Rookie Governors: Who's Struggling?

In this final installment, Louis Jacobson looks at seven governors who are struggling while in office.
by | February 23, 2012

In the last of four installments, I look at governors from the Class of 2010 who are struggling to gain their footing. Bad economies, poor political skills -- or both -- are marring these governors from winning favor from legislators and voters.

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, with four Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent are struggling. Here's the rundown:

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

Returning to the governorship after decades away from it, Brown is leading California through a period notable for its downbeat economy and grim fiscal picture. Much of Brown's first year was taken up with a futile attempt to pick off a few Republican legislators to support his tax plan. Even Democrats suggest that the minority GOP tactically outmaneuvered him. Now, he's trying to get his tax proposal -- which would combine a sales tax increase with a hike on the income tax for high-earning taxpayers, both of them temporary -- on the ballot for November 2012. Meanwhile, Brown made his Democratic base unhappy by implementing nearly $1 billion in mid-year cuts to social programs. The personally monastic Brown made high-profile nods to austerity, cutting government cell phone and car use and trimming his own staff; he even installed what amounted to wooden benches in the once ornate Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room. Still, the deficit has decreased on his watch, and a December 2011 Field Poll had Brown at 47 percent approval, 36 percent disapproval.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D)

Abercrombie, a longtime U.S. House Member, has had some trouble adjusting to the governorship. By late last year, he was declared the least popular governor in the nation by Public Policy Polling, with an approval rating of just 30 percent. It got to the point where several staffers left Abercrombie, including his chief of staff, his deputy chief of staff and his director of communications. His refusal to reveal the names of his judicial nominees prompted a successful lawsuit by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and he failed in efforts to tax sugary drinks and increase the alcoholic beverage tax.

His popularity seems to have recovered a bit of late, with a 39 percent approval rating this month in the Hawaii poll. The state's largest bond issue has pumped money into construction projects, and the state's pivotal tourism industry has experienced a slow but steady turnaround. Abercrombie has also managed to chalk up some policy successes with the help of a strongly Democratic legislature. He signed a bill creating civil unions in the state, an issue his Republican predecessor Linda Lingle had vetoed and which became a significant campaign issue. Also, he turned a $1.2 billion deficit into a positive general fund balance, thanks in part to aggressive union negotiations and government restructuring, among other initiatives.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R)

Few governors in recent memory have produced a record like Walker's. He's accomplished a ton -- but he's done so in such a polarizing way that he's now facing a recall election brought about by more than 1 million signatures, almost twice as many as was needed. Walker won the battle over state employee unions' collective bargaining rights -- despite the efforts of Democratic lawmakers fleeing Madison to block a vote. He's also enacted a number of other promises applauded by conservatives, including a voter ID law, a concealed-carry law, a castle-doctrine law, and a flurry of tax cuts, according to PolitiFact Wisconsin.

More notable than Walker's relatively low approval numbers (he had a 38 percent rating in the November 2011 St. Norbert-Wisconsin Public Radio poll) is how differently Wisconsin voters view him based on partisan affiliation. Last summer, in the wake of the labor-led protests, Walker's gap in approval ratings between Republicans and Democrats was a stunning 78 percentage points -- the widest of any governor at the time. Walker can take some comfort, though, in a January poll by Marquette Law School, showing him with a 51 percent approval rating. With a recall to contend with, it's unclear how much Walker will be distracted from advancing additional pieces of his policy agenda.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)

Haley attracted national attention when she won the governorship with the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But despite a strong Republican lean in the state, Haley only won by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin over Democrat Vincent Sheheen. Her approval ratings went as high as the 60s, but by late 2011, a Winthrop University poll had her at 35 percent, and an even weak 53 percent among Republicans. Observers attribute her poor ratings primarily to the state's economy, which is one of the weakest in the nation. Haley cites $5 billion of business investment and 20,000 jobs on her watch, but her numbers aren't likely to rebound until the economic situation shows greater improvement.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)

Scott, the hard-charging conservative and former CEO, largely lived up to expectations. With a few exceptions, he's kept many of his campaign promises, including many at the expense of teachers' unions. But the Sunshine State's economy remains cloudy. This, combined with a backlash against some of his policies -- including his push to test welfare recipients for drugs (which has been mocked by The Daily Show) -- has kept his approval ratings low.

But his ratings are ticking upward. A December Quinnipiac poll found Scott's approval rating at 33 percent; that ticked up to 38 percent in January. A late-January poll by Mason-Dixon found his approval ratings at 43 percent. The modest improvements may stem from a course correction. Scott has "reshaped his image in ways big and small -- from ditching his dark business suits for khakis and casual button-down shirts, to reversing course on cuts to education funding, to blitzing talk radio shows across the state," the Tampa Bay Times reported. He's all but given up on a plan to eliminate the state's corporate income tax, and he's given the green light to a high-speed train project known as SunRail, dismaying fiscal conservatives who had cheered his earlier refusal to take federal funds. Private-sector jobs have increased by 120,000 on his watch, but he acknowledges that a second term will depend on faster growth than that. "If the issue is jobs [in 2014] and I've done a good job on jobs, then absolutely" he would win, Scott told the Orlando Sentinel. "If it's totally different issues than what I'm involved in, people elect different people."

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I)

Chafee has found that it's lonely being an Independent. The last Brown University poll had his approval rating at 22 percent. He notched a few accomplishments: civil unions (though not gay marriage), a voter ID law, improved DMV service. But his support for municipal pension reform irritated unions that had supported him (though a previous Brown poll found that 58 percent of voters support a uniform plan for what today are 36 locally-run municipal plans). He also endured some self-inflicted wounds, including calling the statehouse Spruce a "holiday tree" rather than a "Christmas tree."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

Kasich racked up a number of accomplishments during his first year. He balanced the budget without raising taxes, got rid of the estate tax, cracked down on prescription "pill mills" and reformed sentencing laws for nonviolent criminals, instituted education reforms (including teacher evaluations), and privatized the state's economic development office. But like Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Florida's Rick Scott, voters have been at best polarized and at worst unhappy about the rapid pace of change. Kasich's biggest overstep was to push a public-employee collective bargaining law that went even further than the one Walker enacted. Its defeat by the voters in an off-year election cast a pall over the rest of Kasich's first year in office, since he had spent so much political capital on it. In a January 2012 Public Policy Polling survey, Kasich was 20 points underwater: 33 percent approval, 53 percent disapproval.

Research assistance: Daniel Lippman


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