In New England, 2 Blue States May Go Red for Governor

New Hampshire and Vermont, one of Hillary Clinton's strongest states, are the GOP's best chances to increase their gubernatorial numbers this year.

Phil Scott, left, the GOP candidate for Vermont governor, on the campaign trail.
(AP/Wilson Ring)
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Two recent polls show Phil Scott leading his race by 7 percentage points. The reason that's surprising is because Scott's the Republican nominee for governor of Vermont, one of the bluest states in the nation and the home of progressive hero Bernie Sanders. It's a state where Hillary Clinton has a lead of more than 25 points over Donald Trump in recent polling.

Nonetheless, Scott's personal popularity and moderate image give him a strong chance to succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. 

"People like him," said Bert Johnson, a political scientist at Middlebury College. "Based on the WCAX poll, he seems to be more trusted to deal with issues involving the economy, which is the top issue among the voters."

Next door in New Hampshire, the governor's race appears to be breaking more in the Democrats' favor, but no one is ruling out the GOP candidate. In fact, heading into the final days of the campaign, the two New England states represent the GOP's best chances to make gains this year at the gubernatorial level. 

As Democrats seek to lessen the large majority of governors that Republicans make up, Democratic candidates remain ahead or tied in several red states that appear certain to vote for Trump. That includes Indiana, Missouri, Montana and West Virginia.

In Vermont, one of Clinton's strongest states, voters there have a history of splitting their tickets. The governorship has reliably changed hands between the parties every time the job has come open since 1968.

"I think the governor's race has been completely divorced from the presidential race in our state," said pollster Richard Clark. "Phil Scott rejected Trumpism early on."

Scott, the sitting lieutenant governor, is just the sort of Republican who Vermont voters have shown they'll support -- conservative on fiscal issues but moderate on social issues. He's kept his message focused on the economy, promising to keep a lid on taxes and regulation.

His Democratic opponent, former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, has sought to inject social issues into the race. A recent ad run by Planned Parenthood's political wing in the state describes Scott as a "typical Republican" when it comes to abortion rights.

Conversely, Scott has criticized Minter for supporting a tax on carbon emissions. She said she'll only back such a plan if it's part of a regional effort to combat climate change, but Scott has characterized it as an example of the Democrats' tax-first mentality.

His attacks may be gaining traction: Minter's favorability ratings have been trending down in recent weeks.

"Since the summer, he's done what one might expect a candidate who is well-known in the state to do, which is diminish her popularity," said Johnson. "That's something where she's vulnerable: lack of statewide campaign experience. People didn't have a well-formed view of her."

Minter also faces the challenge of trying to succeed Shumlin, whose approval ratings are fairly weak and whose administration has suffered some embarrassing setbacks on issues such as health care and wind energy. She talks a lot about leading the state's recovery effort following Hurricane Irene but shies away from mentioning that she was part of Shumlin's administration.

Nevertheless, Minter enjoys the support of most elected officials in the state since so many are Democrats. She's backed by Sanders, the independent senator who's the most popular politician in the state. And Democrats are better organized and will run a bigger turnout effort than the GOP.

"Minter has the advantage in organizational resources," said retired political scientist Eric Davis. "She has the disadvantage of trying to succeed an unpopular governor."

Other blue states have elected moderate Republican governors in recent years, including Massachusetts and Maryland. But that was in 2014, Davis noted, a midterm election when turnout is lower. In a presidential year, Scott will have to convince a lot of Democrats to cross over and support him -- as many as 25 percent of Clinton supporters, by Davis' calculations.

"At this point, the people who will decide the governor's race are women who will be voting for Hillary Clinton but haven't decided yet for governor."

In New Hampshire, the governor's race is starving for attention. With Clinton holding a much slimmer polling lead there, the presidential contest remains contentious. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate contest, in which Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is trying to unseat Republican Kelly Ayotte, will see some $100 million in spending when all is said and done.

By contrast, the two gubernatorial candidates, Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern, remain comparatively little-known to voters.

Sununu ended up having a tougher time in his primary than Van Ostern. That race was only decided in mid-September, giving Van Ostern the chance to turn his focus toward the general election a bit earlier.

"People have been surprised at the disparity of resources available to the two campaigns," said Tom Rath, a former GOP state attorney general. "Van Ostern has had more help from the DGA [Democratic Governors Association] and been on TV more."

Rath said he believes "core Republicans" who have been reluctant to support Trump will come home in the end. Sununu has not distanced himself from Trump, unlike Scott and some other down-ballot Republicans. Sununu does have greater name recognition, but it's borrowed -- his father was governor and his brother served as a senator.

New Hampshire may be more of a swing state than Vermont at the presidential level, but it's had a greater tendency recently to elect Democrats as governor. Since 1996, New Hampshire has voted Republican for governor only once, in the midterm election of 2002. (Both Vermont and New Hampshire have two-year terms for governors.)

"It's not been a good state for Republicans to invest in for governor," said pollster Andrew Smith. "Republicans generally don't do well in the presidential years here."

Smith's numbers show that 23 percent of voters remain undecided in the race. Even when asked which way they're leaning, 14 percent say they haven't made up their minds. Only a third of voters said they have definitely made up their minds one way or another.

"If you don't know who you're going to vote for and it's the week before the election, that tells you the candidates have not gotten much traction," said Smith.

The Real Clear Politics average of polls in the race shows Van Ostern leading by a couple of percentage points. With voters' attention drawn more to the presidential and Senate campaigns, the outcome of the governor's race is likely to be decided by the momentum in those other contests.

"In terms of campaign mechanics, Van Ostern has the edge, certainly in terms of fundraising," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "But it's going to be difficult for either of them to get any sort of leverage that's independent of what's happening at the top of the ticket."

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Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.