. Romney won the election.
Romney governed largely as a moderate during his first two years in office, and remained popular. However, in his last two years in office, Romney moved to the right, as he became Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He spent much time out of the state, and began calling himself a conservative. He would joketo national audiences that “being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” Romney also alienated moderates with his vociferous opposition to Gay Marriage.
With an eye on the White House, Romney did not seek re-election. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey won the Republican nomination to succeed him. While she tried to run as a moderate, campaigning with the still popular Weld, disgruntled voters saw her as an extension of Romney, whose job approval rating languished in the thirties. Consequently, she lost to Democrat Daval Patrick who successfully tethered Healey to Romney.
In 2014, the Massachusetts GOP nominated Businessman Charlie Baker for Governor. Baker is a Weld protégée, who emphasized his moderation and non-ideological pragmatism. Baker was elected and stands today as the nation’s most popular Governor, even as the state voted for Hillary Clinton by over 27 points, winning all 14 counties in the state.
There is a plethora of examples of Republican states that elect Democrats as Governors. They win running as checks on the legislature. Their legislative agenda is usually modest.
Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming are arguably the three most Republican states in the nation. None has voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson’s electoral landslide victory in 1964. Yet all three states have recently had popular Democratic Governors.
Cecil Andrus was elected Governor of Idaho in 1970, and re-elected in 1974 with a resounding 70% of the vote. In 1977, Adrus relinquished the Governorship to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Democratic Lieutenant Governor John V. Evens succeeded him, and was elected twice in his own right. Andrus was elected again to the Governorship and served another two terms. Thus, from 1971-1995, the Republican citadel of Idaho had only Democratic Governors.
Utah had a string of Democrats for twenty years. Democrat Calvin Rampton was the chief magistrate of Utah from 1965-1977. He remains the only Beehive State Governor to serve three terms. Democrat Scott Matheson, who served for two terms, succeeded him.
Along those same lines, in Wyoming, where the Democratic Party has not held a majority in a legislative chamber since 1936, they have had popular Democratic Governors for all but eight years, from 1975 - 2011. The most recent Democrat, Dave Freudenthal, was re-elected with 70% of the vote in 2006, despite the fact that well over 60% of Cowboy State voters are Republicans.
While a moderate opposite party Gubernatorial nominee is often in the political catbird seat, the reverse is true for Congressional candidates. Congressional candidates can style themselves as being independent-minded, yet their opponent will invariably make the case that in voting for an opposite state candidate, they are voting to keep or put that candidate’s party in power.
For example, in 2006, Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island sported a voting record to the left of his Republican colleagues, and mustered high job approval ratings. Yet he lost re-election. Chafee’s Democratic opponent, Sheldon Whitehouse, had few issues to bludgeon Chafee with, so he argued that a vote for Chafee would be a vote to keep Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate. Whitehouse ran against the “Republicans in Washington.” He called for “a Democratic majority in D.C.” Whitehouse won the election and the Democrats took the Senate majority that election.
This paradigm was also exhibited in the 2010 mid-term elections; the Republican Party won three of Arkansas’ four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, the GOP dislodged Democratic U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln. Despite these defeats, Democratic Governor Mike Beebe cruised to re-election, garnering 66% of the vote.
Quite ironically, if a candidate runs for Governor of a state where his/her party suffers from an electoral shellacking in national elections, they might actually be at an electoral advantage. The formula is simple. Run as a non-ideological moderate with a modest legislative agenda. Pledge to be a check on the excesses of the dominant party in the legislature, and if possible, exploit internecine conflicts within the opposing party.