Rookie Governors: Whose Record is Mixed?

In the third of four installments, Louis Jacobson takes on the governors from the Class of 2010 whose challenges may overshadow their victories.
by | February 18, 2012

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

So far, I've reviewed 12 rookie governors, and in this, the third of four installments, I look at governors who have been governing with mixed results: Their legislative victories may have been overshadowed by political challenges, or their legislative achievements haven't been popular enough to ensure high approval ratings.

As I indicated in my initial article last week, I am evaluating the 26 governors who took office at the start of 2011. I include governors who served previously, but had, until 2010, been out of office for years (Iowa's Terry Branstad, California's Jerry Brown and Oregon's John Kitzhaber). I'm not including governors who replaced their predecessors mid-term and were then elected to full terms in 2010 (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 their tenure. I considered gubernatorial performance from two perspectives -- how popular the governor is and how much of their agenda was enacted.

I then 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 mixed results and those who appeared to be struggling.

In all, I concluded that seven governors (five Republicans and two Democrats) have had mixed success. Here’s the rundown:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R)

Snyder, a businessman who ran and won as "one tough nerd," took the reins of one of the nation's most distressed states. He got much of what he wanted in his first year, but not all of it was popular. His signature policy was to replace a state business tax with a corporate income tax that leaves two-thirds of firms exempt. To fill the revenue hole left by the change, Snyder reduced the state earned-income tax credit, taxed pensioners and eliminated other exemptions and deductions. He also implemented a controversial plan of appointing emergency financial managers to distressed localities. (Detroit could be next.) Snyder's approval ratings sank as low as 20 percent in the Michigan State University State of the State Survey, and he was stymied in his effort to build a new publicly owned bridge from Detroit to Canada.

But Snyder's outlook seems to be improving as the state's economy claws back: The state is now expecting a $457 million surplus. And unlike other new Republican governors, Synder has made a point of not going to war with labor unions. "I view it as a divisive issue," Snyder told Stateline.org. "Are you going to spend all your energy fighting over that piece of the situation, versus saying how much better could we spend time working together creating jobs for all sectors?" That likely helped him avoid the fate of Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who faces a serious recall effort. A similar effort to recall Snyder fizzled.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R)

Bentley -- whose relatively low-key campaign vaulted him ahead of two warring frontrunners in the GOP primary -- has been cautious about advancing an agenda. He has won widespread praise, including from Democrats, for his recovery efforts after a series of tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa last spring, which killed about 250 people, injured 2,800 and damaged or destroyed 23,500 homes. Governing in a solidly conservative state, Bentley signed a tough immigration bill that has sparked legal challenges, a law banning abortions at 20 weeks or later and another that requires photo ID for voting. His tenure has been marked by solid opposition to his boldest initiative, shifting money from the state's education trust fund to its general fund, and a gaffe -- saying that "So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D)

By the numbers, Dayton's approval ratings aren't bad -- 52 percent in a November Star Tribune Minnesota Poll -- but that masks a turbulent first year. The GOP-controlled Legislature has blocked Dayton from enacting two of his signature policy items: a tax hike for the state's richest residents, and a new stadium for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. On the upside, Dayton was able to maintain K-12 education spending, and he took a few unsexy but notable steps that improved the state's health-care financing picture. He also stole the Republicans' thunder on environmental permitting and teacher licensing, while serving as a backstop against hard-line Republican proposals. Still, Dayton was unable to prevent the state from slipping into a 20-day government shutdown last year, the longest in Minnesota history. His stature, along with the state's economy, has since improved.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

Like Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Branstad returned to the governor's office after a years-long gap. But Branstad has had rockier relations with his Legislature (a Democratic Senate and a Republican House) than Kitzhaber has had with his. Disagreements on fiscal policy brought the two branches to the edge of a state government shutdown. Still, Branstad was able  to lengthen the period covered by the Legislature-passed budget. Branstad had sought a two-year timeframe, but the Legislature assented to about a year and a half. "This year, because we do have our fiscal house in order, I think we're in a much better position to work in a bipartisan basis," Branstad told the Des Moines Register. An October survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Branstad with a 43 percent approval rating.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R)

Brownback aims to be a transformational governor for Kansas, using a staunchly conservative agenda to reimagine what government should be, as well as putting relations between conservative and moderate Republicans to the test. Already, Brownback has signed a budget with deep spending cuts; created an Office of the Repealer to weed out government regulations; signed tough anti-abortion bills; and, citing limited-government grounds, became the only state to end all state funding for the arts. He intends to do even more in the future, including an income tax cut paid for by eliminating tax credits, including the earned-income tax credit; spending caps; and big changes to the school funding formula, Medicaid and pensions. (One of Brownback's advisers is Arthur Laffer, the patron saint of supply-side economics.) Brownback has taken heat for a few issues, including the resignation of his chief information technology official after questions arose about his academic background and his staff's criticism of a critical tweet of the governor by a high school student (which Brownback later apologized for). The combination of a bold agenda and the small-scale distractions have left his approval ratings ranging from the mid-30s to the mid-40s.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)

Malloy has managed to successfully push a far-reaching agenda through a Legislature controlled by his own party. This came after realizing a narrow 6,000-vote victory to become the state's first Democratic governor in two decades. Facing one of the nation's worst budget deficits, a two-year general fund deficit of $6.14 billion, Malloy won passage of $2.8 billion in increased taxes, $1.8 billion in budget cuts and $1.5 billion in labor-union concessions. At the same time, he's pushed for investments in job creation, especially in bioscience infrastructure. Malloy had hoped his moves would wipe out the deficit, but in January officials announced a deficit of $145 million. Moody's has decided to downgrade the state's debt, one sign of continuing fiscal concerns that, coming on top of two decades of slow job growth, has hampered Malloy's popularity. In a September Quinnipiac University poll, Malloy's ratings were under water -- 41 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval. But there are also signs that voters respect Malloy's serious and balanced approach, his aggressive way of engaging and listening to voters, and his response to a series of natural disasters last summer and fall.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

LePage, who won the governorship with just 38 percent of the vote, has taken the state in a sharply conservative direction, aided by a newly Republican Legislature -- the first such GOP dominance of state government since the late 1960s. So far, LePage's outspoken, even abrasive comments have attracted more headlines than his accomplishments -- from telling the NAACP to "kiss my butt" after declining a Martin Luther King Jr. Day invitation to saying that the "worst case" for the chemical BPA "is some women may have little beards" to prioritizing the removal of a worker-themed mural in the state Department of Labor building. Still, LePage's record of legislative achievement was strikingly extensive. He capped cost-of-living increases for retired state workers and teachers; he cut a variety of taxes; enacted a variety of health insurance market reforms; and curtailed benefits for some low-income residents. The Portland Press Herald headlined it this way: "LePage's first year: 'Contentious,' 'extreme' and, yes, 'effective.'" Cuts to the state MaineCare health insurance - including disenrollment of 65,000 adults and cutbacks for elders living in group homes -- are on the agenda for this year. He's raised his approval ratings a couple points above his take on Election Day 2010, but his tenure has been polarizing, and Democrats have gained ground in special elections held since he took office.

Research assistance: Daniel Lippman

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