The most popular governor in America is a Republican who leads a heavily Democratic state. Not far behind is a Democratic governor of a state that Donald Trump swept last November.
National politics may be more polarized than ever, but in Massachusetts and Montana, pragmatic politicians are winning voters from the other side and, with some success, practicing consensus politics.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, both combine progressive social policies with a commitment to fiscal discipline. To them, governing is about getting things done and pleasing as many people as possible along the way.
More than a third of American voters identify as moderates. Forty-three percent are registered Independents or unaffiliated with a political party. In gubernatorial contests, partisan labels are often secondary considerations.
And these two governors are a sign that effective, bipartisan governing may not be entirely elusive in this fractured time.
A mix of compassion and ‘Yankee thriftiness’
During a televised 2014 gubernatorial debate, Baker and his Democratic opponent were asked an unusual question: When was the last time they had cried?
Baker had a ready response: a conversation with a fisherman who had prevented his two sons from going to college, and “ruined their lives,” in order to carry on the struggling family business. Baker said he was brought to tears during a recent retelling of their encounter.
“You hear those kinds of stories every day,” Baker said, pausing as he became emotional. “And it’s a big part of why people like you and me get into public service, because we want to help people like that.”
The governor, a former CEO and Massachusetts Health and Human Services secretary, has not always struck the winning balance between his fiscal conservatism and a compassion that’s appealed across party lines. After his unsuccessful first bid for governor in 2010, Baker conducted an informal post-loss investigation and learned that many voters saw him as aggressive and unfeeling — qualities he says aren’t characteristic of him.
“I can’t tell you how many people I talked to afterwards who knew me pretty well, who’d worked with me in other forums and other places who said, ‘That guy, that guy who ran that race, that guy on TV, that guy in the media — that’s not the guy I know,'” Baker told an audience at the John F. Kennedy Library in April 2015.
Indeed, those who know Baker attest to his modesty and likability.
“He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s charming, he’s self-effacing,” said Marty Linsky, a public-policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school, who worked with Baker in Massachusetts Gov. William Weld’s administration in the 1990s.
So in his second run for the governorship he took a different approach, attempting at every opportunity to show how much he cares about people. Baker put out a campaign ad with his gay brother describing coming out to him, one featuring his teenage daughter telling voters her dad is “totally pro-choice,” and another with Weld describing his former colleague’s “amazingly low ego.”
Replacing his “Had Enough?” 2010 campaign slogan with “Let’s be great, Massachusetts,” Baker combined a heavy dose of empathy with his numbers-savvy “Mr. Fix It” persona. He appealed to the state’s long history of progressivism as well as its “Yankee thriftiness,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank cofounded by Baker’s father.
“He’s the Republican you want to have over for dinner — and that didn’t happen by accident,” says Erin O’Brien, a political-science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston.
Both liberals and conservatives praise his success in working with the Democratic supermajority in the state legislature.
“From a perspective of being able to work in a bipartisan way, I think you could do no better than Charlie,” said Dan Wolf, a former Democratic state senator considering a 2018 run for governor.
Normally soft-spoken and understated, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana does exhibit the rare moment of passion, most notably when talking about protecting his state’s public lands.
“These lands are our heritage!” Bullock cried out to a packed rally in the rotunda of the state capitol building in February 2015. “These lands are our birthright. These lands are a big part of what makes us Montanans — it defines who and what we are.”
Bullock’s staunch opposition to the transfer or sale of federally protected public land has won him widespread support among lefty environmentalists and hunting enthusiasts alike.
Bullock’s activism on the issue is “a really big reason” he won reelection in 2016, says Nate McConnell, a Democratic state representative.
“Gov. Bullock really caught fire and demonstrated tremendous leadership,” he said, adding that “the whole capitol shook” during his public lands rallies.
The issue is personal for Bullock, who was raised in Helena and talks often about his family’s connection to Montana’s vast wilderness. And that authenticity — the sense that Bullock is a “real” Montanan — is key to his appeal.
“He talks like one of us, he lives like one of us,” Joel Fassbinder, the president of Montana’s firefighters’ union, said of Bullock. “He’s legitimate, he’s sincere.”
Republicans say Bullock’s likability is his greatest asset.
