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Commentary: GOP governors may be the bright spot for party in November

Race for Michigan governor is wide open

Massachusetts is America's most deep-blue state

Donald Trump got just 33 percent of the vote, and the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the Bay State was Ronald Reagan in 1984. The entire congressional delegation is Democratic, the GOP hold just 20 percent of the state legislature, and the most popular politician in the state is…Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. 

If the GOP is doomed in the upcoming midterms, as many analysts believe, nobody's gotten the word to America's governor's mansions. In the newest survey by Morning Consult, all of the top 10 most popular governors in America are Republicans. More significantly, four of the 10 are, like Gov. Baker, Republican governors of blue or purple states that Hillary Clinton won: Larry Hogan of Maryland, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

They're not just popular in these contested states, they all enjoy an approval vs disapproval ratio of +30 percent or more.

"The popularity of Republican governors in solidly blue Northeastern states has been a thematic mainstay of Morning Consult's quarterly Governor Approval Rankings since their launch in 2016," the pollsters say in their report. And given that President Trump's approval in these states has plunged from "not great" to "lousy," that's a somewhat surprising theme.

The question that looms in the upcoming midterm elections for all these governors—and every other Republican for that matter—is "what about Trump?" In Georgia, we just saw an establishment candidate and sitting lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, blow a big lead in part because of Trump's support for his opponent (and likely future governor of Georgia) Brian Kemp.  The same proved true in an Alabama runoff in which a Republican congresswoman, Martha Roby, who had been critical of Trump, struggled to win her GOP primary until she received Trump's endorsement and began to sing his praises.

This is hardly surprising, given that Trump enjoys the support of almost 90 percent of Republican voters—the highest in-party support for any modern president other than George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.

And yet, these four GOP governors of less-than-Trump-friendly states have managed to thread the needle.  Govs. Baker, Sununu and Hogan have been openly hostile to Trump since taking office, and Nevada's Sandoval was a reluctant Trump backer at best.  How have they been able to distance themselves from Trump without paying a price?

Call it the "Massachusetts Model." The home state of Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren has elected a whopping total of one Democratic governor—Deval Patrick—since Mike Dukakis left office in 1990.  At the same time, the state was sending liberal firebrands like Barney Frank to Washington, they were sending Republican governors like Mitt Romney to Beacon Hill.

The same is true of New Hampshire: both members of Congress and both U.S. senators—all Democrats (and all women, too, by the way). 

In Maryland, only one of eight members of Congress and two senators is a Republican. 

In other words, anti-Trump states are willing to accept Republican governors overseeing local issues, but are reluctant to send Trump any help in Congress for his national agenda. And Republican voters in blue states appear willing to tolerate anti-Trump sentiment that would be unacceptable in the redder environs of American politics.

There is one cautionary tale for Republicans in the new poll and it comes from Vermont. Three months ago, Republican Phil Scott was one of those "Red Governor/Blue State" success stories. He was ranked 4th most popular just three months ago. Today, he's barely out of the bottom ten.

"[Scott's] approval among Vermonters fell 18 points to 47 percent while his disapproval doubled to 42 percent," Morning Consult found. "That net 38 point drop is the biggest quarterly shift since Morning Consult began polling the subject."

What happened?  

"We call him 'Flip-Flop Phil,'" says Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont. "Before the election he sought us [gun owners] out, said he wanted to represent us. And then he violated that trust."

Gov. Scott signed a flurry of gun-control laws in April that ran counter to his campaign rhetoric. He also had a highly publicized battle over the Vermont budget that featured two vetoes, but in which is ultimately backed down. 

These two high-profile issues and a series of smaller missteps have hurt his standing.  Based on local polling in Vermont, Scott appears to have a good shot at winning re-election, but largely because his opponents are relatively unknown.  Meanwhile, this same poll shows that Scott's highest unfavorables are with his own party. Democrats have a more favorable view of Gov. Scott than Republicans do

The theory of the Congressional midterms is that, outside solidly red districts, the candidates' performance won't make much difference. If the Blue Wave comes, it will wash away every Republican member of Congress in its path, good or bad.

That theory does not seem to be holding for governors, however. They may provide a much-needed bright spot for the GOP in November.

Michael Graham
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CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.

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