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How Governors, Not Congress, Emerged as Trump's Main Opposition

During the pandemic, Democratic governors have alternately knocked the president and sought his help. For the opposition party, power in states now provides a base that Congress does not.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democratic governors have become a power base of opposition to Trump during the crisis. (MLive)
Maybe it was inevitable. In recent years, states have pursued policies entirely separate from Washington, with state officials increasingly belligerent toward the president on a partisan basis.

In that context, recent spats between President Trump and a number of Democratic governors — arguing over the coronavirus response and sometimes dissolving into name-calling — are part of a growing trend in American federalism. The most important venue for the party out of power in the White House has traditionally been Congress, but now the center of resistance is shifting out to the states.

“In some ways, the opposition to the president becomes states from the other party,” said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan public policy professor. “Certainly during the Obama and Trump presidencies, states have been looking for ways to chart their own course as much as possible. In many cases, that involves directly challenging presidents.”

Most states are now dominated by one party or the other. During the Obama presidency, Republicans controlled a majority of states, free to pursue their priorities on issues such as taxes, abortion restrictions and labor laws.

During the Trump presidency, Democrats have staged a comeback. They now control both the governorship and the legislature in 15 states — triple their low ebb, following the 2016 elections. That has allowed them to expand voting rights, address climate change, raise minimum wages and abolish the death penalty.

“So long as you have divided government in Washington, then the states are an increasingly important political and policy base for the other party,” said Timothy Conlan, a federalism expert at George Mason University.

Governors are well-placed to be active. Their response to the coronavirus has driven up their individual approval ratings, in many cases into the 70s and 80s. Their complaints that Trump was slow off the ball in dealing with the pandemic perhaps naturally led them not only to ramp up their own efforts but to form alliances as well. There are regional groups of governors — primarily but not entirely Democratic — who have banded together on coronavirus and economic strategies in the Midwest, Northeast and the West, with Colorado and Nevada joining the latter group on Monday.

For all that, governors — including most Democrats — have been careful to temper their criticism of Trump with thanks for his help. Unlike Democratic state attorneys general, who have made lawsuits against Trump a primary line of business, governors recognize that there are inevitably things their states will want from the federal government. Governors, along with other state and local officials, are hoping for a massive fiscal bailout from Washington.

Insults may be fun and satisfy partisans, but they’re not a good negotiating tool. 

“Even when they formed these regional cooperatives, obviously it’s very implicit that this is a criticism of the federal government, but they were generally pretty mild in their criticism of the Trump administration,” said Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University. “The governors realize that we can criticize the Trump administration, but if we criticize too much, there are no ventilators or equipment to California.”

Suing and Wooing Trump

It used to be rare for states to band together and sue the federal government. The trend accelerated during the Obama presidency, when Republican attorneys general sued Washington repeatedly over policies including immigration, environmental regulations and health care. The annual peak of multistate lawsuits — with two or more states joining together to sue the federal government — was 12, during each of the last two years Obama was in office.

That seemed like a lot at the time. The number was quickly dwarfed once Trump took office. Groups of states sued the administration no fewer than 36 times during Trump’s first year alone. They’ve filed more than 50 lawsuits together over the past two years, according to Nolette. That’s on top of lawsuits filed by individual states, with AGs in states such as New York, Massachusetts and Washington suing dozens of times each. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sued Trump so often that a bot on Twitter keeps track of the action.

“They’ve lost political and constitutional power under this president,” Rabe said. “Why wouldn’t they come after him?”

But attorneys are adversarial by their nature. Governors have to play a different game.

“It’s explicitly a win-lose situation for the AGs suing in court,” Nolette said. “For the governors, they know if they go too far, it’s going to have an impact on their residents, because the federal government might penalize them.”

Trump, who is nothing if not transactional, understands this. Earlier this month, he asserted that he could, in effect, order governors to reopen their states, when he claimed “the president of the United States calls the shots.” The next day, Trump backed away from that claim, but noted that governors would still listen to what he has to say, since every president has the ability to grant favors or take them away.

