Why GOP could win four gubernatorial races in 'liberal' New England

Four of the six states in New England have very tight gubernatorial races, with Republicans leading narrowly in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine and trailing only slightly in Rhode Island.

Steven Senne/AP
Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates Democrat Martha Coakley (l.) and Republican Charlie Baker, are seated next to one another moments before a televised debate, Oct. 28, in Needham, Mass.

Some of the states where Republicans have the best hope of capturing new governorships this election are in New England, a region long known for its liberal politics.

Four of the six states in the region have very tight gubernatorial races, with Republicans leading narrowly in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine and trailing only slightly in Rhode Island.

This is a region where you have to go back four presidential election cycles – to the year 2000 – to find a single state that supported a Republican candidate for president.

It’s not that the momentum of a candidate like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts is outright shocking. Bay State voters have a track record of openness to conservative governors as a counterweight to a more liberal legislature. It wasn’t that long ago that a certain Mitt Romney was governor there.

But New England’s political terrain is tough for Republicans. Currently, only 1 in 6 governors and 2 in 12 US senators from the region can claim an elephant as their party mascot. And not a single US House member representing the region is from the GOP (although that, too, could change this Election Day).

What’s tilting things toward having competitive gubernatorial races this year?

It’s a mix of factors. President Obama’s low approval ratings are a stage-setter that puts Republicans on better footing than usual nationwide.

Then, Republicans have fielded candidates who impress voters as centrist and likable. In some cases, being to the left of the national Republican Party on social issues (Mr. Baker supports gay marriage) helps the candidates’ appeal with left-leaning suburban voters.

Finally, difficult economic and fiscal conditions have opened the door to “time for a change” campaign themes.

In Massachusetts, Baker is a former health insurance executive with a 58 percent “favorable” rating from state residents. His Democratic opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley, notched a 41 percent favorable score. In 2010, she lost a US Senate race to another moderate Republican, Scott Brown, who won the seat vacated by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In Connecticut, GOP challenger Tom Foley also ranks better on favorability than Democratic incumbent Dannel Malloy. His campaign has been hammering Governor Malloy for tax hikes and weak job creation.

Rhode Island, even more than Connecticut, is struggling with above-average unemployment. Republican candidate Allan Fung, as mayor of Cranston, has wrestled with the challenges of public-pension underfunding – a wider challenge for the state. Gina Raimondo, the Democratic candidate, is a former venture capitalist who is currently Rhode Island’s treasurer.

Maine, where voters exhibit a strong independent streak, is home to a three-way gubernatorial race. And here it’s the Republican who’s an embattled incumbent. But Gov. Paul LePage is narrowly out front, according to averages of recent polls tracked by the website RealClearPolitics.

Like Massachusetts, Maine has an unemployment rate about on par with the national average of 5.9 percent, but it also has many residents who are still struggling.

As voters weigh whether US Rep. Michael Michaud (D) is too liberal or Governor LePage too conservative, independent Eliot Cutler is also snagging double-digit support in polls. (In 2012, Down East voters elected independent former Gov. Angus King to the US Senate.)

The backdrop for all these close races in New England is a US gubernatorial map where Republicans hold power in 29 of the 50 states. If they make gains in 2014, New England, oddly enough, is one of the likeliest places for it to happen.

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