It's a political puzzle that frustrates Democrats — in two states where Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, two incumbent GOP governors have remained consistently popular.
Few will be shocked if Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker both win reelection on Tuesday even though Republicans are largely on the defensive in governors races. Polls show they have double-digit leads over their Democratic challengers, with a shared ability to create a distinct GOP brand in an era of politics dominated by Donald Trump.
At a recent rally in Montgomery County, Md., a vote-rich, left-leaning region near Washington, D.C., Hogan spoke with a sign that read "Democrats for Hogan" hanging off the stage, urging the crowd to look beyond party labels.
"The divisiveness in politics today, it's one of the things that I'm disgusted with," Hogan said. "We need to bring both parties together. And quite frankly, I think we're setting an example for the rest of the nation about how you can work together to get things done." The remark was met with cheers.
Keep the trains running on time
After running four years ago as a mass transit cynic, Hogan has championed major transportation projects.
The biggest was ending the three-decade debate over whether to build the Purple Line, a light rail route connected to the Washington, D.C., transit system that would link the state's two most populous counties, which broke ground last year. The other involves having the state eventually join neighboring Washington, D.C., and Virginia to provide permanent funding for their shared public transit system.
Gaithersburg, Md., Mayor Jud Ashman, a Democrat, highlighted those accomplishments while praising Hogan's record on a strong economy.
"So four years into the Hogan era we find ourselves a state on the right track," he said. "Jobs are up, taxes are down. Our reputation to do business is reinvigorated."
Hogan also garnered public support for his response to the 2015 Baltimore riots, following the death of 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray while in police custody. Hogan deployed the National Guard to help tamp down the unrest, a move that many people, particularly outside of Baltimore, saw as an example of leadership.
In Massachusetts, Baker recruited a couple of high profile Democrats to his administration, including his transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack, who describes herself as a "lifelong progressive Democrat." Despite her personal politics, she says she's found common ground with the Massachusetts governor on the need to improve existing infrastructure — specifically the subway and bus lines.
"His philosophy is we owe it to taxpayers to run government well. And isn't that a core progressive belief?" she asked rhetorically.
Pollack, who was well-known in Boston as a transportation guru for her work at Northeastern University's Dukakis Center, says too often her fellow progressives don't realize that their visionary ideas won't matter if they don't know how to run the government and deliver.
"For me, Governor Baker's entire administration is about delivering," she said. "And delivering right now is actually more important than promises and vision."
Other Democrats praised Baker's management and leadership after a series of record snowstorms in 2015 that blanketed the region with more than 100 inches of snow.
"The thing that really sticks out about his poll numbers is how broad his support is," said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. "Often times his support numbers have actually been higher among Democrats than among Republicans."
Koczela's most recent poll found 61 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Baker.
Keeping their distance from Trump
Both say they did not vote for the president in 2016. Both broke with the administration over sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border during the family separation crisis. Both governors also publicly disagreed with the president's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
"How [Hogan] has governed under Trump has been really politically impressive," said Mileah Kromer, the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Maryland. "Hogan has been able to maintain a [diverse] coalition of voters throughout his time in public office, really speaks to someone who really under stands what resonates with the public."
Will Keyser, a former aide to the late Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and now a senior adviser on Baker's reelection campaign, said the Trump administration has created a set of challenges, but it's also created a clear contrast for Baker.
"People are seeing how they would like it to be done, versus how they would like it not to be done," said Keyser, who had never worked for a Republican prior to Baker.
Despite their bipartisan appeals, both men have their Democratic critics.
John Walsh, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, insists Baker is popular because he's noncontroversial and noncommittal.
"Literally, the most conservative Republicans in Massachusetts and I agree about Charlie Baker. We're not voting for him because he stands for nothing," said Walsh, who's volunteering for Baker's opponent Jay Gonzalez. "He values his high poll numbers more than progress on any issue, on any side of the issue spectrum."
In Maryland, a major criticism from Democrats is that Hogan will oppose policies, then take credit for them later. One example is the so-called "lock box" ballot initiative, that if approved would ensure casino revenues don't get divvied up for anything other than funding K-12 education.
In ads the governor asks voters to support "the Hogan lockbox initiative." Maryland Democrats say he is taking credit for a constitutional amendment they worked to put on the ballot.
