Elected as a Tea Party Conservative But Governing as a Centrist

A lot of the hard-line GOP governors who won in 2010 have surprised their supporters with a shift toward pragmatism. What’s driving the change?
June 2017
John Kasich stands at a podium giving a speech
Ohio Gov. John Kasich. AP Images
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Surely I’m not the only person who’s wondered at times what got into John Kasich. This is the man who kept company with the militant right as a young congressman in the 1980s, preached the gospel of tax cuts as House budget chairman in the 1990s, then served up conservative commentary on Fox News in the 2000s.

Perhaps more to the point, it’s the same man who swept into the Ohio governorship in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm and anti-union rhetoric, and proceeded to push through a law curtailing collective bargaining rights for public employees. It’s the same governor who promoted budget reductions that cut deeply into the fiscal health of cities.

But if the Kasich of those years were to meet up with the Kasich of 2017, it’s not clear that they would find very much in common. By the end of last year, as he reached the midpoint of his second term, Ohio’s Republican governor had engineered an expansion of Medicaid, come out against tough restrictions on immigration, refused to vote for Donald Trump for president and supported renewable energy standards over the opposition of most Republicans in his legislature. He had become an outspoken champion of aid to the poor, calling himself an advocate for “people in the shadows” and insisting that “the Lord wants our hearts to reach out to those that don’t have what we have.”

What happened to this previously predictable politician? The simplest answer, you might think, is that nothing got into him -- that he moved left to promote his campaign for president in 2016. But that isn’t a very good answer. Kasich’s turnabout did bring publicity to his presidential run, but it foreclosed any chance of winning the nomination. Nobody gets nominated as a Republican these days by tacking left. Beyond that, it probably eliminated him as a force in national Republican politics for the rest of his public career.

Some trace Kasich’s conversion to a different event: the repudiation of his union-busting law in a statewide popular referendum in November 2011. Chastened by an embarrassing defeat, the argument goes, the governor suddenly became a new man. But this won’t really do either. Kasich has moved too far on too many diverse subjects -- and continued doing so for too long -- for one defeat on one issue to be the explanation.

The more I think about this, the more it seems sensible to look beyond single events or political calculation and say that what happened to Kasich is what happens to ideologues in many states over the course of their tenure as governors: They become pragmatized.

Kasich was one of 17 new Republican governors lifted into office on a conservative electoral tide in the Tea Party election of 2010. All but one (Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania) were re-elected in 2014, so at the start of this year 16 were still serving. These governors vary enormously in temperament, ambition and political competence. But one thing can be said of most of them: They have governed more or less from the center, sometimes bewildering the conservative activists who helped them get elected. Some have behaved as centrists from day one; others, like Kasich, have undergone well-publicized transformations. But as a group, they tend to reinforce the idea that a governorship is a moderating influence on most people who come to hold one.

It isn’t always easy to tell a change in core beliefs from a change in image. Nikki Haley of South Carolina reflects that ambiguity. A member of the Tea Party Class of 2010, she staked out a position in her first gubernatorial term as a conservative loose cannon, more interested in scoring political points against her personal enemies in the legislature than in pursuing any particular policy agenda. She handed out “report cards” to individual lawmakers and told visitors to the legislative chambers to “take a good shower” when they left the Capitol. The state House speaker, a fellow Republican, accused her of having a penchant for “middle-school insults.”

So it’s hard to imagine the Nikki Haley who took office in 2011 being chosen as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, even by a president as unorthodox as Donald Trump. But it wasn’t the Haley of 2011 who got the U.N. job. It was the seasoned second-term governor who had developed a reputation across the country as a voice of moderation and compassion in tragic times. When nine African-Americans were murdered by a white supremacist in Charleston in 2015, Haley responded with symbolic but powerful gestures of sympathy, ordering the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds and mandating that state police wear body cameras as a check against discriminatory conduct.

“Everything I’ve done leading up to this point,” Haley said in her second term, “has always been about diplomacy.” That wasn’t remotely true, but it was emblematic of the public figure she had become. In the months before she left office, Haley was still quarreling with legislators, including some whom she tried to oust in primaries in 2016. But it wasn’t her streak of residual pettiness that had come to define her in the public mind; it was the statesmanlike qualities she had managed to exhibit in moments when it counted.

Georgia’s Nathan Deal hasn’t undergone a conspicuous conversion, like Kasich, or acquired a new public image, like Haley. Still, his two terms as governor have been, on the whole, a journey to the center. And they have surprised some of the Republicans who thought of him as a hard-liner when he won election in 2010, following a 17-year congressional career in which he was best known for being tough on immigration: His most visible legislative initiative was an effort to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, including those born in the United States.

Deal as governor seemed different almost from the beginning. He devoted much of his first term to a campaign for sentencing reform, and ultimately signed legislation promoting alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. In his second term, he cultivated an alliance with Democrat Kasim Reed, Atlanta’s African-American mayor, and helped Reed win passage of a multibillion-dollar transportation bond issue. He vetoed a “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays, and opened the door to expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Many progressive Georgia Democrats still don’t buy into the notion of Deal as an evolved moderate; they cite his failed attempt to engineer a state takeover of struggling schools as evidence that he is still a heavy-handed ideologue. But it’s fair to say that for most Georgians, Deal has not really been the governor they were expecting.

I’m aware of the dangers of generalizing on a subject like this. If you comb the full list of Republicans elected in the Tea Party year of 2010, you can come up with a few who haven’t moderated at all. Rick Scott of Florida and Paul LePage of Maine have remained cranky curmudgeons at odds with their own party as well as the opposition. Sam Brownback of Kansas supported and continues to defend a massive tax cut that has imperiled the economic health of his state. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker came into office promoting a hard-right agenda, succeeded in implementing much of it, and managed to survive both a recall vote and a re-election challenge, though his public approval scores have never been very high.

Taken as a group, though, the GOP governors elected in 2010 have governed more from the center than from the right. In most cases, they have proved to be significantly more moderate than the Republican legislatures with which they shared power. Bill Haslam of Tennessee is Exhibit A in this category. He has spent the past seven years dealing with hard-right legislative initiatives, most famously a bill in 2016 that would have made the Bible the official state book. Mary Fallin has had similar problems in Oklahoma; Republicans in the legislature, initially her strong supporters, have consistently fought against her efforts to increase taxes to fund public schools.

It doesn’t take too much reflection to see why the past eight years have produced right-tilting Republican legislatures and centrist Republican governors. Legislators are chosen, especially in these days of intense gerrymandering, by narrow and often homogeneous constituencies. They are rarely held personally accountable for the success or failure of public policies; they simply need to avoid straying too far from home-district concerns. Governors, of course, have no such luxury: They have entire states to worry about. If they are Republicans, they usually need at least a respectable vote even in urban areas where Democrats are in the majority.

When policies become unpopular or economic conditions deteriorate, it’s the governor who pays the steepest price. It’s only logical that the whole mechanism would tend to drive governors to the center -- as happened in Ohio in 2011, when voters repudiated Kasich’s union-busting law and saw him moderate his approach on a whole array of issues.

I think it’s possible to go even further and say that ideology and gubernatorial agendas coexist, in most times and places, in an uneasy relationship. Governors are expected to bring major interests together, and they generally see this as a core responsibility. The best legislators have always done this as well. But in a highly polarized political environment not very many seem to volunteer for the assignment anymore. And so, these days at least, moderation is a virtue that is more likely to come from the corner office at the capitol than from the legislative chambers.