The Secret Formula

Northeastern states, such as New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, are supposed to be hostile territory for Republicans. All three voted for Bill Clinton twice and then for Al Gore. Every U.S. senator from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts is a Democrat. In the House, Democrats from those states outnumber Republicans by better than 2-to-1.

Yet all three states have had Republican governors for at least eight years. And this year's elections appear likely to extend those GOP leases for another four years. Do Republican governors have some kind of secret formula for success?

When people vote for governor, they're not usually attempting to make an ideological statement. Instead, they're trying to solve problems. As businessman Mitt Romney said on March 19, when he announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts, "I intend to make the case to the people of Massachusetts that I can bring better management."

Massachusetts elected Republican William Weld in 1990, re-elected him in 1994, and then in 1998 gave its stamp of approval to Weld's understudy, who had become acting governor when Weld resigned after being nominated as ambassador to Mexico. New York astonished the political world when Republican George E. Pataki unseated Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 and when it re-elected Pataki in 1998. Ditto for Connecticut, which elected Republican John G. Rowland in 1994 and re-elected him four years later.

This year, Pataki and Rowland are running for third terms. They're both running way ahead. Rowland's margin over Democrat Bill Curry, whom he narrowly defeated in 1994, was 31 points in the February Quinnipiac University Connecticut Poll. Pataki's margin over Democrat Andrew Cuomo, son of the governor Pataki narrowly defeated in 1994? Thirty-eight points in the March Zogby New York Poll.

The economies of both states are doing pretty well. Pataki's got a phenomenal 79 percent favorability rating. Rowland has an impressive 65 percent approval rating. September 11 gave incumbents, especially Pataki, a boost. In his September 20 address to Congress, President Bush saluted Pataki, saying, "Tonight, we welcome two leaders who embody the extraordinary spirit of all New Yorkers, Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani." Pretty good company.

Massachusetts is a somewhat different story. The Bay State is facing a budget crisis. And September 11 gave rise to a scandal over lax security at Boston's Logan Airport. Acting Republican Gov. Jane Swift's favorability rating? Just 27 percent in a March Boston Herald poll. "They named a new menu item after Jane Swift's re-election campaign," one of her Democratic rivals joked at the St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston. "It's called 'toast.' "

Swift dropped out of the gubernatorial race in mid-March. Another GOP candidate had come skiing in from Salt Lake City to rescue Massachusetts Republicans, just as he saved the scandal-plagued Winter Olympics. Mitt Romney remarked, referring to Democratic contender Robert Reich, "Professor Reich recently said we face 'Olympic-sized problems.' Well, Bob, that's precisely why I'm running." Romney's favorability rating in Massachusetts? Fifty-seven percent in the Herald poll.

Unlike voters in New York and Connecticut, Massachusetts voters want change. OK, say Republicans, bring in the outsider. "I don't come to you from Beacon Hill. I owe no favors," Romney declares. But Romney is not entirely an outsider. He gave Sen. Edward Kennedy a bit of a scare in 1994, ultimately losing 58-41 percent. Losing to a Kennedy in Massachusetts is not so much a defeat as a destiny.

Like Pataki and Rowland, Romney is currently favored in the 2002 race. Do these candidates have a secret formula for Republican success in the Northeast? Yes. It's called libertarianism. "We are fiscally conservative, but we are aggressively inclusive," Rowland said on Election Night 1998. "I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate," Romney told his party's convention.

Ah, but what about abortion? Pataki and Rowland say their views have "evolved." Both had a strong record of opposing abortion rights as legislators. But both started supporting abortion rights in 1994, when they first ran for governor.

Romney's views on abortion are still evolving. Last year, when he was thinking about running in Utah, Romney said, "I do not wish to be labeled 'pro-choice.' " But now he says, "I respect and will fully protect a woman's right to choose." He adds, "The truth is, there is no candidate in the race from either party who would deny the women of our state abortion rights." Meaning: Abortion is not an issue.

Romney, Pataki, and Rowland have no primary opponents, whereas Democratic candidates in all three states are facing nasty, very competitive contests. The three Republicans have lots of money; Democrats are way behind in fundraising.

In other words, Republicans in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have got their acts together. They also understand an ancient reality of American politics: Political parties must adapt to local conditions. The kind of Republican social conservatism that writes off the Northeast in presidential elections has no place in state politics, as Bret Schundler discovered when he got trounced while running as a "national Republican" candidate for governor of New Jersey last year.