“It’s almost like the Bush effect,” said Seth Berglee, a Republican state representative. “Even if we don’t always agree with him, we can kind of relate to him.”
Some argue partisan divides are easier to overcome in a place like Montana, where communities are closely knit.
“It’s a small enough place that people really do care about each other and relate to each other,” says Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster originally from Montana. “Everybody celebrates the football team, everybody mourns the person who died in a car accident.”
Bullock says that at the local level, political conversations often become pragmatic.
“The further away you get from state capitols, I think the sort of Democrat Republican issues become a lot less salient,” Bullock said in an interview with Business Insider. “It’s more about do you have a safe community, do you have good schools, clean air, clean water, access to our lands, a good education system, a good job, and the fundamental belief that you can do better for your kids and grandkids.”
The governor has tried to “show up and listen” to communities across his state, in an effort to hear them out and explain where he stands.
Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, described getting an email from the governor’s office recently, asking if Bullock could visit one of his classes.
“I have him come to my Montana state politics class — this is not a big class, maybe 20 students,” Johnson said. “He comes for the whole period, relates to the students, talks to them … he’s very genial.”
The governor says his fellow Democrats can learn from his open-minded, big-tent approach.
“If we think that, nationally, we’re going to win elections by piecing together groups here and there or just by saying you can win by folks on the coasts,” Bullock said. “If you do that, even if you win, you’re not going to advance the nation.”
Challenging Trump, delicately
In Massachusetts, Baker left the top of the ballot blank last November, refusing to endorse either presidential candidate. This move illustrates the balance he must strike between opposing every major policy proposal coming out of Trump’s Washington, while also keeping his distance from the state’s energized left.
In January, after the president signed his executive order banning travel from several majority-Muslim countries, Baker declined to join the thousands protesting at Boston Logan Airport, but sent a letter to the administration making an economic case for abandoning what he described as a misguided policy.
“There’s a danger in going really either direction on Trump,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group.
The way Baker sees it, it’s his responsibility to challenge Washington when he feels its actions will hurt Massachusetts, without burning any bridges with the administration or his Republican base.
“The job I have to do is to represent the state’s interest every day around federal policy that has tremendous import to Massachusetts,” Baker said in his January “Ask the Governor” radio interview, adding: “But we have to comment on it in a way that will give us … a way to move the conversation.”
Double the Democrats
While Baker’s refusal to fully reject Trumpism frustrates Massachusetts liberals — “It makes you want to scream,” says Tom Whalen, a political-history professor at Boston University — most voters don’t seem to mind Baker’s understated style.
His efforts to protect the state from the administration have boosted his popularity among Democrats. Recent polling shows that 57% view him favorably, while his overall approval ratings reached 75% in April. Baker is following through on his pledge to “chase 100% of the vote” and privately told fund-raisers that his 2018 reelection team is aiming to double the number of Democrats who voted for him in 2014.
“It’s not just that he looks good compared to Trump,” O’Brien said. “It’s that he looks good compared to Trump and he explicitly rejects elements of Trump.”
And, conveniently, Massachusetts already has many high-profile Democrats in power, like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who have eagerly led the anti-Trump resistance in Baker’s stead.
Getting the work done
Because governors largely deal with mundane, nonideological issues like building roads and balancing budgets, gubernatorial races rarely attract significant outside money. Freed from the clutch of the ideological fringes, candidates are able to appeal to a broader swath of their state.
“The thing about governors is that they don’t have to get labeled liberal, conservative, or moderate — they just have to get labeled ‘can they get things done,'” Lake said.
Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina says that while politicians on Capitol Hill are increasingly polarized, most American voters’ political views have not changed dramatically in recent decades. Instead, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have simply been pushed out of the parties, growing the ranks of the unaffiliated and politically disengaged.
And while Facebook, Twitter, and cable news might indicate otherwise, most Americans don’t care much for politics, Fiorina argues. They see government as a utility — a means to an end.
“They want government to be sort of like the electric supply: You walk into a room, flip the switch, and it goes on,” Fiorina said. “They don’t want to think about it.”
Bullock and Baker both fundamentally understand that. “We can’t just be making political statements,” Bullock said. “We actually have to get the work done.”
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