Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: email@example.com
It was a year in which Republican candidates blasted political overreach by a Democratic president, stuck to their conservative principles and rolled to electoral victories in Congress and in gubernatorial races.
But this "year" wasn't just 2010 -- it was also 1994. While these two years were broadly similar politically, the two classes of freshman governors elected have proven to be strikingly different -- at least at this early juncture.
In 1994, as future House Speaker Newt Gingrich was leading a double-barreled takeover of Capitol Hill, the new class of GOP governors tended to be pragmatic, even moderate. In Texas, George W. Bush -- years away from his polarizing presidency -- worked closely with conservative Democrats who dominated the Legislature." Although Bush's agenda was conservative (tort reform, education accountability standards, opposition to abortion), he was not a strident ideologue," says veteran Dallas Morning News journalist Wayne Slater.
In Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge governed as a centrist; so too did Connecticut's John Rowland. In Kansas, where the GOP was sharply divided between conservatives and moderates, Bill Graves was the embodiment of the party's moderate wing.
However, 2010 has brought the rise of the uncompromisingly conservative governor, even in places that are ordinarily considered swing states. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker's efforts to curb collective bargaining for state workers has become a national cause célèbre for conservatives and the epicenter of a bitter, zero-sum political battle. In Ohio, John Kasich pushed through an anti-union bill similar to Walker's, while also eyeing major changes in the estate tax and business regulations. "John Kasich seems to relish a fight," says Youngstown State University political scientist William Binning, a one time Republican county chair in Ohio.
In Florida, wealthy health-care executive Rick Scott is governing farther to the right than the GOP-dominated Legislature, most spectacularly by refusing to take federal funds for high-speed rail, a project that lawmakers had spent years trying to implement. Observers say that Scott , a self-funder, is governing as an outsider, refusing to play the political "game" except on his own terms.
In Maine, Paul LePage, who won with only 38 percent of the vote, has articulated a take-no-prisoners conservatism. He is not only taking on unions, but has even ordered the removal of a 36-foot, labor-themed mural from the state Department of Labor building. He is mocking state restrictions on the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA), saying that "the worst case is some women may have little beards." Stylistically, LePage's approach is about as far as one can get from the governor elected in 1994 -- Angus King, a self-styled moderate who ran as an Independent.
To be sure, not every governor fits perfectly within the 1994/2010 dichotomy. In at least three solidly red southern states -- Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- the new governors do not seem to represent a hard turn to the right. Meanwhile, Republican governors haven't been the only ones reading a mandate into the 2010 election results. Several of the newly elected Democratic governors have also been willing to shake things up once in office.
In New York and California -- two states facing severe budget problems -- Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown, respectively, have demanded stiff cuts, even at the risk of upsetting traditional Democratic constituencies. Both governors are trying to get legislators from their own party to back them on cuts to early childhood education, health care for the poor and services for the elderly.
"Cuomo and Brown are, in my opinion, more willing to tackle tough issues than the governors who were elected in 1994," says Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has advised Democrats and moderate Republicans. He added that Brown's overtures to Republicans have been mostly unrequited.
A few Democrats have also taken exception to recent conservative policymaking trends. Democratic governors Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii and Mark Dayton in Minnesota have pursued unabashedly liberal policies, with Abercrombie signing a civil-unions bill and Dayton seeking a major tax increase on affluent Minnesotans.
Analysts see at least three major factors that explain the differences in 2010's batch of governors.
The first is the fiscal picture. The recent Great Recession slammed state budgets, providing both a need for and a narrative to support hard-charging solutions that can be provided by fiscal conservatism. Walker, for instance, justified his changes to collective bargaining by arguing that the state was broke.
The nation experienced a relatively mild recession in the early 1990s, but with economies already starting their decade-long boom by the mid-1990s, governors of both parties who were elected in 1994 had the luxury of sidestepping hard choices. In Pennsylvania, "the state's problems were not as severe in 1994, and as the recovery continued, the state had more money than it knew what to do with," says William J. Green, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who was an advisor to then-Gov. Ridge.
