For over a year, the most popular Governors in America have been Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Both are widely considered to be the most moderate Republicans in the country. They are environmentally conscious, pro choice, and for same sex marriage. They don’t favor tearing apart the ACA, and as governors, they really don’t need to weigh in on foreign policy developments. Democrats have richly rewarded these two Republican governors. Baker has a 73% approval rating while Hogan has a 70% approval rating. Their approval is evenly divided. Roughly the same percentage of Democrats, Independents and Republicans approve of their job performance.
Politicians like Hogan and Baker aren’t new. For decades, Republicans have had a playbook that has worked successfully for securing power in states that are ideologically opposed to a lot of their agenda. In the 1990’s William Weld got elected governor in Massachusetts. And Rudy Giuliani got elected Mayor of New York City. In the 2000’s both Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected Governor in blue states. Before Donald Trump shook up the way Republicans chose nominees, Chris Christie’s entire 2016 campaign rationale was based on being one of these figures.
It’s easy to think that Republicans are good at something specific-getting elected to Governor positions in blue states, but Republicans have also had success at winning Senate seats despite an overwhelmingly blue electorate. New England Republican Senators like Lowell Weicker and Jacob Javitz were easily re-elected throughout the 80’s in Connecticut and New York because of massive Democratic support. Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee and Vermont’s Jim Jeffords both did well as liberal Republicans as recently as the Bush administration. In 1994, Maine’s Olympia Snowe was elected on this playbook. She stayed in this Senate seat until retirement in 2012. In 1998, her campaign was used a s a blueprint for Maine’s other Senator-Susan Collins who remains in her seat to this day, showing that there is even a modern example of this type of Senator.
There is no equivalent on the Democratic side of the aisle. Moderate Democrats from red states typically have a much harder time getting elected and staying elected. Two recent successes prove this point. In Louisiana, Democrat John Bel Edwards won re-election by 2.5% after governing as a moderate and economic populist. In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated the Republican incumbent by only 0.4% despite Bevin’s approval rating being around 30% with a majority of voters disapproving. Similarly, Democratic Senators from red states typically only get elected for a single term before being overwhelmingly rejected-regardless of how moderate their voting records are. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were voted out by large margins after serving just one term. Similar cases played out in Missouri 2018, North Carolina 2014, and Arkansas 2014.
In all of these cases, the Republican candidate succeeded because they portrayed themselves successfully as only nominally Republican. When Democrats do the same thing, it rarely works. Democratic voters simply find something more inherently appealing about centrism, even if it conflicts with their values. They are far more likely to look the other way on specific issues if the politician has successfully portrayed themselves as a centrist.
Maryland’s Larry Hogan is a good example of this. Maryland is in a 4-way tie for 3rd most liberal state according to the Cook Political Voting Index. Off a Democrat were elected, they would likely be from the left wing of the party. Any centrist inclinations would actually put them at risk of even winning a primary, but Democratic voters are seemingly obsessed with rewarding Republicans who cast themselves off as centrist. Larry Hogan supports fracking pipelines. He cut education and library spending, supports BDS measures that stifle free speech and vetoed new standards for energy efficiency. His staffers altered news headlines online to make him seem more favorably and he refused to allow refugees in his state after Trump’s 2015 call for a Muslim ban. As governor he adopted “tough on crime” policies and opposed the transgender rights law signed by his predecessor. Hogan vetoed a bill that would have made small parts of marijuana legal, opposes voting rights for felons and believes in lower taxes and deregulation for “job creators”. He supports charter schools and describes himself as a fiscal conservative. The other blue-state Republicans (Charlie Baker and Phil Scott) have similar areas where they are at odds with their electorate. In all of their cases, Democrats approve of their job performance as much as Republicans. In fact, 4 of the top 5 governors with the highest approval are Republicans governing in blue states..
Since 1980, Democrats have played to the middle. Republicans catered to their increasingly extreme base. As a result, Republicans radically rewrote the political playbook in the 1980s, took back the House for the first time in 42 years in the 1990’s, adopted even more radical right wing policies in the 2000’s, and won more government offices than any time in 90 years in the 2010's-including a lock on the Supreme Court for decades.
The worship of moderation for moderation’s sake is damaging the progressive political project. Republican voters rightly understand that the strength of a political party is key to enacting their agenda. Republicans are so hell bent on making sure Democrats don’t take power they nearly elected a pedophile to the Senate in 2017. This is because they know that politics has changed since the last century, and cross party appeals don’t accomplish much. The quicker Democrats realize this, the better.