By almost any measure 2010 was a banner year for Republicans. Riding the crest of the Tea party wave the GOP reclaimed control of the U.S. House of Representatives and added to the number of states with Republican governors. Largely due to the political disaster known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, the national political scene in 2014 is highly favorable to Republicans who have a realistic chance of gaining a majority in the U.S. Senate.
In the states, however, the GOP faces considerable odds in holding onto its 29-21 state lead in governorships. Governor races typically are dominated by circumstances, issues and personalities unique to each state. This year is no exception. But there is a common thread that, depending upon how each governor has handled it politically, has had an impact on where that chief executive stands at the start of this year’s campaign.
Republican governors came to office in a number of states facing difficult economic circumstances and budget problems. Among those were Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In two of those states incumbent Republican governors are leading in the polls, in two they trail significantly. In each case the incoming GOP governor kept a campaign pledge to cut spending, keep taxes as low as possible, and enact major reforms. During their campaigns they promised to make the tough choices needed to get their states back on track, and once in office they did so.
You would think such governors would be rewarded by voters for having kept their campaign promises and putting their state back onto solid financial ground. For their efforts, one governor was recalled (but survived the recall election) and the three others saw their job approval ratings plummet; two still find themselves with high disapproval ratings by voters.
The success story here is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker not only touched the political third rail of labor union reform – but grabbed onto it and ripped it from the ground. Unions mounted a recall, but Walker won the recall election by a bigger margin than his initial election. Since then, state and local budgets have stabilized and the state’s economy has improved dramatically. In what is a heavily Democratic state, a recent Marquette University Law School poll found Walker with a 47%-41% lead over his likely Democratic opponent, Mary Burke who is a former state commerce secretary. Governor Walker is also touted as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
In Ohio Governor John Kasich got off to a rough start, losing a high profile statewide voter referendum on labor power, but has since regained his standing with voters. A former U.S. Representative, Kasich brought considerable political skills to the office – skills he needed to position himself for re-election. Recent polling shows Kasich with a five point lead over his likely Democratic opponent Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.
The leads by Walker and Kasich might seem slim, although they are outside the polls margins of error. But they look like the Grand Canyon to governors Rick Scott of Florida and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett.
Florida is an interesting situation in that a former Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, is now a Democrat and challenging Governor Scott in an effort to reclaim his old office. Scott has made tough choices during his three years in office, and those tough choices have resulted in a 34% job approval rating. Recent polling by the University of Florida shows Crist with a 47% to 40% lead over Scott. Charlie Crist’s biggest problem may be his own record as governor, which has his approval rating with voters upside down. This may be a race to determine who is the least popular.
And here in Pennsylvania, polling continues to show Governor Tom Corbett with low job approval ratings and faring poorly against several potential Democratic opponents. Corbett took office facing a $4.3 billion budget deficit. Closing that deficit without raising taxes should be a strong political selling point, but Democrats dominated the messaging placing the focus on cuts or perceived cuts rather than the fact the governor successful resolution of the budget crisis.
Unlike some of the other states, a single Democratic challenger to Corbett has yet to emerge giving the governor the opportunity to redefine himself while the opposition dukes it out in the primary.
And so for Republicans, having run on a platform of cleaning up their state governments and then doing so the big question is who will be rewarded and who will be defeated for doing the job he pledged to do.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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