The same was true in Connecticut, where Rowland was able to keep Republicans happy by cutting taxes and Democrats satisfied by pushing for billions of dollars in higher education bonds and resisting sweeping cuts to government programs. "As the economy improved in the late 1990s, this wasn't a hard course to pursue," says Ronald Schurin, a University of Connecticut political scientist.
The second factor has to do with the evolution of the Republican Party. While talk radio helped fuel GOP gains in 1994, the conservative media and activist base had not yet reached its apex of influence on the Republican Party. Between 1994 and 2010, true Republican moderates became ever rarer, and hard-line conservatives, including those affiliated with the Tea Party, became better equipped to win the support of primary voters.
The third (and perhaps most important) factor is that many of the activist Republican governors elected in 2010 are able to work with Republican majorities in their legislatures. Having a legislature of the same party "allows one to be more aggressive," says Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist who was a key Republican player in both 1994 and 2010. Some, like Scott, inherited GOP majorities. Others -- including Walker, Kasich, LePage, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett -- came into office with at least one chamber switch on their coattails, and often two.
Norquist suggests a fourth factor: groundwork laid by New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who won office in 2009. While Christie must work with a Democratic-controlled Legislature, his state's fiscal challenges rival those of California and New York, and that has helped him justify an aggressive approach, and one that remains popular in what is generally a Democratic-leaning state. A Quinnipiac poll in early February had Christie with a 52 percent approval, 40 percent disapproval rating, while a Monmouth University poll had him at 47 percent to 40 percent.
In many states, the growing influence of the conservative movement is noticeable. Sixteen years after choosing the moderate Graves, Kansans in 2010 elected Sam Brownback, a pillar of the state GOP's conservative wing. New Mexico elected quirky libertarian Republican Gary Johnson in 1994, but in 2010 went for a Republican, Susana Martinez, who's taken up such issues as drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants and voter ID requirements at the polls, both of which resonate much more with the base than with moderates and independent voters.
Even some of the newly elected Republican governors who demonstrated appeal among independents during the 2010 election aren't necessarily pursuing get-along, go-along agendas.
Sixteen years after electing Ridge, Pennsylvanians voted for Corbett, who won with 54.5 percent of the vote. His budget proposal includes steep cuts in health care and education and who has been a staunch opponent of severance taxes on the state's natural gas resources.
And in economically hard-hit Michigan, voters in 2010 elected Snyder, a businessman who positioned himself as a pragmatist during the GOP primary but whose early tenure suggests a willingness to break some eggs.
Democrats and union leaders "give Snyder credit for being gentlemanly and seeming to seek cooperation with his critics, skeptics, and partisan enemies, but they suspect that, when all is said and done, he actually wants pretty much the same result as Walker, Kasich and company," said Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. "We've already had some demonstrations at the capitol -- nothing like in Madison (Wis.) yet, but they seem to be increasing in intensity."
There are signs that some of the harder-line governors, with the exception of Christie, are encountering public resistance.
A Quinnipiac poll released March 23 found Kasich with a 30 percent approval rating, compared to 46 percent disapproval. An Ohio poll released earlier in March found a 40 percent approval rating -- the worst initial rating for an Ohio governor in 28 years.
In Wisconsin, Walker's numbers were under water in early March. Even Rasmussen, an automated-polling firm that historically skews Republican, found his approval rating at 43 percent, compared to 57 percent disapproval.
It remains to be seen whether the most aggressive Republican governors will scale back their agendas if they find themselves in hot water with voters. For several of the new Democrats, though, voters appear to appreciate their Nixon-goes-to-China approach.
Cuomo racked up 57 percent and 56 percent approval ratings, respectively, in Siena and Quinnipiac polls in February, while a Field Poll in late March showed Brown with 48 percent approval, 21 percent disapproval.
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