Partisan Mix in R.I., Conn. Poses Challenges
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
WARWICK, R.I. - If you're a Republican, it isn't easy to win office in the overwhelmingly blue states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Unless, that is, you're running for governor.
Over the past two decades, both states' governorships have been dominated as strongly by Republicans as their legislatures have been by Democrats. The last Democrat to be elected governor of Connecticut was William O'Neill, when he won his final term in 1986. In Rhode Island, the only Democrat to serve as governor since the 1984 election was Bruce Sundlun, in the early 1990s.
And the trend is alive and well. On Election Day 2006 - when most of New England, along with the rest of the nation, was moving strongly in the Democrats' direction - Republican Govs. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut and Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island won re-election.
There are several reasons to explain these longstanding patterns, according to interviews with nearly a dozen political experts. In both states, for instance, the Democratic Party is broad but not unified. Liberals tend to win the Democratic primaries for governor and other high offices, while moderates often do better than hard-line conservatives in GOP primaries - unlike in other regions of the country. By the time the general election rolls around, moderates and independents in these states tend to side with the Republican candidates for the top job.
|Rhode Isalnd Gov. Donald Carcieri (R)
That's what happened in Rhode Island in 1994, 1998 and 2002, when Democrats nominated Myrth York three straight times, losing twice to Republican Lincoln Almond and once to Carcieri. In Connecticut, Rell, who supports abortion rights, is even more moderate than Carcieri - so much so that she gives her Democratic rivals little to shoot at.
She even committed a heresy for most Republicans, proposing a hike in the state income tax in her February 2007 budget address, although in the end, it wasn't adopted. "She doesn't govern as a Republican - the word never escapes her lips," said Democratic consultant Roy Occhiogrosso. "She runs as a nonpartisan, above-the-fray person who you should like and trust."
Perhaps the most important explanation for how these governors get elected - though one that shapes voting in mysterious ways - is the impulse by voters to check the excesses of a large Democratic legislative majority by electing a Republican governor. In Rhode Island, for instance, many voters perceive the Legislature as being dominated by Democratic and labor union insiders, and a former business CEO like Carcieri has just the right image to make voters think he can keep them in line.
|Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R)|
But lest other states' underdog political parties think that a term or two in the governor's mansion is easy, they should consider: Winning elections is one thing; providing successful governance is another. In both states, the combination of large Democratic legislative majorities and a Republican governor has led at times to difficult - even chaotic - policymaking.
In Rhode Island, Carcieri has tangled with the Legislature, not so much on social issues, where many Democrats share his anti-abortion views, but rather on the budget. "They don't have a great relationship," said Arianne Corrente, a Democratic consultant in Providence. "He has vetoed every budget but one, and all (vetoes) were overridden."
Republican Lisa Pelosi, a former aide to Almond, describes Carcieri's style as "my way or the highway."
Indeed, after an initial honeymoon, extended by a wave of goodwill for his response to the deadly 2003 Station nightclub fire, Carcieri barely held off Democratic Lt. Gov. Charlie Fogarty for a two-percentage point victory in 2006. Since then, the state's precarious budget situation, worsened by the national downturn and a lack of cooperation between the executive and legislative branch, has become so dire that the governor and lawmakers have had to propose cutting aid to children and the elderly.
Carcieri's outspoken style has only roiled the waters further. He recently sparked indignation when he told the state's leading political columnist, M. Charles Bakst, that the hugely popular Head Start program for lower-income preschool children has been "the biggest waste of money."
Partisan tensions even produced a snowstorm crisis that is expected to depress his approval ratings even further. Last December, when Carcieri took a trip to Iraq, he left without ceding powers to Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, a Democrat who's in the gubernatorial mix for 2010. This became a major problem when the state was hit by a snowstorm and Roberts found herself without the authority to order a sufficient state response - and no way to contact the governor.
On the surface at least, the situation is much happier for Rell. She inherited the top job in 2004 after Gov. John Rowland (R) resigned amid a corruption scandal that ultimately sent him to prison. The contrast between Rowland and the squeaky clean, low-key Rell launched her on a honeymoon that has never really ended. In 2006, she won her first term in her own right by a 63 percent-35 percent margin. There is little indication that her popularity has sagged since.
But this degree of satisfaction obscures some governmental dysfunction, sources in the state said. The legislative majorities are so large that Democratic unity is rare, and the chambers' leaders - both of whom are planning gubernatorial bids - are often at odds.
While divided government does force both parties to work together, "things would be better if the Democrats had smaller majorities," said George Gallo, a former GOP state chairman who now serves as chief of staff to the state House Republican leadership. "The way it is now, one side controls everything, but they can't control their own troops. So they run around in 100 different directions, and the minority is always throwing in a monkey wrench."
Rell benefits from this, said Kevin Rennie, a former Republican state legislator who now writes for the Hartford Courant . "She holds back until the end, which is frustrating for the Democratic leaders, because it's hard to tell where she'll ultimately be," Rennie said.
The Democrats' large majorities have also played a role in creating, or perhaps reinforcing, Rell's tendencies toward pushing smaller issues rather than more divisive topics. Some of those issues include imposing penalties for not removing snow from cars, cutting back on billboards and installing speed cameras. "Ask people to point to anything she's done and they can't. But people just like her," Occhiogrosso said.
But if this approach has paid Rell dividends in popularity, some worry that it has not produced the kind of bold leadership needed to solve many of the state's biggest challenges. "A lot of these are quiet problems, like the exodus of young people from the state and persistent problems in the big cities," said Ronald Schurin, a University of Connecticut political scientist. "Government doesn't look at them unless there's leadership."
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.