6 Months In, How Are Rookie Governors Doing?

In this year's class, even the weakest-performing governors are surviving.
by | July 28, 2017
Roy Cooper being sworn in as North Carolina governor.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has been forced to wage court battles against the legislature’s efforts to strip his powers. (AP/Ben McKeown)

The nation's capital may be mired in turmoil these days, but for many governors, the political landscape is somewhat less daunting. That certainly holds true in states with rookie governors -- those elected for the first time in November 2016 or elevated to the office in 2017.

As in the past, we'll assess these governors' first six or so months on the job, based on our discussions with political experts in each state, and sort them into three main categories: thriving, surviving or struggling.

The good news for rookie governors is that none of them, in our view, belong in the "struggling" category. Even the weakest-performing governors these days are surviving.

This seems to align with the results of the most recent survey of gubernatorial approval ratings, released earlier this month by Morning Consult. It found that 36 governors had an approval rating higher than their disapproval rating by double digits. By contrast, five governors had disapproval ratings that exceeded approval ratings by double digits.

We set aside two rookie governors whose short tenures have made it too early to assess how they're doing: Alabama's Kay Ivey and Iowa's Kim Reynolds.

Ivey, a Republican, ascended from the lieutenant governorship in April after the resignation of her scandal-plagued predecessor, Robert Bentley. Observers say she's been a pragmatist so far, mainly trying to steady the ship.

Reynolds, also a Republican, took office in May, after GOP Gov. Terry Branstad became the U.S. ambassador to China. She hasn't had much time yet to put her stamp on the office, though Iowa is currently facing a budget shortfall and how she handles it will be her first big test. Reynolds is facing a pitched battle with Democrats, who have produced a large field of candidates determined to oust her in 2018.

Now, let's get to it. Note that governors within each category are listed alphabetically by state.

 

THRIVING

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R)

While Holcomb won a competitive race in 2016 by a larger-than-expected margin, he came into office as something of a mystery. Holcomb had worked closely with both of the previous two Republican governors, so observers wondered which one he would be most like: the economic conservative Mitch Daniels or the socially conservative Mike Pence?

So far, Holcomb has been more like Daniels. Observers credit him with bringing strong appointees into his administration and for taking an active yet unpretentious role in shaping legislation. He helped enact a 10-year road funding and maintenance plan, and he's prioritized some long-lagging concerns, such as information technology modernization.

What's more, Holcomb has First Dog Henry Holcomb helping to soften his image.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R)

Sununu, a Republican, won the governorship even as his state voted to elect Democrats Hillary Clinton for president and Maggie Hassan for the U.S. Senate. Perhaps that's why Sununu has taken a pragmatic, technocratic approach in office.

That was on display early this year when he faced resistance on the state budget from a caucus of conservative House members. Sununu was able to work with legislators to get a Senate-written budget passed and signed.

But his biggest achievement so far has been the passage of a bill to partially fund all-day kindergarten, which conservative Republicans opposed but the public favored.

Sununu also signed a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Meanwhile, his standing has been boosted by the state's 2.9 percent unemployment rate, which is tied for fourth-best in the nation.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R)

Burgum, a successful businessman and political novice, was the upset winner in the 2016 Republican primary before cruising to an easy general election victory in this solidly Republican state. But Burgum entered office at a challenging time.

First, the collapse in oil prices hit North Dakota's finances especially hard. Meanwhile, protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, citing environmental and cultural concerns, were camped out for months in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Burgum, a pipeline supporter, offered protesters a rhetorical olive branch before the project was approved; after they left the protest site, Burgum was involved in a significant cleanup effort.

On the fiscal front, Burgum, who declined to take a salary, shored up state finances by pushing for and winning cuts to the general fund to the tune of $1.7 billion, or about 28 percent. "Not since the Dust Bowl have North Dakotans seen their state's day-to-day operating fund shrink by such magnitude," Burgum wrote in an op-ed.

