BOSTON — Republican governors will lead Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine next month – a remarkable feat considering how much the GOP has struggled in New England for more than a generation.

Phil Scott, the governor-elect in Vermont, defeated his Democratic opponent by nine points, even as Donald Trump got wiped out by 29 points. (The president-elect garnered less than one-third of the vote in the Green Mountain State.)

Scott owns a construction business and has been a champion stock car racer. He spoke to me in between conversations with the state troopers who will provide his security about whether he will be able to continue competing professionally at the race track on weekends. They worry about his safety.

“I am negotiating,” he said by phone from Montpelier. “I am really hoping. In the beginning, I said I’d probably have to retire. But I’m thinking that I could at least do a couple of races a year. That’s my goal at this point, anyway.”

This is the kind of Republican who prevails in a place like Vermont. The outgoing Democratic governor is regarded by many as an ineffective failure, and Scott’s opponent had been his transportation secretary. After serving as a state senator for a decade, Scott spent the last six years as lieutenant governor (a part-time position which Vermont elects independent of the chief executive).

The 58-year-old got involved in politics because the state is such an unfriendly place to do business. “I was so frustrated by the obstacles and barriers, and I got so tired of hearing myself complain about it,” the governor–elect explained.


Because the population is so small, Scott has been able to build personal relationships with many voters in the 16 years since he first got involved with politics. That made it hard for Democrats to caricature him as some kind of mini-Trump. He fondly recalls seeing houses with yard signs for him – and Bernie Sanders.

“I am very much a fiscal conservative. But not unlike most Republicans in the Northeast, I’m probably more on the left of center from a social standpoint,” Scott explained. “I am a pro–choice Republican. But there are some areas – late–term abortions and parental notification – I’d be open minded to. They tried to capitalize on that. The Democratic Governors Association funneled like half a million bucks through Planned Parenthood to run ads against me saying that I am going to take away your ability to choose, even though I’ve always been pro–choice! … I had to listen to that every single night. … Maybe 350k doesn’t sound like a lot to you, but in Vermont you can buy a lot of airtime for that! And they did!”


New Hampshire was much closer. Trump lost by just half a percentage point. While Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte went down by fewer than one thousand votes, Chris Sununu won the governor’s race by just over 12,000 ballots – out of 629,000. One key factor might have been Chris’s decision to stand by Trump after the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape came out, while Kelly rescinded her endorsement. (Some Trump supporters did not check the box for her.)

Speaking by phone from Concord in between meetings about the state budget on Wednesday afternoon, Sununu explained that he pulled it out by focusing on mobilizing the grassroots and talking about local issues. “We really, really tried to run the campaign in the New Hampshire fashion,” he said. “Trump was doing his thing, and we were doing our thing. … We clearly differentiated ourselves.”

Sununu is an iconic name in the Granite State, and Chris is the scion of a storied political family. His dad (John H.) was governor in the 1980s before becoming George H.W. Bush’s White House chief of staff. His brother (John E.) was a U.S. senator. Chris, 42, has spent six years as a member of the powerful New Hampshire Executive Council, which has veto power over most state spending. He’s also an MIT-educated civil engineer who has been CEO of a ski resort in Waterville.


“Virtually every word out of my opponent’s mouth was about my family, my business or Donald Trump,” the younger Sununu said. “But voters in New Hampshire are very astute. … People want to get stuff done. People also want to talk about issues.”

All three of New Hampshire’s neighbors will now be governed by Republicans, and Sununu has sat down with each of his counterparts for one-on-one meetings about what they can accomplish together. “There’s a terrific opportunity here. Now we can have blunt conversations about energy, opioids and transportation,” he said, adding that he’s the only one lucky enough to have Republican control of both branches of the legislature.

While Sununu voted for Trump, Scott wrote in John Kasich for president. But he has several hilarious stories about how daunting it was to run with an “R” after his name. Barack Obama cut an ad for Sue Minter, his rival. Joe Biden flew up to stump with her. Sanders opened up his email list to help her fundraise. “I called it the killer B’s: Barack, Biden and Bernie,” he quips.


Ticket splitting has become increasingly uncommon in congressional contests, but voters are perhaps more willing than ever to vote for a governor and president of different parties. Democrats note that they won in West Virginia and Montana last month, and they picked up an open seat in Louisiana last year. Trump carried those states by 42 points, 21 points and 20 points, respectively.

Just as there are not many national Democrats who can help out Gov.-elect Jim Justice in the Mountaineer State, neither are there many Republicans who can assist a GOP candidate in Vermont.


Charlie Baker is the exception. The Massachusetts governor did events for both Scott and Sununu.

“I think New Hampshire is purple. Maine actually goes back and forth quite a bit too. Vermont’s obviously pretty blue, so is Massachusetts,” Baker said. “Part of what made both of those guys interesting to me was the fact that they’re people who would be really hard for someone to stereotype.”

Baker has a 70 percent approval rating in the deep-blue Bay State, making him one of – if not the most – popular governor in America. He’s viewed as a pragmatist and admired for his effective managerial abilities, even though many of his priorities have been blocked by liberals in the legislature.

