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What Democrats can learn from Larry Hogan

Charlie Baker is cruising to reelection in Massachusetts.

Some of that has to do with the fact that he’s facing a weak nominee in Jay Gonzalez, who seems to be running a somewhat poor campaign. But the fact that the gubernatorial race didn’t draw a stronger Democratic nominee is itself a sign of Baker’s strength — after all, it’s not as if Massachusetts is lacking for Democratic Party elected officials with ambition. They just all took a dive.

Meanwhile, down in Maryland, the Democrats actually do have a strong nominee in the form of Ben Jealous. Jealous is a solid public speaker with deep ties to the state and credibility in both the African-American community and Bernieworld. And he’s in line to get crushed.

Not really, I think, through any particular fault of his own. It’s just that most Maryland voters are happy with Larry Hogan. The Massachusetts Dems who took a dive and didn’t challenge Baker are being chickenshit, but Jealous’s struggles mostly show that chickenshit was the right instinct.

A striking thing about this is I don’t think Baker and Hogan are enormous political geniuses or anything. They distance themselves from President Trump in a cursory way (these are blue states, after all) and stake out moderate-ish positions on culture war issues — but there’s no Larry Hogan agenda to transform Maryland. And if there were, it wouldn’t work because the legislature is in solidly Democratic hands; much the same is true in Massachusetts. Vaguely moderate Republican governors plus entrenched Democratic legislative majorities just means status quo governance.

So you say you (mostly don’t) want a revolution

The wild popularity and political success of blue-state governors who don’t really do anything particularly interesting (one could arguably put Democrat Andrew Cuomo in this boat, too) is, in my view, a big challenge to the left view of American politics.

If voters in solidly blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland were genuinely eager to shift to an equilibrium with higher taxes and significantly more generous social services, they could get that fairly easily. Jealous, in particular, has the most serious and well-considered version of a Medicare-for-all plan that I’ve seen. But it seems pretty clear that the voters mostly don’t want that.

They don’t like Trump (he got 34% in Maryland and 33% in Massachusetts), and they send tons of Democrats to Congress to fight Trump, and they keep their legislatures in Democratic Party hands, and they clearly don’t want Republicans to actually enact a governing agenda, but they’re perfectly happy to just see basic competent management of state government with no big policy changes.

Which isn’t to say that Democrats will never get to govern in these states again. Baker and Hogan both managed to initially win during very bad electoral cycles for Democrats and then establish strong personal brands.

When they’re not on the ballot again, Republicans will struggle to replicate their success. Had Anthony Brown narrowly defeated Hogan in 2014 rather than narrowly losing to him, I bet he’d be cruising to reelection right now and considered a possible 2020 presidential contender.

But the question is what Democrats can do when they achieve a trifecta in a blue state. For an answer to that, it’s instructive to look at Vermont, where yet another GOP governor is cruising to reelection in a very blue state. The difference with Phil Scott is he didn’t sneak in during the 2014 midterms. He won in 2016, which was a fine national political climate for Democrats. (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and Democrats gained seats in both the House and Senate while winning the governor’s mansion in North Carolina.)

The reason he won was that Vermont Democrats decided to try to put their majorities to good use and create a state-level Medicare-for-all plan. And it turned out that when you try to make public services much more generous, you need to make taxes a lot higher. There was a huge public backlash, the plan didn’t pass, and a very blue state elected a Republican governor.

Elsewhere in blue America, Washington has a constitutional ban on an income tax that the state’s Democratic Party is afraid to challenge and California has a constitutional supermajority requirement for tax increases that the state’s Democratic Party is afraid to challenge. In New York, an endless series of weird hijinks keep giving Republicans control of the state Senate, and Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Illinois all seem mired in endless budget crises. I don’t really know too much about Hawaii and Oregon, though — maybe there’s some good news there!

This is an abbreviated web version of The Weeds newsletter, a limited-run newsletter through Election Day, that dissects what’s really at stake in the 2018 midterms. Sign up to get the full Weeds newsletter from Matt Yglesias, plus more charts, tweets, and email-only content.