In our highly polarized era, we too often judge election results from the confines of partisan politics. That's not nearly as useful on the state and local levels, where elected officials have roads to fix, kids to educate and budgets to balance. Voters want people who can do the job. Ideology can wait.
The conservative National Review recently put forth the "riddle" that four of the six states in deep-blue New England have Republican governors. Three of them -- Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Phil Scott in Vermont and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire -- are quite popular. These states don't send a single Republican to Congress.
"Why, then, are Republicans doing so well?" the article asks.
There's no mystery. It's because most of the voters don't give a rat's tail whether their governors have a "D" or an "R" after their name. New Englanders tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and so are their Republican governors.
The Republican leaders in Washington, on the other hand, are socially conservative and fiscally reckless. The parade of $1 trillion federal deficits now coming our way is entirely the handiwork of the Trump administration and enabling Republicans. These numbers are astounding, especially given the strong economy.
Some of the most fiscally responsible governors, meanwhile, are Democrats. California's Jerry Brown will be leaving office with a budget surplus of $9 billion. As governor of Vermont, Democrat Howard Dean was so tight with the purse that frustrated liberals called him "the best Republican governor we ever had."
Maryland is a liberal state with a moderate Republican governor. Larry Hogan is polling well ahead of his Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous. Several prominent state Democrats have endorsed him. The reason is simple: He's doing the job.
In the recent New York Democratic primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo crushed a challenge from the left-wing actress Cynthia Nixon. Many political observers saw the results as evidence that the state's Democratic voters didn't really want candidates from the yonder left. That may be, but Nixon was totally unqualified. Managing the Empire State is not an entry-level position.
In the long-lost days of bipartisanship in Washington, centrist Democrats could vote for Republicans they liked knowing their voices would be heard whichever party held the majority. That expectation is gone.
New England Republicans hit a low point early in 2001, when then-Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont fled the party. The independent-minded Jeffords had long endured slights and deeper wounds at the hands of fellow Republicans.
The final showdown came when Jeffords refused to vote for then-President George W. Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cuts. He thought them fiscally irresponsible, which they were.
But then the Bush administration hit back with dark hints that Vermont's dairy farmers might suffer as a result. Jeffords became an independent, caucusing with Democrats. That decision moved control of the Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats. (You can imagine the threats.)
Where Jeffords comes from, cutting taxes does not automatically make one a fiscal conservative. It's not a matter of how much or how little you spend. What matters is that you pay for it.
Five years later, another Yankee Republican long abused by his party ran to keep his U.S. Senate seat from Rhode Island. By then, the voters knew that regardless of how they felt about Lincoln Chafee, electing him would empower the Republicans they didn't like. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse won the race.
On the state or local level, party matters a lot less. The voters value executives focused on the pragmatics of delivering the services they want within a budget. Unlike their federal counterparts, these officials don't have the option of printing money. Thus the riddle solved: Sometimes the voters just want competence.