He also spearheaded an effort to redirect funds from corrections to drug rehab. "We need to start treating addiction like the chronic disease it is," he said in his State of the State address.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R)

Scott, who was elected as a moderate Republican, has drawn a bright line with his opposition to President Trump on health care, immigration and environmental issues -- a necessity in Vermont, one of the nation's bluest states.

He's considered accessible and relatable, which has no doubt helped him work with the Democratic-controlled legislature. (It helps that there are enough Republicans to sustain Scott's vetoes.)

Scott, as he'd indicated during the campaign, has hewed close to the ideological center, often taking the edge off Democratic initiatives. For example, he vetoed the budget the legislature sent him, arguing that savings from teacher health plans should be passed on to taxpayers. Ultimately, the two sides reached a compromise.

 

SURVIVING

Delaware Gov. John Carney (D)

Carney, who succeeded two-term Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, spent the first six months in office battling over a state budget to address a $400 million shortfall.

After fights within the Democratic Party and between Democrats and Republicans, the legislature passed and Carney signed a bipartisan budget that included revenue increases and spending cuts. Republicans agreed to drop a demand that Democrats accept a three-year suspension of "prevailing wage" rules for construction projects by counties, cities and schools. For their part, Democrats dropped a request to increase state income taxes.

Beyond this, Carney hasn't faced major problems, but walking into a budget crisis at the start of a term isn't exactly ideal.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R)

Greitens, a military veteran, rolled to a somewhat unexpected victory with the help of a strong tide in the state for Trump. He succeeded centrist Democrat Jay Nixon, who had spent two terms trying to foil the GOP-controlled legislature.

Having a Republican in the governor's office has enabled the GOP supermajority to finally pass some long-delayed conservative initiatives, including curbs on labor-union power and cuts to the budget for education and other programs.

But the governor, taking more of an outsider approach to governance, has alienated even some within his own party. He's sparred with GOP lawmakers over ethics reform, and he has irked some with an aversion to transparency with the media and a sometimes confrontational approach.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D)

Cooper won his place in the governor's mansion by narrowly ousting GOP incumbent Pat McCrory, who, pressed by a fiercely conservative Republican legislature, had enacted a sweeping and controversial agenda. The fact that the GOP continues to control the legislature has made Cooper's job harder than anyone else's on this list.

Cooper's big accomplishment has been lifting H.B. 2, the so-called bathroom bill targeting transgender individuals. The repeal has cleared the way for businesses and sporting events to enter the state. However, the new legislation left in place limitations on local anti-discrimination ordinances until 2020 -- a bitter pill for H.B. 2's opponents.

Meanwhile, the GOP passed a state budget over Cooper's veto, ignoring his calls for higher spending on education and social programs. Cooper has also been forced to wage court battles against the legislature's efforts to strip his powers.

A silver lining: A recent Elon College poll found Cooper with higher popularity than the legislature.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R)

McMaster was elevated from lieutenant governor in January after Nikki Haley was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Some in the state had hoped that McMaster would usher in a less-confrontational era of relations with the legislature, and to an extent, that has happened. But he has also issued about $55 million in budget vetoes, and blocked a gasoline tax that was ultimately overridden with bipartisan support. McMaster was able to reach a later deal with legislators that paired a gas tax increase with a reduction in the state income tax.

Unlike other rookie governors, McMaster has to worry about re-election in 2018; he faces multiple challengers in the GOP primary.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (D)

Justice beat the odds by winning the governorship in a state that overwhelmingly voted against his party's presidential nominee. But as a larger-than-life, outspoken billionaire, Justice actually shared many characteristics with Trump and aligned himself with the president politically on issues such as energy production.

Justice didn't shy away from proposing revenue hikes to fill a budget gap. He pushed legislators to increase some highway tolls, the gasoline tax and motor vehicle fees as well as levy a new tax on sugary drinks. When the legislature approved a budget he didn't like, Justice presented them with an actual plate of bull feces.

In the end, though, he let the budget measure become law without his signature in order to avoid a government shutdown. Justice is continuing to push for a "Save Our State" (S.O.S) plan that includes big investments in road construction.