MONTPELIER, Vt. – New England, the land of Ted Kennedy and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, is one of the most consistently liberal parts of the country. And yet it was also the site this month of a Republican near-sweep of the region's governorships.
Five of the six New England states elected a Republican governor two weeks ago. Only Maine went with a Democrat, John Baldacci. It has been 50 years since Republicans controlled five New England governorships.
When New England is combined with neighboring New York, the Northeast has the greatest concentration of GOP chief executives of any region of the country, edging out the South.
It is enough to make an old Northeastern liberal wonder whether the voters have gone conservative.
Probably not, say political observers.
"In some of the states — notably Massachusetts and New York and to a lesser degree Vermont — you have such a heavy dominance by the Democrats that voters are inclined to use a Republican governor as a check on the power of the Democrats,'' said Ralph Whitehead Jr., a journalism professor who analyzes politics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Many of the senators and congressmen from the region still are Democrats — 100 percent Democratic in Massachusetts — and their legislatures also are dominated by the Democrats.
In Vermont, Republican James Douglas was elected to succeed retiring Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat. But voters gave the Democrats a larger majority in the state Senate and added enough Democrats to the House that they are battling the GOP for control. Independents and a third party will determine the outcome of that battle.
Before Election Day, there were three GOP governors in New England, two Democrats and one independent.
In the South, by comparison, Democrats controlled eight governerships to the Republicans' four before the election. When the region's new governors take office, each party will have six.
The chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, was the only incumbent in New England who sought re-election, which he won. He insisted his fellow Republicans funnel campaign money into what he considered winnable races in the Northeast.
The vice chairman of the group, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, frequently ribbed him before the election about it. "He'd say, `There goes Rowland again, trying to rebuild the Rockefeller wing of the party,''' Rowland recalled Tuesday. "And he was right.''
Northeastern Republicans tend to be more moderate or liberal than their counterparts around the country — "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive guys,'' in Rowland's words — and that trend continued again with the new governors in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
In many ways, it is the kind of political equation that long held sway in New England.
"This is a return to form,'' said Garrison Nelson, a visiting professor of New England politics at Boston College and a University of Vermont political scientist. "Here we have the nation's historically most Republican region returning to its Republican roots, which is quite astounding.''
Even so, the region has never been terribly conservative, electing left-of-center Republican governors like New York's Nelson Rockefeller from the 1950s to the '70s and Vermont's George Aiken in the 1940s.
Many say the election results in New England do not reflect a more conservative turn, but a national desire for change on Nov. 5. When all of the governors-elect are sworn in, there will be 24 new faces, 26 of them Republican and 24 Democrat.
Regions that traditionally have been kind to Democrats went for Republican governors, states like South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. And places where Republicans are more likely to hold sway switched to Democrats this year, places like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona.
"I think the message is really one of churn on a national basis,'' said Peter Wiley of the National Governors Association.