In 2001, Jim Jeffords, the Republican Senator from Vermont announced his intentions to break from his party and become an Independent. He cited the party’s rightward shift on social and fiscal issues for his switch. Nearly 7 years later, Northeastern Republicans would practically be an extinct species at every level; federal, statewide executive offices and legislatures. The Northeast, the ancestral home of the GOP, had become a no-man’s land for the party by the time Obama was elected President.
The numbers were startling. Republicans did not control a single legislature in the Northeast at the start of 2009, they held a meager single US Senate seat (New Hampshire) and less than half a dozen Congressional seats in a region with over 60.
It did not always use to be this way. The Northeast, combined with the Midwest, used to be the base of the modern GOP. Without the Northeast Richard Nixon would not have been elected President in 1968. Ronald Reagan in 1980 would have struggled to win the popular vote without its margins and of course there is Abraham Lincoln.
But as the parties shifted their ideological and geographical allegiances starting in the 60s so have voters. The result has been the Northeast becoming a solid shade of blue not just for President but also in Congressional and legislative delegations as moderate Republicans have left the party while the South has become solidly red.
But starting in 2010 the GOP has seen a resurgence in the region. Fueled by the Tea Party wave Republicans captured both chambers in New Hampshire and Maine and made gains in many others. They even broke Democratic rule in New York State by winning enough state senate seats to force legislative Democrats to agree to a power-sharing arrangement in the upper chamber.
It was not just at the legislative level where Republicans made gains. The party gained both Congressional seats in New Hampshire, a whopping 4 seats in New Hampshire and 5 seats in Pennsylvania. Still, the party failed to make significant inroads at the state and Congressional level in deep blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Barack Obama’s reelection thinned the GOP herd’s numbers in the region. New Hampshire flipped back congressionally and several Republicans disappeared in New York due to Romney’s anemic performance.
The 2014 midterms changed that. For the first time since 2002 Republicans captured the Maryland Governor’s mansion, deep blue Massachusetts and (not in the Northeast) Illinois. The party very nearly captured Connecticut as well (for the second time in a row).
Republicans did this by performing even better in the suburbs than they did in 2010. For example, in Maryland, Larry Hogan ran far ahead of prior Republicans performances in suburban Baltimore and Howard counties. He won Howard with 51 percent and Baltimore with 59 percent. Despite the drop in turnout from 2010 he gained a combined 23,000 additional votes from the counties. In exurban Carroll County he garnered 7,000 additional votes relative to 2010. In Massachusetts, Charlie Baker improved on his 2010 performance by thousands of votes in conservative friendly Hampden and Bristol counties. These bedroom counties gave him his narrow 40,000 vote margin.
Now, joining the mix after 2016 are John Sununu and Phil Scott. Sununu captured New Hampshire’s Governorship, the first time the party has held it since 2002. Phil Scott had arguably the bigger challenge. He triumphed by 9 points in deep blue Vermont. The same Vermont Clinton carried with 57 percent of the vote.
Republicans also made inroads in state legislatures. For the first time since 2004 the party did not lose a legislative seat in Massachusetts and they even tied the Connecticut state senate (though Democrats still control the chamber due to the Lt. Governor’s partisan affiliation).
What has driven this shift at the state level is the increasing proclivity of some voters to base their votes for Governors or legislature on a separate criteria than federal contests. This is not just a Northeastern, or until 2016, Midwestern phenomenon. In 2015, Louisiana elected a Medicaid Expansion supporting Democrat over a died in the wool conservative Republican. This year, while New Hampshire and Vermont backed Clinton they elected GOP Governors, red West Virginia, Montana and North Carolina elected Democratic Governors even as they gave Trump massive margins.
Perhaps most surprising is how popular many of these Governors are. Both Baker and Hogan have stratospheric approval ratings in the 70s while Steve Bullock never dipped below 50 percent approval in his reelection battle in Montana.
Manifesting the partisan realignment that has occurred at the Congressional level many Congressional Republicans won reelection in Obama/Trump districts in the Northeast. Standout examples of this include Brian Poliquin in ME-2 and John Katko in NY-24, Elise Stephanik in NY-21.
Part of the GOP resurgence in the Northeast has been being able to field strong candidates (see Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan) and facing weak opponents (see Martha Coakley in Massachusetts). But, part of it has also been voters preferring a check on Democratic legislatures. Likewise, some voters prefer a Democratic Governor to be a check on GOP legislatures outside the Northeast.
Not everybody shares this view however. Former RGA Executive Director Michael Cox, a Massachusetts native who ran New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Presidential super PAC, sees this as more an outlier than a trend.
While Cox acknowledges the GOP does well when they run on “kitchen-table” issues, he is hesitant to say this represents a permanent resurgence for the party. Rather, he describes “Our party’s success is situational. It has more to do with great candidates, campaigns and a favorable political environment than an overarching trend.”
Certainly to some degree this is true. But 2016 was not the best political environment for the party and successful candidates still outran Trump.
If 2009 represented the low-point for Northeastern Republicans 2017 might represent their high-point. It’s clear many of the voters in the region lean clearly left and in the near future the GOP will always be swimming upstream to win in the area. But, for now, the GOP’s resurgence in the region, compared to where it was in 2009, is nothing short of remarkable!