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Is the Road to the White House Through the Statehouse?

Lots of governors have their eyes on the Oval Office. Most of the action will be among Republicans who will be zeroing in on Democratically controlled cities to score points on issues ranging from immigration to crime to spending.

A Venezuelan migrant in Edgartown, Mass.
A Venezuelan migrant is directed onto a bus on Sept. 16 in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had about 50 migrants flown to the island. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)
With the Republicans and Democrats lining up on opposite sides under the Capitol dome, what will the next two years look like for state and local governments?

Here's the story: What happens — or doesn't happen — in Congress will have far less impact on the state of our federal system than what emerges from the ongoing battles between state capitols and the nation’s cities as ambitious governors, their eyes on the White House, maneuver for prominence on the national political scene.

In fact, what happens — or doesn’t happen — in state capitols might well have more impact on the presidential race than most pundits have yet reckoned with.

Of course, there’s a big collection of hopefuls joining the line for the nomination of both parties. There are lots of members of Congress and former cabinet members, along with a former president, racing to the starting line. But the governors are most likely to draw our attention in the first presidential primaries and caucuses. After all, they have history on their side, since 17 of the 44 men who have served as president had been governors of their states. It’s easy to forget that, in the 14 presidential races since 1968, a current or former governor has been on the ticket.

The heavy betting is that a Congress narrowly divided on partisan lines won’t manage to pass much legislation as its members dig the foxholes for the battles to come in 2024. The big issues in the states are going to push themselves to the front of the stage. Rather than proposing significant new policy initiatives, for example, House Republicans are instead gearing up for a deep dig into the Biden administration’s stimulus programs that flowed through state and local governments. There’s lots to explore.

Even before the polls had opened for the midterm elections, Republicans announced that they were launching “an onslaught of investigations into the Biden administration’s abuses of power,” focusing on “the waste of taxpayer dollars” in its COVID-19 stimulus programs and the administration’s “unprecedented executive overreach.”

Of course, the federal fiscal dam broke during the Trump administration, with the Paycheck Protection Program. A former prosecutor called it the “the biggest fraud in a generation.” But it’s the Republican theater featuring Democratic “waste,” especially with the COVID-19 relief funds flowing to the big cities, that will take center stage.

Targeting Blue Cities

That Washington-based show, however, will pale behind the main event launched by ambitious Republican governors. There’s Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, Texas’ Greg Abbott, Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson, South Dakota’s Kristi L. Noem and Maryland’s Larry Hogan, not to mention former governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Should Joe Biden step aside (or be nudged into retirement), there are Democratic governors who could surge into the race, including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, California’s Gavin Newsom and possibly North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker.

The real action, though, will be among the Republicans, who will be jostling to score points. Abbott has spent more than $12 million and sent more than 300 buses of migrants north to blue cities, adding Philadelphia to New York, Washington and Chicago. DeSantis tried to one-up him with a planeload of migrants flown to Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, but the press clippings didn’t treat the gambit kindly.

All this means that the big issues for the presidential race — at least in domestic policy — will swing to the states. Within the states, those issues will be the focus of governors trying to advance their presidential campaigns, official or unofficial. The Republican governors will be zeroing in on Democratically controlled cities as their targets.

Donald Trump made immigration the centerpiece of his previous presidential campaigns. No matter what success he has in the months ahead, Republican governors like DeSantis and Abbott are sure to work that issue hard, and they’ll have a sturdy pulpit from which to push Trump to the curb.

Republican gubernatorial candidates weren’t particularly successful during the 2022 campaign in running up victories on the crime issue. But exit polls revealed that Republicans hold a strong advantage among GOP voters on that issue (57 percent) in a series of items “most important issue to your vote,” including inflation (71 percent) and immigration (73 percent). Democrats had the strongest feelings about abortion (76 percent) and gun policy (60 percent).

Flashy Symbols

So the Republicans have a collection of issues on which they can run in the presidential primaries, and their base is likely to reward them for it. They’ll also have a position from which to score policy results instead of just making policy pronouncements. In Washington, there might be some policy skirmishes, but the real battles will be on issues that the state capitols own. On those issues, there’s the lure of establishing powerful positions at the expense of Democrats in city halls.

Republican governors aren’t just likely to make the case that they have the best plans for driving down crime. They’ll be arguing that Democratic mayors don’t. When it comes to inflation, they’ll be arguing that Democrats — including Democratic mayors — are big spenders, and they’ll be pushing the Trump spending programs to deep background. As for immigration, they’ll focus more on flashy symbols rather than on big solutions. That means digging for headlines by, for example, continuing to bus red-state immigrants to blue-state cities.

And, echoing their congressional colleagues, they’ll stir up publicity about fraud in Biden’s stimulus programs. Research documenting fraud in Trump-era programs — the Small Business Administration’s inspector general, for example, estimated that more than 70,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans raised red flags — will slide to the background as Republicans in key House committees concentrate on programs passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Since no one knows how much fraud, waste and abuse there has been in all of the pandemic stimulus and relief programs, and since at least some of this fraud happened in urban areas, it will be easy for the Republican-controlled House to declare open season on Democratic cities, in implicit support of the party’s leading presidential issues.

What this really means is that the already deep divide between the nation’s cities, which are mostly controlled by Democrats, and the leading Republicans, especially in state capitols, will become fodder for the coming presidential campaign.

Republicans begin with control of 28 of the governorships, and they have 21 “trifectas” — control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. So they start with a powerful base that’s certain to drive the wedge of polarization even deeper.

So if you’re looking for clues about the 2024 presidential race, it’s important to look past the leading candidates into the hot battles already brewing in the nation’s state capitols and the big issues that are already bubbling to the top.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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