Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What Happens When Governors and Legislators Don't Get Along

Why are some lawmakers calling each other ‘bastards’ and ‘bat shit crazy’? Because governors in a dozen states now face legislatures controlled by the other party. While some can reach compromises, policy fights and angry words are common.

Gov.-elect Andy Beshear celebrates with supporters after voting results showed the Democrat holding a slim lead over Republican Gov. Matt Bevin at C2 Event Venue on November 5, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (John Sommers II/Getty Images/TNS)
When Steve Beshear was the Democratic governor of Kentucky, his party still controlled the statehouse. That allowed him to pass several of his priorities, including an expansion of Medicaid considered so successful by Democrats that Beshear received a shout out from President Barack Obama during his 2014 State of the Union address and was chosen to deliver his party’s official response to President Trump’s 2017 State of the Union address.

His son, Andy Beshear, may end up accomplishing less on the job. The younger Beshear, who unseated GOP Gov. Matt Bevin and will be sworn in on Dec. 10, faces a legislature firmly controlled by Republicans.

“The Republicans have a supermajority,” says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. “If they can remain unified, they don’t have to play ball with this governor at all.”

Similarly, in Louisiana, newly reelected Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is likely to face a hostile legislature. The GOP increased its legislative majorities and an Edwards ally has been term-limited out as state Senate president. 

“The trend seems to be, going forward in the legislature, that there will be even less cooperation,” says Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. 

Divided control doesn’t necessarily mean gridlock. With Beshear’s victory, eight Democratic governors now face a legislature controlled by Republicans, while four Republican governors face Democratic legislatures. In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz works with the only legislature under split control in the country.

Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland have managed to have fairly productive relationships with overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures, earning approval ratings that have consistently been the highest in the country. In those states and several others, power-sharing leads to occasional vetoes, but the governor and legislatures are able to work together to pass budgets and find common ground on some issues.

But there are currently states where the governor is barely on speaking terms with top legislative leaders who hail from the other party. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers referred to legislators as “bastards” and “amoral and stupid” after they fired his agriculture secretary earlier this month. He walked back the word "bastards," but relations aren't exactly cozy. 

On Friday, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey apologized for saying that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats were “on the bat-shit crazy spectrum.”

Playing Well With Others

There was a time, not that long ago, when some governors would privately concede that they’d prefer to have at least one legislative chamber controlled by the other chamber. The nature of their job makes governors more pragmatic than legislators and they’d generally prefer not to be pulled too much to an ideological extreme.

“In lopsided states, there’s this tendency to overplay their hand, to govern in a way that alienates even their own party’s voters,” Voss says. “The governors who are able to emerge as moderates in states that don’t generally favor their party are usually popular.”

Republican governors such as Hogan and Baker have been able to separate themselves from Trump and a national party that are unpopular in their states. At the same time, they’ve acted as brakes on their legislatures in ways that keep their own party’s constituents satisfied, if not entirely happy.

Baker signed off on the budget this year without issuing any line-item vetoes, but twice vetoed legislation to make it easier for unions to represent public workers. In Vermont, GOP Gov. Phil Scott signed an expansion of abortion rights this year, after signing a gun-control package last year. On the other hand, he vetoed a legislative attempt to raise the minimum wage to $15, while also rejecting a mandated paid family leave bill.

“I wouldn’t describe Hogan’s relationship with the General Assembly as everybody gets along, but they’re all able to get the job done,” says Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College in Baltimore. “By the end of the legislative session, they can work together on core functions of state government. The budget gets finished.”

Some Democratic governors have found areas of common ground with GOP legislatures. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has worked with legislators to freeze college tuition and ban foreign spending in elections. In May, Bullock signed a bill reauthorizing the state’s Medicaid expansion. 

In Kansas, Republican Senate leaders blocked the Medicaid expansion that was Gov. Laura Kelly’s top priority, but they reached an agreement on a spending increase for education and addressing issues with the state’s child welfare system. 

“Kansas represents, for now, a middle case,” says Burdett Loomis, who served as communications director for former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. “I’d see the governor-legislature relationship as somewhere between a standoff and grudging cooperation. Disagreements have not become warfare, and are unlikely to.”

