President Trump has only been in office just over a month, but his presidency is already looming over the next set of major elections, in 2018 — the results of which may serve as once-in-a-generation catalyst for political realignment in some New England states.
For some regional pols, the unpredictable nature of Trump’s rise and his politics have opened new opportunities. In other cases, his presence has complicated ambitions or shut them down completely.
Consider the situation in Connecticut. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has had a rough few years. A budget crisis led to layoffs for state workers and a tax increase. General Electric announced it was moving to Boston, leaving its world headquarters in Fairfield after more than four decades. In June, a Quinnipiac University survey showed Malloy had a 24 percent approval rating, with 68 percent disapproving.
If Hillary Clinton had won the presidential race in November, Connecticut politicos said there was no chance that Malloy would consider running for a third term. But if history is any guide, Trump’s victory means 2018 will probably be a good year for Democrats. (The president’s party typically suffers losses in the first midterm elections of his first term.)
Malloy, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, told National Journal last week that he will decide on running in the spring.
“I think that he has had to do things in his six years in office that have been really rough and not popular, but he has put the state on a better path,” said Mark Bergman, Malloy’s former communications director and now a Democratic consultant. “In every race he has run for governor, people have counted him out, and he has proven himself to be a very tough and effective campaigner.”
In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the big political question is whether those governors will face a serious challenge or coast to reelection in 2018. And in both cases, Trump will play a role.
In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo is in a remarkable political position for her first term. In 2014, Raimondo, a Democrat, won with 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race. (One of her foes hailed from the “Cool Moose Party” and got 21 percent of the vote while spending only $35 in the contest. He died last year.)
Political polling is sparse in the Ocean State, but the most recent survey, taken in September, suggested Raimondo’s approval rating was just 38 percent. Democrats say Raimondo, who is disliked by the state’s unions, could be challenged from the left — but no promising candidate has expressed interest. Instead, the sole challenger on the horizon is the Republican she defeated in 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
For Raimondo, Trump has been a political boost to her Democratic credentials. When she pushes back on Trump — say, for example, on immigration — she gains good will among the left.
In Massachusetts, first-term Governor Charlie Baker remains popular in the polls and has a robust campaign war chest. Perhaps that’s why top potential challengers such as Attorney General Maura Healey and US Representative Seth Moulton have recently said they aren’t planning to run for governor (of course, plans can change). A spokeswoman for US Representative Joseph Kennedy III said he will run for reelection.
Success for Baker, a Republican in a deep blue state, will probably depend on the distance he can put between himself and the president (provided such distance does not become an issue in a GOP primary). That’s why it’s even more notable when Baker pushes back on the administration’s recent moves to restrict immigration and roll back protections for transgender students.
And in Maine, there’s an open question as to whether US Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, will run for governor in 2018. Last week on a Maine radio show, she said she has been “encouraged” to look at it. (She said: “I am not ruling it in, and I am not ruling it out.”)
Kenneth Palmer, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Maine, said such a move from Collins could have seismic repercussions for state politics. Collins remains very popular in polls, and if she won the governorship, someone would have to be appointed to the final two years of her Senate term (perhaps US Representative Bruce Poliquin?).
What could nudge Collins into making a decision? The political climate surrounding Trump, whom she did not endorse for president last year. So far she has voted against more of Trump’s Cabinet nominees than any other Republican senator in the country.
“It has to be a little awkward for her to be hanging out on the edge of the party,” Palmer said.
Lastly, in New Hampshire, Trump’s legacy will go beyond the midterms in this swing state. US Senator Jeanne Shaheen would have been on a list of potential Cabinet members in a Clinton administration. Now there’s a question whether the former governor and two-term senator will seek reelection in 2020.
Shaheen has not indicated either way, but that answer would provide clarity for Granite State aspirants -- including the senator’s daughter, Stefany Shaheen, US Representative Annie Kuster, and former US senators Kelly Ayotte and Scott Brown.
But if Shaheen runs for a third-term, then newly elected Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, could wait to run for Senate in 2022. That’s when New Hampshire’s other US senator, Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, is up for reelection.
By then, of course, Trump could be in his second term — or someone else could occupy the White House, with coattails all their own.