According to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump’s ascendency is destined to destroy the Republican Party and decimate its brand. Trump is so unpopular, many pundits insist, that anyone associated with the GOP will pay a political price.
Apparently, that news has not reached New England.
According to the latest polling from Morning Consult, three of the four most popular governors in America are Republicans in the deep-blue states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont The fourth is from the Democratic stronghold of Maryland.
In fact, all ten of the nation’s most popular governors are Republicans.
Why aren’t blue-state Republicans paying a price for being part of the ‘Party of Trump,’ particularly in a region where the president’s polls are underwater by an average of -22 percent?
“Because there is only one Donald Trump,” says Wayne Lesperance, Professor of Political Science at New England College. “Nobody can copy him, and voters don’t expect other Republicans to be him, either.”
While Republican voters overwhelmingly embrace President Trump — his approval among the GOP is consistently in mid-to-high 80s– voters overall appear to be granting other Republican officeholders a measure of political distance.
In New Hampshire, for example, the state Democratic Party is running an aggressive online ad campaign attempting to link Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to Trump, highlighting a clip of the governor saying “I’m a Trump guy through and through.” It’s a reasonable strategy in a state where 60 percent of voters say they disapprove of the president. And yet Sununu remains the third most popular governor in the country with an approval rating of 65 percent.
“Trump is Trump, I agree with that,” Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos tells InsideSources. “Voters already see local politicians differently from the national party. Trump has expanded that gap because he attacks Republicans as well as Democrats. Voters don’t see Trump as ‘the leader of the GOP,’ but as the cowboy on Twitter who’s shooting at everyone.”
But is this trend among governors separate from the health of the GOP overall? It’s true that liberal Republicans like Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Phil Scott of Vermont don’t reflect the national party as a whole. And it’s also true that, while Republicans control half of the governor’s mansions in New England, there are more GOP governors in the region (three) than members of Congress (one). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the only Republican left in the 33-member New England congressional delegation.
However, most of that damage was done before Donald Trump took office. The GOP has struggled to elect members of Congress from the northeast since the Clinton administration. In fact, the last time Massachusetts elected a Republican member of Congress in a general election was 1994. (Sen. Scott Brown won a special election in 2010 and was promptly defeated by Elizabeth Warren two years later.)
A better measure of the party’s standing under President Trump is the congressional “generic ballot” question. And despite predictions of Trump-inspired disaster, the GOP’s generic ballot numbers are not at all-time lows. Far from it.
According to the RealClearPolitics average, Democrats have a +8 advantage (46-38 percent). Not great news for the GOP, but far better than the +13 Democrats had at the end of 2017, or in 2006.
In October 2013, the Washington Post reported that “by an 11-point margin, Americans say they will vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress rather than for a Republican.” A year later, Republicans held the House and took control of the U.S. Senate.
Even before Trump, the Republican Party tended to underperform in generic-ballot polling. Obviously, the GOP would prefer to lead the generic ballot, and they wish President Trump were more popular. And the 40-seat loss Republicans took in the House last year was disappointing. But it was smaller than the 63-seat “shellacking” President Obama and the Democrats got in 2010. Did Obama destroy the Democratic Party?
The good news for Republicans is that Trump’s approval rating hit an all-time high in the NPR/NewsHour/Marist poll this week. The bad news is that, in the same poll, 53 percent of Americans say they will definitely vote against his re-election.
But the best news of all for Republicans is that voters seem to understand that Trump isn’t a representative of their party but rather a political force of nature all his own.
“Nobody is going to vote against a Republican like Chris Sununu for not attacking Trump,” says Lesperance, “or vote for him because he did.”
“The modern Republican party is really two parties in one: Republican classic and the Trump party,” says DC-based Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Those classic Republicans have been very pragmatic about how they manage the Trump effect, and they tend to benefit from the Trump energy without being overwhelmed by the Trump shame with his controversial and offensive comments and actions.”
Paleologos agrees. “Republicans may be in a no-lose situation in the sense that Trump can energize voters who connect with him but don’t care about–or even like–the Republican Party. These are voters the GOP could never turn out on their own and who didn’t show up in 2018.
“If Trump turns them out in 2020, other Republicans on the ballot will benefit and, so far, without paying a price for Trump’s broader unpopularity,” Paleologos said.