Can We All Get Along?

In most states with divided government, there still isn’t the outward rancor that’s evident daily in Washington. Personalities still count for a lot.

Referring to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Franklin & Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna says, “He’s very calm, he’s very measured, he’s very careful in how he chooses his words. You can disagree with him on policy, but it’s hard to dislike him.”

Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Republican majorities have learned to live with each other. During his first term, Wolf called for sales and income tax increases that went nowhere. The commonwealth suffered from a lengthy government shutdown.

Although Wolf wants to impose an additional tax on fracking, he’s given up on broader tax increases and the last two budgets have passed on time. Wolf would prefer an increase in the minimum wage of at least $12, but he appears likely to sign off on a more modest increase, eventually rising to $9.50, that was just passed by the state Senate. 

For their part, Madonna says, Republican legislators recognize Wolf’s easy reelection victory and their own losses last year. “They disagree with him, but they don’t attack him,” Madonna says.

In Kentucky, Andy Beshear has made it clear that he’s not looking to pick fights with Republicans, announcing that he’ll attend their legislative retreat. “Throughout his campaign, he resisted the temptation to get ugly or start handing his base red-meat campaign rhetoric,” Voss says. “It was a hard-knuckled fight against his opponent personally, but he really didn’t campaign in a way that should have alienated Republicans.”

Where the Wells Were Poisoned

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that relations between the governor and legislature are worst in the states where things got off to a rough start. Following the election of Democratic governors in North Carolina in 2016 and Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, Republican legislative majorities worked in lame-duck sessions to strip certain powers from the governor and other executive branch officials.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Evers referred to the lame-duck session as “an attack on the will of the people, our democracy, and our system of government.” He hasn’t gotten much respect from legislators since. After he called for a special session on gun control, legislators this month gaveled the session to order and then gaveled it closed just seconds later. Last Tuesday, Republican Rep. John Nygren sued the governor in a case related to the same dispute that led the state Senate to fire the agriculture secretary.

Back in June, North Carolina's Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the state budget presented to him by the legislature, in large part because he demanded an expansion of Medicaid. On Sept. 11, House Republicans overrode his veto at a time when most Democratic representatives were absent from the chamber. “On a day when tragedy united our country, we should be standing together despite party,” Cooper said. “Instead, Republicans used their most deceptive stunt yet.”

Senate Democrats were able to stave off a similar maneuver. The legislature has adjourned for the year, with Cooper’s veto still standing.

In Michigan, Whitmer signed off on a criminal justice reform package that had been years in the making, while setting up a joint task force that is expected to make recommendations about overhauling county jails and the bail system by January. She also agreed to a major change in auto insurance regulations that had eluded lawmakers for decades.

But the legislature welcomed no input from the governor when it came time to craft a budget. She issued an unprecedented $947 million worth of line-item vetoes, seeking to force legislators back to the bargaining table. She also shifted $600 million worth of funds through a previously obscure procedure involving the State Administrative Board.

Whitmer reached a handshake deal with state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, in effect not to use the board to shift funds again, but Shirkey, the Senate majority leader, has insisted that the governor’s power should be clearly taken away by law.

“The story of the last six months is, who’s going to blink,” says Zach Gorchow, editor of Gongwer News Service in Lansing. “It’s really been a power struggle.”

The ground may shift in other states, given changes in legislative leadership. Maryland Gov. Hogan worked with legislative leaders who had been in place for decades, including Senate President Mike Miller, a relative centrist. Now, he’ll have to work with progressives in charge of both chambers.

In Louisiana, Edwards had been able to install John Alario, who had once served as House speaker as a Democrat, as the GOP Senate president. The quirk that allowed Louisiana governors to handpick legislative leaders is going by the wayside, however. 

“In all likelihood, both houses are going to be run by conservative Republicans who are very much against the agenda Edwards has articulated for the last four years,” says Sadow, the LSU Shreveport professor.

For more from Alan Greenblatt on this issue, listen to The Takeaway's Politics with Amy Walter: The Divided States of Government.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects