The question is not whether Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker will win reelection. It’s whether he can beat Bill Weld’s 1994 showing, when he took 71 percent of the vote. There’s been no sea change in Massachusetts politics—the state remains a Democratic bastion. But Baker, an overwhelmingly popular Republican, is in the tradition of Weld and a slew of other GOP governors in New England who have thrived even as their party edges further and further right on the national level.
Baker and Vermont’s Phil Scott are oddities in the Republican Party of Donald Trump. Both are moderate, even liberal. Both have taken positions against Republican orthodoxy, with Scott pushing gun control legislation in Vermont and Baker backing environmental and social-welfare legislation that would be out of place in most GOP platforms. Both governors are clearly cruising to reelection—what’s less clear is whether the pair can translate their personal popularity into newfound electoral success for their party in a region that was once the Republicans’ most redoubtable stronghold.
For a century, the Republican Party was the natural governing force in New England. Its brand of moderate liberalism, anchored in the Protestant middle classes and morally founded upon its origins in the abolition movement, received broad popular support. Though Republican rule was challenged from time to time, particularly in more urban southern New England, the party’s ascendancy was never truly in doubt until its national arm began drifting rightward under Richard Nixon. But when the GOP became a predominantly southern and western party, its grip on its traditional northeastern base eroded rapidly. “For a state like Vermont, when the Republican Party starts talking with a more southern accent, it’s a little bit of a problem,” says Nicol C. Rae, the dean of Montana State University and author of The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans.