Politics

Republican Power in Very Blue New England

It’s not as simple as Red and Blue American in describing the country’s political landscape. True, the Electoral College map will be relatively predictable for several election cycles to come. But look at politics on the state level and it seems clear that voters have a Republican preference even in one of the most liberal regions that gave us John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean.   

Take Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell for instance. Though Rell differs from the national GOP on some key cultural issues – she signed a bill recognizing civil unions for gay couples; pushed state funding for stem cell research bill; and begrudgingly agreed to an estate tax hike – there is one thing she doesn’t want to be called.

“I am not a liberal,” Rell said.  “I am a fiscal conservative and more liberal on social issues.”

Rell, a strong Republican in a Democratic state, is an oddity that isn’t so odd anymore. Four of six New England states, the bluest of blue states, have a Republican governor. Similar to other heavy Democratic states such as New York and California, the New England Democrats have gerrymandered over the years to have safe control over the state legislatures, political analysts agree. But almost without fail, voters in statewide elections support Republicans in the executive branch.

Facing a 2-1 Democratic majority in the legislature, Rell still held on to some Republican principles. She restrained a state known for runaway spending, blocked additional regulations on businesses, vetoed state mandates on local communities and rejected an income tax hike. She did what even northeasterners want Republicans to do; watch their tax dollars and don’t let the government grow too large. All the while, she has maintained an 80 percent approval rating, which is unheard of for almost any politician.

A Survey USA poll shows Republican Govs. Jim Douglas, of Vermont, and Don Carcieri, of Rhode Island, with numbers in the higher 50s. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is considered a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. These three men won elections promising fiscal discipline in states with solid Democratic majorities, tapping into voter distrust of one-party rule.

“Republican governors are their safety net so that the Dems don’t give away the store,” said former political consultant Dick Morris, who has worked for both parties and helped steer the national Democratic Party to the center in the 1990s, most famously for helping President Bill Clinton’s triangulation, or adoption of Republican issues. 

There is an obvious cultural divide between the coastal states and the heartland that will keep a red and blue divide in national elections. But even culturally liberal voters don’t want their tax dollars mismanaged.

“The party discipline enforced in the (U.S.) House and Senate limits the Republican capacity to win House or Senate seats from the region,” Morris said.  “But it will hold onto governorships as long as liberal big spenders control the legislatures.”

Massachusetts, long derided as Taxachusetts, has had a Republican governor since 1990. Connecticut voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor since 1986. (Independent Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, elected in 1990, was a former Republican senator.)

Morris doesn’t see how the GOP can be competitive for New England state electoral votes in future presidential races.  

“The domination of the GOP by the religious right nationally means that these New England states will remain Democratic in national elections, so there is not much potential for inroads,” Morris said.

Romney, of Massachusetts, could test that notion in 2008. Though Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Bill Frist of Tennessee are often mentioned as GOP heavies, not since John F. Kennedy has anyone been elected directly from the Senate to the White House. Voters prefer governors and Romney is one of a handful of governors mentioned for the 2008 primary among a sea of senators.

“If Gov. Romney wins re-election, and the Republican nomination in 2008, perhaps we will see a test of Republican presidential viability in New England,” said Alexander McLure, political analyst for PoliPundit.com, a Pennsylvania-based Website that tracks political trends and races across the country.

Of the true blue states that favor the GOP in the executive branch, Connecticut is the most striking considering the humiliation the party endured last year when the now imprisoned three-term Gov. John G. Rowland resigned over corruption. That’s when Lt. Gov. Rell got a promotion. Rell, 59, has kept her nice lady image and still tackled what she called the state’s “culture of corruption,” being seen as a warm and caring mom to a state that badly needs to clean its room. 

Rell has only said she is leaning toward running next year, but most experts believe she would win. Three second-tier Democrats already in the race trail Rell by at least 15 points, and some expect the risk-averse state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — who polls show would be Rell’s strongest Democratic challenger in 2006 – to again skip the governor’s race as he did in three previous election cycles.


Sign Up