Last night’s election results were unambiguously bad news for Republicans up for re-election in 2018. Clearly, the notion than Trump can flout any and all conventional wisdom took a big hit last night.
Turns out that it is still hard for members of an unpopular president’s party to win off-year elections, but what was the lesson of 2017 for Massachusetts’ Republican governor? Was it that his carefully cultivated separation from Trump was and continues to be a very smart approach? Or, was it that he may need to step up his anti-Trump rhetoric to insure that Bay State voters will give him what they have given every Corner Office incumbent candidate in the last 30-plus years, namely re-election?
First, it’s important to note that gubernatorial elections in Massachusetts have always been distinct from U.S. House and Senate races. Bay State voters have proven more than willing to split their tickets between GOP gubernatorial candidates and Democratic congressional candidates, but that doesn’t mean that Charlie Baker can count on his own record of accomplishments and good working relationships with the Democrats on Beacon Hill to carry him across the finish line next year, never mind replicate his old boss’s landslide 1994 re-election. Baker’s ability to separate the gubernatorial campaign/election narrative from that of the congressional midterm elections next year will be more difficult than it should be, thanks to the incredibly unpopular and polarizing Republican occupant of the Oval Office.
Yesterday’s election results showed just how potent anti-Trump backlash could be. How will Governor Baker side step this increasingly ubiquitous freak show? As the incumbent, he won’t be able to make his race a purely candidate-centric affair, which was a key to his razor-thin 2014 victory. Normally, GOP gubernatorial incumbents can distinguish their nuts and bolts management successes from the national partisan noise, an approach made more viable by four years of bipartisan “accomplishments” on Beacon Hill, but normally GOP governors are not saddled with a national party leader as reckless, unpopular, and polarizing as Donald Trump.
For Democrats on yesterday’s ballots anti-Trump backlash translated into a Democratic turnout surge in both gubernatorial and state legislative races. The larger than expected margins of victory for Democratic gubernatorial candidates last night may spell trouble for Charlie Baker because they may show how difficult it will be for the GOP Guv to avoid the partisan national political narrative next year. The potential silver lining in yesterday’s results for Baker, however, is that the GOP gubernatorial losers in Virginia and New Jersey were far more closely aligned with Trump than is he.
Nonetheless, that this anti-Trump Democratic turnout surge happened in an off-year election with no federal seats on the ballot should clearly worry Governor Baker. Next year, with Elizabeth Warren on the ballot, Charlie Baker will need to bend over backwards to coax enough Warren supporters to split their tickets. He will also have to go farther than any Republican Guv before to distance himself from the Republican sacrificial lambs sent to slaughter in the state’s U.S. House and Senate races. It would likely behoove Baker to do his best to find and strongly endorse moderate GOP candidates in these races, including the U.S. Senate race.
As a Republican incumbent, Charlie Baker will have to explicitly and repeatedly separate both himself and his agenda from Donald Trump and the national Republican agenda to an unprecedented degree next year. In the Age of Trump it is clear that the national political narrative is assuming an increasing share of the political oxygen in American politics. It is also clear that Elizabeth Warren will be one of the highest profile anti-Trumpers on the ballot next year. Warren has managed to have her cake and eat it too in the ongoing Democratic civil war, which means that she is very likely to mount one hell of a voter mobilization effort in 2018 on behalf of herself and fellow Democrats around the country. Does anyone really believe that Trump is willing or able to avoid being goaded into an ugly, protracted, and obsessively covered Twitter war with our tenacious senior senator, who commands loyalty from both Clintonistas and Sandersistas?
Yesterday morning I assumed that Charlie Baker would earn re-election the old fashion way. Today, I have my doubts. The situation is so potentially unstable, in fact, that I wouldn’t be shocked if Charlie Baker ends up running for re-election as an independent.