When Scott Walker won office in the tea party wave of 2010, he was part of a huge class of 16 first-time Republican governors — eight of them elected in Democratic-leaning or battleground states.
Since then, these eight have supplied much of the political drama coming from the nation’s 50 state capitols, pursuing conservative agendas in states that voted twice for Democrat Barack Obama.
As the nation’s governors gather in Milwaukee, it’s a group worth watching closely. More than most of their peers, they’re on the front lines of the policy wars, testing the appeal of red-state governance beyond the boundaries of red-state America.
Their re-election fights in 2014 will largely determine whether the GOP, which now boasts 30 governors, can maintain its dominance of an office that drives public policy in the states and supplies both parties with many of their presidential prospects.
The following eight GOP governors took office for the first time in January 2011 and have been governing in states that voted Democratic for president in both 2008 and 2012: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Florida’s Rick Scott, Maine’s Paul LePage, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval.
It’s not a monolithic group. Some have been more activist and conservative than others. Some seem politically secure; others appear to be endangered. Taken together, they would seem to offer no single political model for GOP success in swing states.
“Any way you look at it, it’s a mixed bag,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who tracks gubernatorial campaigns and wrote a study of the modern governorship.
Four of the eight are the most vulnerable GOP governors in the country: Corbett, LePage, Scott and Snyder, according to five separate nonpartisan election ratings by Sabato, the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, the Washington Post and Governing magazine. Job approval ratings for the four have languished below 40 percent in most public polls over the past year.
Two others, Kasich and Walker, endured rocky times early in their tenure and emerged as re-election favorites.
Those six have all encountered more turbulence, either because of their governing styles, difficult issues they’ve had to grapple with or controversial policies they and their mostly Republican legislatures have pursued.
“They are responding to the coalition that elected them, but it’s not the usual coalition in their states,” says Sabato, meaning their states are less conservative electorally than the movement that brought these governors to power in the wave election of 2010.
“I think these guys also inherited states with lots of problems,” says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “And they promised big decisive action and that’s what they’ve tried to do. Some of them created their own drama. But … they inherited pretty bad economies, pretty high unemployment rates and deficits. And just by the nature of public policy, they were asked to make some big decisions, i.e., [implementing] health care reform.”
In contrast, the remaining two — Sandoval and Martinez — enjoy high approval ratings with significant support from voters in the other party. They are the only two of the eight that have had to work with Democratic legislatures throughout their first term. Oddly enough, some analysts believe that has made governing their “purple” states politically easier. They aren’t fielding hot-button bills from their own party’s legislators; ideological boldness isn’t much of an option.
Looking ahead to their re-election races, it’s almost impossible to imagine the political climate being as favorable to the GOP in 2014 as it was in the historic Republican surge of 2010. And the Obama victories in these states suggest they’re inherently winnable for Democrats.
But the eight governors also have factors working in their favor. Incumbents as a rule are hard to beat. Any uptick in the economy should help. The party out of the White House typically does well in elections held during a president’s second term. And midterm electorates are smaller, less diverse and tend to be better for the GOP than they are in presidential years.
“If their elections were in presidential years, many of them wouldn’t be in office,” says Sabato.
Walker is rated a healthy 2014 favorite by most independent handicappers. It’s not because his approval ratings are spectacular. In four Wisconsin polls this year by Marquette Law School and Public Policy Polling, he averages 49 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval. He remains arguably the most polarizing governor in the country, unusually popular with voters in his own party and acutely unpopular with voters in the other party.
But no challenger has materialized. And the Democratic effort to recall him last year is now widely seen as a huge political misfire by opponents, allowing Walker to put the union fight behind him before his 2014 race and turning him into a well-financed national figure, conservative hero and potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The push to curb unions has also had a political impact in other states. In Michigan, Snyder signed a right-to-work law he didn’t initiate that came out of the GOP legislature. Polls suggest that hurt him. A first-time officeholder, Snyder is also dealing with the unpredictable politics of Detroit’s bankruptcy.
Ohio’s Kasich lost a referendum aimed at curbing public sector unions, but has rebounded politically as the state’s economy has improved. Scott may be getting an economic bump in Florida, too. Walker is hoping for one in Wisconsin, if the robust job growth he campaigned on in 2010 finally materializes.
Style trumps economy
But so far, the political standing of these governors seems to be less about economic performance than other factors. Of the eight states, Florida and Michigan had the highest rates of private-sector job growth during 2011 and 2012; Michigan was fifth and Florida ninth, according to the most authoritative jobs data, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Yet Michigan’s Snyder and Florida’s Scott are among the most vulnerable GOP governors.
Wisconsin was 34th and New Mexico 42nd in private-sector job growth in the same two-year period, but their governors are in better shape politically.
Pennsylvania ranked 41st and Maine ranked dead last.
LePage, Corbett and Scott have endured criticism for their management style, communication skills and relationships with legislators.
“In some cases they have Republican legislatures that have been less than cooperative,” says Duffy. One example: intraparty clashes over how to implement the new federal health care law.
Walker, Scott, Corbett and Kasich stand in contrast to a previous generation of high-profile GOP governors in blue or battleground states. This was the group in the 1990s that included Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, George Pataki of New York, Jim Edgar of Illinois, Pete Wilson of California, Bill Weld of Massachusetts, Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Arne Carlson of Minnesota.
These were by and large more centrist Republicans, operating in a less polarized, pre-tea party world. Most of them spent much or all of their tenure having to work with Democratic-controlled legislatures in moderate-to-liberal states, which placed a premium on bipartisan deal making.
Their swing-state counterparts today are more conservative on fiscal and social policy. Some have GOP legislatures that are as conservative or more conservative than they are. It allows for very aggressive policymaking, but at the risk of political upheaval and partisan overreach.
Is it a formula for political longevity? Next year’s elections will provide the first answers.
Distributed by MCT Information Services