Will the Least Popular Governors Hurt Their Parties in November?

Many lawmakers up for re-election are distancing themselves from their unpopular executive leader. But that may not be enough to win.
by | September 23, 2016
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. (FlickrCC/Gage Skidmore)

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Last week, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage said he expects his party to lose control of the state Senate in November.

He should know. If it happens, LePage himself will be a major reason.

"The governor has done all he can to make the legislative elections a referendum on himself and his policy positions," said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. "So more than usual, what people do in Maine has a decent chance to reflect how they feel about the governor."

LePage has some strong supporters -- but probably not enough to give him the conservative majorities he seeks in both legislative chambers, said Melcher. The governor's habit of making controversial statements has become a drag on his party, with his approval rating below 40 percent.

Something similar is happening in other states. A governor who is highly unpopular can hurt his or her party's brand and thus the chances of its down-ballot candidates.

This week, Morning Consult released updated favorability ratings of governors across the country.

LePage had the fifth worst ratings of any governor, with only 39 percent approving of his job performance. Here's a look at the rest of the bottom five -- and how they might affect elections this November:

No. 4: Republican Rick Snyder of Michigan 

Snyder's approval rating is down to 33 percent, a continuing reflection of the anger over his handling of the Flint water crisis. Democrats are hoping this will help them post gains at the legislative level.

Recognizing the risks, Snyder has made himself scarce.

"After the tornado of outrage over the Flint crisis died down, he’s kept a pretty low profile, especially in an election year," said Roger Moiles, a Grand Valley State University political scientist. "I can’t recall a period when we’ve heard less news from a sitting Michigan governor over a period of many months."

Snyder is not welcome on the campaign trail. His absence, said Moiles, should help GOP legislators avoid being tainted by association.

This week, though, a pair of political action committees associated with Snyder started running ads in six state House districts. But none of the six seats is considered competitive, so that might represent an attempt by the governor to start rehabilitating his own image rather than helping his party hold seats, said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

"I think it's clear Snyder wanted to send a message that he's still here," she said, "but surmised he would hurt more than he would help in more competitive seats."

No. 3: Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey

Christie's already weak numbers fell further, with his approval rating dropping to 29 percent. And that was before another week of bad news for the governor.

Federal prosecutors claimed on Monday that Christie knew all along about the scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a political enemy. Also, Christie was criticized for maintaining that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump hadn't long been pushing the "birther" rumor that President Obama wasn't born in the United States.

None of this particularly matters in November because New Jersey holds its legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

But last year, Democrats padded their already sizable majority in the state House. And Christie's unpopularity is expected to make it difficult for the GOP to hold onto his seat next year, when he will be term-limited out.

"Short on resources and resigned to campaigning with the shadow of Christie's record-low approval ratings over its head, the state Republican Party's best hope could be for the governor to step down early," wrote J.T. Aregood in the Observer Wednesday. He noted, however, that that isn't likely to happen.

No. 2: Democrat Dannel Malloy of Connecticut

Federal and state investigators have been looking into campaign finance and ethics allegations involving the governor, his administration and the state Democratic Party. That comes on top of major companies from General Electric (GE) on down leaving the state.

Combine these problems with sluggish job growth and tax increases, and Malloy becomes the least popular Democratic governor in the country. His approval rating is just 29 percent.

"He's obviously the face of it all," said J.R. Romano, who chairs the Connecticut GOP.

During a campaign appearance in Fairfield last month, Trump devoted a considerable amount of time lambasting Malloy, blaming him for losing GE and calling him "garbage."

What was striking, said Romano, is that no Democrats came to Malloy's defense.

"That tells you the Democrats are trying to run as fast as possible from what they've created," he said.

Republicans believe they have a golden opportunity to gain ground in both legislative chambers, perhaps even winning the four seats they need to take control of the state Senate. Most observers still believe that outcome is unlikely.

A big question "is how effective will Republicans be in making this an election about ending one-party rule and about the unpopularity of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy," wrote Paul Choiniere in The Day. "So far, I don't see Republicans doing a great job of this, but it is still relatively early."

No. 1: Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas

Brownback's aggressive tax-cutting agenda has left his state in a hole.

On Wednesday, the Legislative Research Department released a memo stating that, despite two years' worth of budget cuts, Kansas still faces a shortfall. And that's not even counting the fact that the state again missed its own revenue projections over the past couple of months.

That has made Brownback, who has an approval rating of just 23 percent, a liability for his legislative allies. In GOP primaries last month, a slate of moderates unseated a dozen conservatives aligned with Brownback. In November, Democrats are targeting Republican legislators who represent districts that voted for Paul Davis, Brownback's Democratic challenger in 2014.

"Many of these seats are held by staunch Brownback supporters who have consistently backed his agenda but who are distancing themselves in the campaign," said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "I think that the behavior of those Republican incumbents certainly shows that they're concerned that Brownback makes them vulnerable if the Democrats can message around that effectively."

The combination of newly-elected moderate Republicans and the potential gain of a few seats in each chamber by Democrats in November could strip Brownback of his working majority next year.

"It's pretty clear that Brownback will hurt right-wing legislators," said Burdett Loomis, Miller's KU colleague. "The consensus is that there will be some kind of moderate majority in both houses."

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