6 Governors Who Choose Pragmatism Over Ideology

In this era of partisan politics, some are bold enough to take a bipartisan path.
by | September 4, 2015
Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during the first Republican presidential debate. (AP/John Minchillo)

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” In this era of partisan polarization in state government, though, one might be tempted to instead say, “Blessed are the pragmatists.”

The high degree of partisan control in states these days has made bipartisan efforts rare. Currently, one party controls the governorship and both state legislative chambers in 31 states. While that’s down slightly from 36 prior to the November 2014 elections -- a six-decade high-water mark -- it’s still a large number by historical standards, and it means pragmatic governors are relatively scarce.

However, they’re not absent entirely.

In this column, we’ll spotlight six governors who have either taken stances at odds with their party’s mainstream, have actively courted the opposite party on key legislative initiatives, or both.

Of course, the list isn’t comprehensive and it’s certainly debatable. We’ve excluded, for example, all but one of the governors first elected in November 2014 since they haven’t been in office long enough to gauge with certainty their pragmatism. And in order to focus on governors in their prime, we’ve excluded those nearing the end of their tenures, such as Democrats Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Jay Nixon of Missouri.

So who are the six pragmatic governors? Five of them are from Western states, and the sixth is from the Midwest.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

(AP/Matt Volz)

Bullock, like his Democratic predecessor Brian Schweitzer, has vetoed lots of bills coming from the Republican-controlled legislature, including a sizable tax cut package and gun legislation. But unlike his predecessor, Bullock’s style is less theatrical. Perhaps as a result, Bullock has managed to peel off some Republican support when pursuing several of his most important legislative initiatives.

After initially being blocked on expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Bullock earlier this year worked out a compromise measure between Democratic and moderate Republican lawmakers that was eventually signed into law. The governor has worked with lawmakers in both parties to pass a disclosure bill for “dark money” groups that are active in state political campaigns, replacing a century-old law that had been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. And Bullock has also worked with both parties in shepherding a landmark water compact for the Confederated Salish Kootenai reservation.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R)

(AP/Mark Humphrey)

From the get-go, Sandoval, who was first elected in 2010, has taken a moderate approach to governing in this swing state. In his first term, Sandoval worked with Democrats to pass an economic development package and to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But even after he won re-election in 2014 during a partisan tsunami that turned the legislature and other state offices uniformly Republican, Sandoval doubled down on pragmatism rather than pursing a GOP-only approach.

In his 2015 State of the State address, Sandoval proposed a series of tax hikes to add $1.1 billion for education. Despite tea party opposition, Sandoval worked with lawmakers from both parties to craft a package that could pass; after some ping-ponging between chambers, he signed a version of the bill into law.

In addition, he has signed measures to expand literacy programs, pre-kindergarten education and English as a second language, and he opposed a decision by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt -- a fellow Republican -- to join other states in suing to overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

(AP/John Minchillo)

As governor of another swing state, Kasich has followed a course that might be deemed a revival of George W. Bush-era compassionate conservatism -- and it’s an approach that has caused him no end of headaches in his quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. At an August summit in his home state of Ohio convened by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, several of the candidates attacked positions Kasich has taken as governor.

While Kasich has generally pursued a fiscally conservative agenda, he has at other times defied his party’s orthodoxy. He’s pursued Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and has remained loyal to the Common Core educational standards. Rhetorically, too, Kasich has taken a softer tone on immigration policy and same-sex marriage.

At the first GOP presidential debate, a moderator brought up his past comment that "when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer." Kasich responded by telling the national television audience that he expanded Medicaid in part to treat tens of thousands of mentally ill inmates, to offer rehab for people with drug addictions, and to serve the working poor so they can “get on their feet.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

(AP/Rick Bowmer)

There’s not much of a political imperative for Herbert to hew to the political center. That’s because Utah is one of the nation’s most Republican states, with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature and almost no chance these days of being beaten by a Democratic challenger. Yet Herbert -- the current chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association -- has regularly taken a moderate course.

Early in his tenure, Herbert signed an immigration bill that allowed undocumented workers to stay in the state if they paid a fine and that allowed state residents to sponsor immigrants. He has opposed social conservatives in vetoing a measure that would have allowed school districts to substitute abstinence-only instruction for sex education. Herbert has also spearheaded the crafting of an alternative to Medicaid expansion that would be acceptable to moderate Republicans.

But the biggest example of bipartisan lawmaking under Herbert was the “grand compromise” he struck on LGBT rights. The measure enshrined anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians while also preserving religious freedoms.

“Members from both parties were instrumental in passing the legislation,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, the state and local program manager at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Upon signing the bill, Herbert said, "I have no doubt the eyes of the nation are upon us. We can do difficult things because we are determined to work together, one with another, as opposed to working against one another."

This approach appears to be getting good results: An April 2015 Utah Policy poll had him with a 71 percent approval rating overall, and 85 percent among Republicans.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I)

(AP/Beck Bohrer)

The only rookie governor to make our list is the one who, structurally, has little choice but to be bipartisan, since he has no party of his own.

Walker, the former mayor of Valdez, defeated Republican incumbent Sean Parnell in 2014 as an Independent. He was previously a Republican in solidly red Alaska, but he ran on a ticket with a former Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

“He had no experience in the state legislature and thus could take a fresh approach to dealing with members,” said Jerry McBeath, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks political scientist.

One of Walker’s key battles since winning election has been over the state budget. The legislature finished its session without securing funding, so Walker called lawmakers into a special session, with the budget first on the priority list.

“It took about six weeks, most of it with legislators at home and not meeting on a daily basis, but leadership of the House Democrats and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate narrowed down differences and came to an agreement,” McBeath said. “The governor drove this process mostly, with a lot of assistance, meeting the deadline of completing the budget before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.”

Walker’s bid to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act was less smooth but eventually successful. With the GOP-led legislature blocking his effort, Walker expanded Medicaid using executive powers. Republicans filed suit to stop him, but the courts upheld his move.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

(David Kidd)

Since winning election in 2010, Hickenlooper, a former businessman, has cultivated an image as a pragmatist, though he hasn’t always carried out that mission to perfection.

During a period in his first term when the Democrats controlled the state legislature, Hickenlooper went along with the liberal flow, most notably in signing a tough gun control law even though he was governing a state with lots of wide open spaces. His popularity subsequently plunged, contributing to his party’s loss of the state Senate and nearly to his own defeat in 2014.

However, on other issues Hickenlooper has struck a more practical approach.

“His most high-profile effort to find a bipartisan, multi-interest-group compromise concerned fracking and efforts to ban it,” said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. “In general, he prefers compromise and consensus over conflict,” Ciruli said. And that’s helped his approval numbers rebound after his close call at the ballot box in 2014.

That said, pragmatism hasn’t meant a smooth ride for the governor, Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer added: “Rather than ‘blessed are the pragmatists,’ it may be more accurate to say ‘cursed are the pragmatists -- for they shall inherit the anger of the multitude.'"