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What Well-Liked Governors Have in Common

Many of the governors with the highest approval ratings were elected on the other party’s turf.

After a year in office, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's approval rating has hit 70 percent.
Politics is a popularity contest. One way to be really well liked, it turns out, is to succeed on the other party’s turf.

Consider Larry Hogan. He’s only the second Republican elected governor of Maryland over the past half-century. Unlike his sole GOP predecessor, Robert Ehrlich, Hogan doesn’t see himself as being at the vanguard of a rising Maryland Republican Party. Instead, he’s successfully argued for the benefits of two-party competition, aided in his pitch by an improving economy and some tax and fee cuts. When Democratic legislators disagree with him -- as with a series of veto overrides earlier this year -- Hogan has had some harsh words on social media, but the tone he takes for broader public consumption has been fairly conciliatory.

The result is that after a year in office, Hogan’s approval rating has hit 70 percent. “He’s been very smart and very strategic in the policies he’s chosen,” says Melissa Deckman, who chairs the political science department at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “He’s a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, so he has not tried to promote any radical change in government.”

Hogan has benefited from goodwill brought about by his struggle with cancer. But a similar political story can be told in Massachusetts, another blue state with a popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who has consistently achieved the highest approval ratings in the country since winning election in 2014.

As with Hogan, Baker doesn’t have to worry about appeasing his party’s extreme flanks. Having been shut out of power, Republicans have mostly tabled hot-button issues such as abortion.

Democratic politicians might represent Massachusetts values better, but a series of state House speakers going to jail has left voters open to the idea of a Republican with technocratic appeal, says Shannon Jenkins, the political science chair at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “Baker hasn’t tried to put forward any sort of social agenda,” she says. “He knows where his support is, and where its limits are.”

There aren’t a lot of Democratic governors leading solidly Republican states just now, although the high approval ratings earned by Steve Bullock in Montana could help him overcome a re-election challenge this fall. Still, a number of recent red state Democrats, such as former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, managed just like Baker and Hogan to occupy wide swaths of ground in the political center. “Sebelius could rally a moderate Republican-Democratic alliance that would back her, as long as she wasn’t asking for too much,” says Burdett Loomis, Sebelius’ gubernatorial communications director.

Governors have grown more partisan, but charting a middle course can be a winning strategy even in the most politically lopsided states. “Even though there’s been more party polarization at the state level,” Washington College’s Deckman says, “there are pragmatic things that have to be accomplished.” 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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