“The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency,” Trump said.

More Flies with Honey

At times, relations between Trump and various governors has become not just heated but also personal. Trump called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “a snake” during a March visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “failing,” “that woman in Michigan” and a halfwit. (On Twitter, he gave her a middle name of “Half.”) Whitmer’s set him off by describing the federal coronavirus response as “slow” and “mind-boggling.”

Trump warned governors in March that they’d better be nice to him if they wanted federal help. “It’s a two-way street,” Trump told Fox News. “They have to treat us well, also.”

Governors who have sometimes lashed out at Trump have mainly been careful to leaven their recent complaints with praise. Gavin Newsom of California, for example, in recent weeks has called Trump “thoughtful,” “responsive” and “collaborative.”

"Gavin Newsom was very nice today," Trump said last Thursday during his daily news conference.

Other governors have essentially given up. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois alternated earlier in the crisis between lambasting Trump and trying to make nice. By April 15, he declared on CNN that his patience had run out. "I've given up on any promises that have been made," Pritzker said. "I hope something will get delivered from the federal government, but I don't expect it anymore."

Trump may have taken note. States in general are asking for a federal bailout, but the president singled out Illinois and other Democratic-led states in a tweet on Monday.

“Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help?” Trump wrote.

Mutually Assured Lawsuits

Contentious relations between Trump and governors are not new. While California has sued Trump repeatedly, his administration hasn’t held back. The federal government has sued California over climate-change and clean air policies, its sanctuary law protecting undocumented immigrants and its requirement that presidential candidates unveil their tax returns.

Courts aren’t the only venue in which Trump has challenged states. High-tax blue states such as California, New Jersey and New York all viewed his 2017 tax overhaul, which limited state and local tax deductions on federal returns, as a torpedo aimed directly at them.

“With his Clean Power Plan, Obama picked a set of states that he rewarded,” said Rabe, co-author of a forthcoming book on federalism under Trump and Obama. “Trump’s evisceration of the Clean Power Plan in some ways empowered states that were his base.”

Last year, the Trump administration sued California over its cap and trade deal with Quebec, saying the state had overstepped its authority by entering into an international agreement. The California-Quebec deal is the remnant of the Western Climate Initiative, which began in 2007 and at various points encompassed seven states and four Canadian provinces. It was not entirely a coincidence that the memberships of the regional coronavirus initiatives mirrored climate pacts in the West, Midwest and Northeast.

“There’s a recognition that these places are tied together,” says Patrick Egan, a New York University political scientist. “Even if this (coronavirus response) were being more coordinated at the federal level, there would still be a lot of good government reasons for these arrangements to be forming.”

There have been interstate compacts throughout American history. Traditionally, one of the main ways policies spread from state to state was by taking the shortest path, with neighboring states copying directly from each other. Now, with most states controlled entirely by one party or the other, policies generally flow from red state to red state, or blue to blue. Partisan organizations — the Republican and Democratic associations of governors and attorneys general — “have increasingly become the focal point of where interstate cooperation has been taking place,” said Conlan, the GMU professor.

Disputes between the states and Washington certainly predated Trump and will continue after he leaves office. But the particular dynamics of this moment have put governors and the president on a collision course. 

During the campaign, Trump will undoubtedly train fire on Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the top Democratic congressional leaders, but he might try to use governors as a pinata as well. “This is going to be part of the Republican playbook in the fall, to blame the Democrats for the high incidence of this epidemic in their states,” Egan said.

The regional alliances between governors on coronavirus response may not prove enduring, but it speaks to their growing recognition that they can band together, whether on a regional or partisan basis, to address problems and points of mutual concern. 

“What I think is likely is that we see governors coming out of the coronavirus feeling their oats and testing their powers,” Rabe said. “Many of them have seen skyrocketing approval and popularity.”

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