Rookie Governors: Who's Doing Very Well?

It's been a year since the governors of the class of 2010 began their tenures. In their first year of office, three Republicans and three Democrats are doing very well.
by | February 10, 2012
 

It's been over a year since the governors of the Class of 2010 began their tenures. How are they doing?

I decided to find out. I took a look at the 26 governors elected in 2010. This group includes Iowa's Terry Branstad, California's Jerry Brown and Oregon's John Kitzhaber, all of whom have all served before. I'm not including governors who had already ascended to the office and then won their first full terms as incumbents in 2010, a group that includes Alaska's Sean Parnell, Arizona's Jan Brewer, Illinois' Pat Quinn and Utah's Gary Herbert.

To gauge these governors' performances, I reached out to several dozen experts in the states in question, and looked at news coverage of the governor's tenure. I considered gubernatorial performance primarily from two perspectives: how popular the governor is among their constituents and how much of their agenda was enacted.

Then, I assigned governors into one of four categories: those who seemed to be doing very well, those who seemed to be doing well, those who seemed to be having a mixed experience and those who appeared to be struggling. These categories are somewhat fluid, but I believe they are valuable in giving a sense of which governors are having an easier time in office.

In the coming days, I'll look at each of these categories in four separate articles. In this installment, I'll look at six governors who seem to be doing very well. They breakdown evenly by party: three Democrats and three Republicans. Some are from small states, several have consciously taken moderate approaches that appeal to members of both parties and a few have seen their reputation burnished by disaster recovery efforts in 2011.

The six governors that are doing very well are:

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

The Great Plains states have weathered the recession better than most places in the United States, and Daugaard's approval ratings show it. Working with a solidly Republican Legislature in a solidly Republican state, Daugaard enacted an austere budget (including cuts to education) that wasn't initially popular. But the approach worked over the long term: The state now has a projected surplus, and Daugaard's approval rating reached 60 percent, according to a poll last September by Nielson Brothers Polling. Daugaard now wants to institute wider education reforms, inclulding merit pay based on teacher evaluations. Some reforms, including new teaching and testing standards, are already underway. Meanwhile, Daugaard has reached out to Native Americans by elevating the state's office of tribal relations to cabinet level. He has also received widespread kudos for his leadership in the wake of devastating Missouri River floods in 2011.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

Shumlin won his office narrowly, with less than 50 percent of the vote. But Vermonters seem to have few regrets over their choice: A Smith Johnson Research poll late last year found a nearly 69 percent approval rating. Shumlin energized liberals by signing legislation to create a single-payer health-care system for the state (though key details, including funding, remain up in the air). At the same time, he's pleased conservatives by working to balance the budget without new taxes. Perhaps most important, Shumlin spearheaded a productive recovery to the state's worst natural disaster in memory -- the deluge from Tropical Storm Irene. The news and analysis website VTDigger.org credited Shumlin with a confident, even shrewd, approach to governing, noting that he's "hired on all but one of his four Democratic political rivals for posts in his cabinet. He also brought a potential contender -- Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott -- into the fold as an honorary member of the team."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

As I detailed in late November, Cuomo has been on a roll. He worked hard to enact a years-in-the-waiting same-sex marriage law, while also capping property taxes, eliminating a budget deficit and conceding ground to anti-inequality forces on high-income tax brackets. He's also helped turn around a state government that has recently been seen as one of the nation's most dysfunctional. Since then, the evidence in support of Cuomo's high standing has only grown. A Siena poll released in mid-January found Cuomo's job performance at 62 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable -- the best he's had during his tenure. He's considered a strong potential contender for president in 2016, regardless of what happens in the 2012 election.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

Hickenlooper sailed into office in 2010 thanks to a flawed pair of conservative opponents splitting the vote. Since winning the election, he's retained his popularity. Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli recently found his approval rating at 59 percent, with only 17 percent disapproval. Some suggest that Hickenlooper's maintained his popularity by declining to take unpopular stands; for instance, he neither endorsed nor opposed Proposition 103, which would have increased education funding through higher taxes. But there's no denying that Hickenlooper's moderate positions have demonstrated appeal in this swing state. He's opposed tax increases and backed spending cuts. In late 2011, he helped bring environmentalists and energy companies together on rules for disclosing what is in fracking fluids used to extract natural gas. Even among Colorado Republicans, Hickenlooper's ratings aren't bad -- 31 percent approval, 39 percent disapproval. He received positive play from conservative columnist George Will, who likes Hickenlooper's background as a brewing entrepreneur in Denver. At the same time, Hickenlooper is tending to his Democratic base by pushing for civil unions for gay couples.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R)

Mead came to the governorship without experience in elected office (he was previously a U.S. attorney in Cheyenne). Still, he has gotten good reviews in this solidly Republican state. Mead was able to get more money for cities and counties, as well as for highways, although he was unable to secure the permanent revenue source he had sought. Mead also helped broker an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over wolves that live outside federal and Indian lands. He also gained a tech credibility by supporting Wyoming's move to using all Google Apps. Such accomplishments could explain the highest approval ratings of any Rocky Mountain state governor -- 77 percent, according to a poll conducted in early January for Colorado College's State of the Rockies project.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R)

Fallin has had to navigate a split between establishment Republicans and Tea Party backers, and observers say she's done so successfully, acting cautiously and avoiding the most polarizing Tea Party issues. She's focused instead on making Oklahoma more business friendly, recruiting a new Google facility and a Boeing expansion. She was able to enact changes in the civil justice system, as well as a workers' compensation overhaul and looser rules for firing underperforming teachers. A Sooner Poll found that 70 percent of likely voters approved of the job she was doing.

Daniel Lippman contributed research to this analysis.

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