In part, Baker’s downward slide can be attributed to his state’s troubled vaccine rollout, which got off to a slow start and was marked by a very public website crash for the vaccine appointment booking system. Yet there are also signs another factor may be contributing to his decline: Donald Trump’s departure from the White House.
Wildly unpopular in Massachusetts, Trump served as a foil for Baker, who was able to establish his own political independence — and win over Democratic constituents — by frequently criticizing his fellow Republican.
Baker isn’t the only blue-state Republican governor who’s seen his popularity dented by coronavirus fatigue and Trump’s absence from the news cycle. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott — two other Trump critics who have long rated among the most popular governors in the nation — have also seen their numbers dip in the post-Trump era.
“If you happen to be a Republican governor, and you’re sort of disagreeing with Trump, you’re likely to be really, really popular among the other side, much more so than if you were agreeing with the main party. So I think that goes a long way to explaining it,” said Matthew Baum, a researcher on the Covid States Project.
Between their moderate politics and Trump-resistant stances, the three governors have actually managed to become more popular with Democratic voters than Republicans.
Seventy-three percent of Democrats approved of Scott’s job performance in September, compared to just 65 percent of Republicans, according to a VPR-Vermont PBS poll. In Maryland, a March Goucher College poll reported Hogan’s approval rating among Democrats at 81 percent, compared to just 65 percent among Republicans.
“There’s nobody a Democrat loves more than a Republican criticizing Trump,” said pollster Rich Clark of Vermont’s Castleton University.
In Baker’s case, his standing within his own party is so strained that, in the event he seeks a third term next year, a Republican close to state GOP leadership is gearing up to challenge him in the primary.
Like Baker, Hogan and Scott managed to keep a significant distance from the former president while he was in office — all of them made clear that while they may have been on the same team as Trump, they were certainly not on the same page.
Prior to the pandemic, the three governors were frequent Trump critics. Hogan was floated as a potential 2020 primary challenger to Trump. Scott went so far as to call Trump “racist” when the president told four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from.
After the election, each confessed that they did not vote for Trump in November. Hogan wrote in Ronald Reagan’s name. Scott said he voted for Biden. Baker blanked his ballot for the second election in a row.
Hogan continues to speak out against Trump, saying the GOP will struggle to rebuild as long as the former president remains involved in politics.
“I don’t know if I have a future in the Republican Party, but I care about the future of the Republican Party,” Hogan said in an interview this month at POLITICO’s The Fifty: America’s Governors event.
That kind of oppositional stance makes for good politics in Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont, which ranked as Trump’s three weakest states in 2020 — he won just under one-third of the vote in each of them.
“I’m a Republican elected in the bluest state in America — twice — by being just the opposite of that, and by winning over a large number of Black voters and suburban women and independents and Democrats,” said Hogan. “I think I have something to add to the conversation about how can Republicans have a winning message and how can you go about winning more people over to our side of the argument. ”
The Covid States Project found that support for the three governors still remains relatively high compared to their counterparts in other states. The trio often acted earlier or more aggressively than Trump to shut down their states and slow the spread of coronavirus, positions that were largely welcomed in their blue states. Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland, for example, instituted mask mandates when Trump rejected face coverings.
But faced with the last major logistical challenge of the pandemic — vaccine distribution — Baker, Hogan and Scott have seen their approval ratings slip.
“Earlier perception of Baker as a very capable manager and trusted leader was seriously undermined by the way he underperformed the last few months,” said Boston-based Republican strategist Todd Domke.
Asked about his slide in the polls, Baker pointed to coronavirus fatigue in an interview with WGBH News. “I think everybody’s anxious for the pandemic to be over. I am,” he said. “I don’t know why everybody else wouldn’t be either.”
Hogan’s coronavirus approval rating is down from 78 percent in late April to 64 percent in February, according to the Covid States Project, which is a joint effort by Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University and Northwestern University. Scott’s coronavirus approval rating dropped the least — by about 8 percentage points, from 78 percent in August to 70 percent in February.