The 60-year-old’s competence is beyond reproach. He went to Harvard for undergrad and earned an MBA from Northwestern, then served as the health and human services secretary for Republican Gov. William Weld in the early 1990s. He was the secretary of finance under Weld’s successor, Paul Cellucci. Afterward, he became CEO of a nonprofit health benefits firm. Baker lost when he ran in 2010 but won when he tried again in 2014.

Massachusetts has one of the prettiest and most historic capitols in the country. But Baker eschewed the traditional governor’s office – which is large and ornate – because he felt he could be more productive working in a smaller, more modern office. That fits his style. “People appreciate the no-muss, no-fuss approach that we’ve tried to take here,” the governor said during a sit-down in his third-floor space, with papers strewn about. “Most people are a combination of points of view. They look for that in people they elect. If you’re able to demonstrate that you’re a good listener and you’re going to be driven by facts, data and information … people find that appealing.”

Asked what the national GOP can learn from his success on Beacon Hill, Baker answered: “Collaborate where it makes sense to collaborate with people. If you’re going to get into a debate or an argument, be soft on the people and hard on the issue. Make clear to people why you’re taking the position you’re taking. And if you can find room to compromise, don’t ignore the opportunity. Because most people want to see their governments actually work!”


He cited a transportation bill that passed last year, which let Uber and Lyft operate in the commonwealth. “It had some stuff in it that we really liked. It had some stuff that the Senate liked, and it had some stuff that the House liked,” Baker explained. “That bill was a good example of a mishmash of a bunch of different points of view, but in the end I think it’s among the better pieces of legislation that have passed in the country around those issues.”

Baker prides himself on being a check against liberal overreach. Democrats control all 11 slots in the federal delegation. In the Senate, there are 34 of them and six Republicans. In the House, there are 126 Democrats and 34 Republicans. “The fiscal discipline issue is for real, and so is the ability to be part of the constructive friction that people like to see,” Baker said, reflecting on his popularity. “Politics benefits from competition the same way everything else does. Most people think competition is a good thing and creates an urgency and a tension that works for the so-called consumer, which in this case is the taxpayer or the person who relies on government. I believe in that, but I also believe you need to do that in a way that’s civil and issue-driven. Maybe that’s because I am not a big personality.”

Baker does not act like a guy who wants to run for president, and that makes Democrats more willing to work with him. “There’s definitely a lot of people in public life these days that like to create wedges, but our job is to focus on what matters most to people,” he said. “Is my neighborhood safe? Do I have a good job? Are the schools I send my kids to going to prepare them for the future?”

One of Baker’s top priorities has been economic development west of Route 128, the partial beltway around the thriving metropolis of Boston. “We can talk all we want about what the unemployment rate is in Massachusetts generally, but if Lowell and Springfield and Pittsfield really feel like they’re not going anywhere, then that’s cold comfort for them.”

Still, the governor is trying to build up the Massachusetts Republican Party. He lights up as he tells me, “For the first time since 1984 in a presidential year, we held all of our incumbents and we won an open seat (in the state legislature). And we had some other ones that were actually pretty competitive. Part of it is definitely a validation of the idea that two teams on the field is a good thing.” He and his lieutenant governor appeared at more than 100 events to help GOP candidates, and Baker’s been raising money to help the state GOP build up field and analytics programs.

This fall, Baker announced that he would leave his ballot blank and vote for no presidential candidates. You might recall that his former boss, Bill Weld, was the libertarian nominee for vice president. “I made pretty clear that I was not a fan of Trump or Clinton,” Baker said. “And I took a fair amount of grief for that, but I wasn’t going to lie.” He called the president-elect the day before Thanksgiving to congratulate and wish him luck. They talked for five minutes. “It was a very cordial, very polite conversation,” Baker said.


Before his victory two years ago, he lost a messy three-way race against then-Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in 2010. “If you’ve run and lost, you really respect people who find a way to run and win,” Baker said, referring to Trump. “It’s a lot harder than it looks!”


Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine, is in a league of his own. He was catapulted into office amid the tea party wave of 2010 and got re-elected in 2014 with a plurality because an independent siphoned away Democratic votes. He’s polarizing and profoundly ideological. He’s also term-limited and will be gone in two years.

The Post’s editorial board, calling on him to resign and “seek help” this fall, outlined some of the more memorable illustrations of his “unhinged racism” and “wild-eyed ramblings.” Among other things, LePage declared in October that a Trump presidency is necessary because he will exercise “authoritarian power” to pull us back from “slipping into anarchy.”

Republicans will need to defend the three other governorships in 2018, as well. Vermont and New Hampshire are the only two states in the country with two-year terms. And Baker is in cycle.

Massachusetts native Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, explained that GOP candidates will succeed in New England when they run on kitchen-table issues and then follow through by governing as non-ideological, problem-solving technocrats. “Unlike their counterparts in the South or Midwest, they have demonstrated an ability to win GOP nominations while espousing more moderate views on social issues,” said Cox, a founder of 50 State Strategies. “In the process, they take the Democrats’ most effective attack line off the table and align themselves with the vast majority of their state’s general election voters.”

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