Other critics of Hogan fear that he will shift from being a moderate to a more conservative politician if he wins reelection.
Larry Stafford, the executive director of Progressive Maryland said, "He can play a nice political game and say he's distanced himself from Donald Trump, but he's not someone who is going to stand up when Donald Trump is at his worst." Stafford backs Hogan's Democratic opponent, former NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous.
But aides and analysts say there hasn't been a compelling case made by the Democrat challengers in either state that voting for Baker or Hogan is somehow a vote for Trump.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Democrats in Maryland control most of the major seats of power, except for one. Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, is up for re-election on Tuesday. And according to the polls, he is up by double digits over his Democratic challenger. Maryland is a state, by the way, that President Trump lost by more than 25 points. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: With approval ratings hovering around 70 percent, Larry Hogan is one of the most popular governors in the country. That's got many in the state singing Hogan's praises, literally.
MARY BETH CAROZZA: (Singing) There's a good guy named Larry Hogan, who was fed up with the way our state was going.
BOOKER: At a campaign stop in Salisbury, along Maryland's conservative-leaning Eastern Shore, Mary Beth Carozza performs a song written to the "Brady Bunch" theme.
CAROZZA: (Singing) The Hogan Bunch. The Hogan Bunch.
BOOKER: Carozza is hoping to ride Hogan's coattails to a victory of her own. The state's GOP is hoping to elect her and a handful of others to bust up the Democrat's veto-proof majority in the state Senate.
LARRY HOGAN: We absolutely need to send her to the Maryland State Senate because she is never going to make a living as a singer.
BOOKER: After taking the stage, Governor Hogan highlights his accomplishments that play well with voters in this rural part of the state.
HOGAN: We've got 250 fees, 850 regulations. And you may have heard something about this - we cut tolls for the first time in 50 years by $317 million.
BOOKER: What is noticeably absent, though, was any mention of the divisiveness of national party politics. After all, Trump plays well here, and Hogan needs voters like Hala McIver. She's originally from Egypt, has been in Maryland for nearly 40 years and likes the governor's independent streak, even if it means Hogan distancing himself from the president.
HALA MCIVER: I'm for Trump. He doesn't like him, and that's fine with me. I respect that.
BOOKER: Hogan won't go out of his way to criticize Trump, but, when prodded, like he was during a debate in September, he has a ready list to tick through.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOGAN: Well, I - you know, I would tell him that he's his own worst enemy and that he should stop tweeting.
BOOKER: Hogan says he stood up to Trump when the president wanted to nix federal funds for Chesapeake Bay cleanup. And...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOGAN: I was the only governor in America to withdraw troops from the border when he was separating families. So there's not a whole lot of things that I have in common with the president.
BOOKER: Larry Stafford disagrees. He heads the group Progressive Maryland.
LARRY STAFFORD: He can play a nice political game and say that he is distanced from Donald Trump, but he's not someone who's going to stand up when Donald Trump is at his worst.
BOOKER: Stafford is backing Hogan's opponent, former NAACP President Ben Jealous. But despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Maryland by a 2-to-1 margin, Jealous is trailing by about 20 points in the polls and has been heavily outspent this campaign. Here's Jealous speaking on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE KOJO NNAMDI SHOW")
BEN JEALOUS: Politics always comes down to a battle between organized money and organized people. And if I was like Larry Hogan and was out there willing to take corporate contributions, which I don't, or take corporate PAC contributions, which I don't, perhaps we would have more money, too.
BOOKER: While progressives try to link Hogan to Trump, other Democrats welcome him with open arms. At a rally in the left-leaning and vote-rich Montgomery County, Hogan is endorsed by the Democratic mayor of Gaithersburg, Jud Ashman.
JUD ASHMAN: I've been asked a lot lately how I, as a Democrat, could even consider voting for a Republican during this Trump era.
BOOKER: Taking the stage, the governor stands above a sign that reads, Democrats for Hogan. Hogan tells the crowd not to let party labels influence their votes.
HOGAN: It's one of the things that I'm disgusted with. And quite frankly, I think we're setting an example for the rest of the nation about how you can work together to get things done.
BOOKER: If Hogan wins, he'll be the first Republican governor to win re-election in 64 years. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.