PROVIDENCE -- They are both governors of deep-blue Northeast states. They are both Harvard-educated moderates.
But the Republican, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, often lands atop Morning Consult’s list of the nation’s most popular governors, while the Democrat, Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo, usually finds herself near the bottom of the list.
So why are these governors of neighboring states at opposite poles of this poll?
Observers say the results reflect lingering resentment in Rhode Island over a state pension overhaul, high-profile blunders, persistent sexism, economic struggles, and the deep-rooted cynicism fed by big scandals in the smallest state.
Morning Consult, which uses online polling, surveys registered voters about their governors each day and posts updates each quarter. The most recent quarter showed Baker as the most popular governor, with 74 percent approving of his job performance, while Raimondo ranked 48th, with 38 percent approving of her job performance. Only the Kentucky and Connecticut governors ranked lower.
In Raimondo’s case, the approval problems began before she took office, when, as state treasurer, she stepped on the toes of many public employees by leading an overhaul of Rhode Island’s pension system.
It was the kind of “eat your broccoli” initiative that might be good for a state’s financial health “but no one likes it,” said Tufts University political science Professor Eitan D. Hersh, who grew up in Rhode Island.
If Raimondo faced a skeptical electorate from the beginning, Baker may have ultimately benefitted from voters in both parties wanting him to succeed “because they see in him as the last hope for a Republican Party that has taken a bad turn” under President Trump, Hersh said.
The Morning Consult poll found Democrats give Baker an even higher rating than Republicans, while in Rhode Island, the 2018 poll found just 24 percent of Republicans approved of Raimondo’s performance, compared to 51 percent of Democrats.
Plus, the economy has been better in Massachusetts. “For sure, it’s harder to be the Rhode Island governor,” Hersh said. “Even though the states are next to each other, the economic status quo is better in Massachusetts.”
Raimondo’s press secretary, Josh Block, said polling methodologies and results can vary widely, and the governor remains focused on other numbers -- such as having the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years and helping more than 6,000 Rhode Islanders through job-training programs.
Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Joseph M. McNamara said Raimondo deserves credit for taking on some of the state’s biggest problems with “bold initiatives.” In a state with the nation’s highest percentage of crumbling bridges, she launched the RhodeWorks program to carry out $4.7 billion in bridge and road work over 10 years, he said.
But Rhode Island Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki said the polling reflects Raimondo administration “disasters” such as the public-assistance computer system known as UHIP (Unified Health Infrastructure Project), the death of children in state care, and a recent controversy over a proposed no-bid 20-year contract extension for lottery giant IGT.
More broadly, Cienki said Baker has demonstrated the ability to compromise and work with Democrats, whereas Raimondo is often at odds with legislative leaders in her own party.
“[Raimondo] is not relatable, whereas Charlie Baker seems very relatable,” Cienki said. “She seems to have one-and-a-half feet out the door on her way to Washington, D.C.”
Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, agreed that Raimondo “started out a couple of points down with a reliably Democratic constituency of public employees” because of the pension overhaul.
Raimondo also fell out of step with environmentalists by backing a natural gas-fired power plant in Burrillville, and well-publicized problems such as the UHIP mess took a toll, Walsh said.
As the state’s first female governor, she also undoubtedly faces some degree of sexism, he said.
“All those factors add up,” Walsh said.
Kate Coyne-McCoy, a political consultant who formed a super PAC to back Raimondo’s first run for governor, said the gender factor is important. “The electorate is always harder on a woman than a man.” Baker, she said, benefits from being a “middle-of-the-road tall white guy.”
Coyne-McCoy said the pension overhaul still annoys people who tell her Raimondo “took my money.” But she said, “No one has done more to bring jobs to the state and to improve opportunities for kids to go to college. No one has done what this 5-foot-tall woman has achieved for our state.”
University of Virginia Professor Jennifer L. Lawless, who has written books about women in politics, said research shows female candidates are as likely to succeed as men on Election Day. But women are often held to different standards once elected, she said, noting the top 10 governors in the Morning Consult poll are men.
Lawless, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Rhode Island while working at Brown University, said there has long been a perception that female politicians could not succeed in Rhode Island, where Republican Claudine Schneider was the only woman to represent the state in Congress, from 1981 to 1991. “Rhode Island norms die hard,” she said.
Raimondo’s election is significant symbolically, Lawless said. “But when she governs the same way any male would and faces obstacles, voters might be less likely to forgive,” she said.
Walsh, whose union opposed the pension overhaul but backed Raimondo in 2018, said the factors affecting Raimondo’s standing are many and can’t be pinned on any one thing. They’re compounded by what he calls public cynicism that doesn’t exist in Massachusetts.
Years later, many voters remain bitter about the state’s $75-million loan guarantee for Curt Schilling’s video-game company, 38 Studios, which went bankrupt in 2012. While Raimondo opposed the 38 Studios deal, it poisoned voters’ views of government, Walsh said. “We have a very small echo chamber here,” he said. “There is a lot negativity.”
The roots of local cynicism may reach back even further, to the state banking crisis in the early 1990s, when a third of the state’s population lost access to its bank accounts, Walsh said. While Rhode Island was bailing itself out of that mess, Massachusetts was making good policy decisions and investing in education.
“They are 25 years ahead of us,” Walsh said.
Veteran Rhode Island pollster Joseph Fleming said the Morning Consult results are in line with polling he did last year for WPRI 12 and Roger Williams University. A September 2018 poll placed Raimondo’s job approval rating at the exact same spot: 38 percent.
Raimondo has consistently appealed more to female voters, Fleming said. In the September 2018 poll, 46 percent of women gave Raimondo a positive job rating compared to 30 percent of men.
“Not a lot of politicians in Rhode Island have high numbers now,” Fleming said.
While US Senator Jack Reed usually gets good ratings, General Assembly leaders often receive low ratings in statewide polls, he said. For instance, just 21 percent of voters approved of House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello’s job performance in an October 2018 poll for The Providence Journal, The Public’s Radio and ABC6.
Fleming said Raimondo’s various missteps have compounded the numbers issue for her.
But in November 2018, Raimondo won re-election by beating Republican Allan W. Fung with 52.6 percent of the vote. She ran a strong campaign, fueled by more than $7 million, and Fung struggled to gain traction, Fleming said.
“They didn’t think her job performance was outstanding -- but good enough to give her four more years.”