- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation this week loosening the state’s pot laws, putting the Republican at odds on the issue with the Trump administration, which just announced a federal crackdown on marijuana.

Mr. Scott is the latest Republican governor in New England defying President Trump on issues such as drug policy, Obamacare and climate change. Chalk it up to the proud state’s famous stubborn streak — what Mr. Scott calls “Yankee independence.”

That independence could serve the Northeastern governors well as Republicans hope this year to defend gubernatorial seats in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — and perhaps flip the Democrat-controlled seat in Connecticut.

New England Republicans who can distance themselves from the more conservative elements that define the party in Washington have found success in recent years.

That success in gubernatorial contests contrasts with congressional races, however, where Republicans have been all but shut out. Republicans hold just two of the region’s 33 House and Senate seats — both in Maine.

“Republican governors in blue states are able to win and govern effectively because they have created their own brand separate from Washington,” said Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “They work across the aisle, they focus on results, and voters have responded in kind by awarding them with high job approval ratings.”

New England will be critical if Republicans hope to maintain their lead in governorships, where they control 33 of the 50. Democrats hold 16, and an independent runs the show in Alaska.

Thirty-six of those offices, including all six New England states, are up for grabs in November. Four of those are held by Republicans: Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage is term-limited; Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker is running for re-election; New Hampshire, with Gov. Chris Sununu; and Vermont, with Mr. Scott.

Mr. Baker was named the nation’s most popular governor in an October survey from the Morning Consult, which ranked Mr. Scott and Mr. Sununu as the seventh and eighth most popular governors, respectively.

Patrick Griffin, a Republican Party strategist based in New Hampshire, said the three pro-choice Republicans have been able to build crossover appeal by zeroing in on fiscal issues, holding the line on taxes and spending, and avoiding the cultural wars that can hurt the party in general election contests.

“What you have with Sununu and Baker and Scott in Vermont is they have this sort of flinty conservatism on the fiscal side and more or less there is far more moderation on the social side,” Mr. Griffin said. “So they tend to do well with independents, with women, with younger voters.

“Baker, in particular, is a completely different kettle of fish than a traditional Republican, so it makes him easy to push away from Trump,” he said.

A WMUR poll this month showed that 74 percent of registered Bay State voters approve of the job Mr. Baker is doing, compared with 29 percent for Mr. Trump.

Democrats’ best pickup chance is in Maine, where Mr. LePage — perhaps the president’s biggest cheerleader in the Northeast — cannot run again. The race is considered a toss-up after Mr. LePage’s polarizing eight-year stint in which the Republican went to war with the state Legislature, including over a voter-approved referendum to legalize marijuana.

Democrats say they are energized in Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast.

“Democrats are confident about our ability to pick up seats in New England this year,” said Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “Donald Trump is unpopular everywhere, but especially unpopular in New England, and every single day Republicans in New England need to wake up and fear what Donald Trump tweeted about because they are going to have to answer about it on the campaign trail.”

Republicans’ most realistic pickup opportunity is likely in Connecticut, where budget woes have dragged down Daniel Malloy, the nation’s most unpopular Democratic governor, and persuading him not to run for a third term.

Rhode Island is likely to remain in Democratic hands despite Gov. Gina Raimondo’s low approval rating, though the RGA says it is keeping an eye on the race.

The Democrat’s struggles contrast with Mr. Baker, who since taking the oath of office in 2015 has focused on economic issues and shied away from the national Republican Party’s divisive “repeal and replace” rhetoric on Obamacare.

Last year, Mr. Baker criticized Mr. Trump for rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected illegal immigrants from deportation, warning that it could hurt the economy and would leave 8,000 Dreamers in Massachusetts in limbo.

He expressed disappointment with the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement and won high praise from pro-choice activists after he vowed to offset any cuts that national Republicans made to Planned Parenthood.

Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said she hoped the governor’s fellow Republicans in Washington take note of Mr. Baker’s leadership.

“At a time when extreme politicians in Congress want to block millions of people from accessing essential preventive care at Planned Parenthood health centers, it is reassuring to see Gov. Baker put the health and well-being of our communities ahead of politics,” she said in response.

Unlike Mr. Scott and Mr. Baker, Mr. Sununu has a Republican-controlled legislature, and he stuck with Mr. Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. He has been less likely to call out the commander in chief — something that, at least in the eyes of Democrats, makes the incumbent more vulnerable this fall.

Mr. Sununu did, however, come out against the administration’s push to expand offshore drilling along the Atlantic Coast and signaled that he is working to ensure the state maintains its Medicaid program for 50,000 New Hampshire residents under Obamacare, which Mr. Trump has described as a “broken mess.”

Mr. Scott signed the marijuana legislation after he promised to “push back” against the administration’s travel ban, came out against its decisions to pull out of the climate talks and end DACA and joined Mr. Banker in signing onto the U.S. Climate Alliance.

“I’ve been a Republican longer than President Trump has,” Mr. Scott told Vermont Public Radio last month, weeks before signing the marijuana bill. “I just call them as I see them with President Trump. There are going to be times when he will have proposals and initiatives that I will agree with, and there are many times when he’s going to have proposals or say things that I’m going to oppose, and I’m just going to be independent like I’ve been throughout my political life.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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