Governors Refuse to Stay on Sidelines for Legislative Races

Several Republican governors have actively campaigned against lawmakers in their own party this year -- in most cases, only to see their efforts backfire.
by | September 2016

It’s always been risky for governors to meddle too much in legislative primaries. If the candidates they’re backing don’t win, governors can be stuck working with political enemies. But that hasn’t stopped a slate of top executives in 2016 from taking their chances.

Governors such as Maine’s Paul LePage and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley have picked several legislators to campaign against this year. Haley targeted eight lawmakers, with backing from a big-money political action committee run by her former chief of staff. Just four years ago, it was big news when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback actively campaigned against a cadre of moderates from his own party who were holding up his agenda in the state Senate. Now it’s almost common, particularly among Brownback’s fellow Republicans.

But it can backfire. It did in Haley’s case. She managed to knock out three incumbents, but was unable to unseat the other five. To make matters worse, two of the legislators who survived are now chairs on two of the state Senate’s largest committees. When that happens, GOP consultant Chip Felkel says, you’re forced “to pick up the pieces and try to get something done with people you actively opposed.”

All of this year’s infighting is indicative of continuing splits within Republican ranks. Just as 17 different Republicans sought the presidency, different Republicans are tussling with one another to implement their various policy visions within states. Governors by their natures tend to be pragmatists. Nowadays, they have more ideologically driven legislators to contend with.

That’s why governors in Arkansas, Nevada and South Dakota have sought in this year’s legislative primaries to prop up allies who had stuck with them on tough votes. In the case of Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, six out of the eight legislative candidates he supported won their primaries, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars devoted to their defeat. The governors in Nevada and South Dakota, however, batted little better than .500 in races where they played a role. “As in 2012, the governor’s contributions to GOP legislative primary candidates in 2016 appear to have produced no better results than flipping a coin,” commented Cory Allen Heidelberger, editor of a liberal blog called Dakota Free Press.

Being political animals, governors have always played some role in legislative elections. Typically, though, this amounts to raising money for the party. Given the natural tension between branches, many legislative leaders would prefer their governors stay on the sidelines.

Intruding in legislative elections, particularly in primaries, is perilous. Even when governors succeed, they can make lasting enemies. That’s certainly true in Brownback’s case. Last month, Brownback supporters in the legislature faced a backlash from moderates seeking revenge. In June, a bipartisan group of former governors sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of that group, accusing Brownback and his allies of carrying out the “calculated destruction” of state functions and finances.