6 Months In, Most Rookie Governors Are Thriving

Following years of turmoil and gridlock in many states, newly elected governors are getting a lot done.
by | July 23, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signing a bill.
Following the contentious single term of his predecessor, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has had a successful first six months. (AP/Amr Alfiky)

There's a big crop of governors who were newly elected in November 2018. Now, about six months in to their first term, most of them have accomplished at least some of their signature achievements and have approval ratings that are respectable -- or even better than that.

Here, we'll assess how well each of these rookie governors is performing and sort them into one of three categories: thriving, surviving or struggling.

This assessment isn't based on popularity alone; it also seeks to measure how much of their agenda has been enacted. The good news for this crop of rookie governors is that there is only one governor in the "struggling" category: Republican Mike Dunleavy of Alaska.

The rookie governors' relative strength aligns with the results of the most recent look at the 50 governors' approval ratings, released in July by the online publication Morning Consult. It found that only four governors had disapproval ratings that exceeded their approval ratings. By contrast, 45 had net approval ratings that were in positive territory and one that was break-even. In other words, now is not a bad time to be a governor.

For our assessment, we set aside governors who were elevated to the office prior to their first election victory in 2018 -- Alabama's Kay Ivey, Iowa's Kim Reynolds, and South Carolina's Henry McMaster.

Within each of the three categories, we've listed the governors from most successful to least.

 

THRIVING

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D)

Pritzker took over following the contentious single term of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, which featured ideological warfare and budgetary paralysis. The Democrat has been able to make the most of his party's solid majorities in the legislature and successfully work with Republicans to strike bipartisan deals.

Pritzker's legislative achievements fall in two areas: progress toward fiscal stability and a shift to the left on social issues.

On fiscal policy, bipartisan negotiations produced a budget that provides full funding for a new K-12 school formula, increases money for early childhood education, and modestly boosts spending for higher education and public safety. Pritzker enacted a transportation capital plan funded by increased gas taxes, as well as an education and public facilities capital plan that is funded by higher taxes on gambling and cigarettes. And the legislature placed on the 2020 ballot a Pritzker-backed measure to move the state income tax from flat to graduated.

In addition, Pritzker reached a four-year contract agreement with the public employee labor union, AFSCME, ending a standoff that had begun four years earlier under Rauner.

On other issues, the Democrat enacted a broadly liberal agenda that included a $15 minimum wage, an assurance that abortion will remain legal, heightened oversight of gun shops and legalization of recreational marijuana.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D)

Collaborating with a friendly legislature, Polis accomplished a significant portion of his agenda, including funding for full-day kindergarten, a gun control measure, a package of oil and gas reforms, and a variety of bills aimed at reducing health-care costs.

Polis has been more progressive than his predecessor, Democrat John Hickenlooper. But he hasn't moved so far to the left as to hurt prospects for the state's rising Democratic Party. Polis faces several recall efforts from the right, but they are considered a nuisance at most.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D)

Working with a Democratic-controlled legislature, Sisolak accomplished much of his proposed agenda, including a minimum-wage increase, a mandatory paid sick leave policy for state workers, collective bargaining for state workers, background checks for guns, legislation targeted at climate change and a teacher pay raise.

While some progressives are irritated that he hasn't gone further, some see Sisolak as the mirror image of his predecessor, moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was broadly popular in the state. Sisolak has signed a lot of bills that wouldn't have gotten past the Republican governors who controlled the office for the past 20 years. He even seems comfortable enough in office to create a Twitter account for the tortoise that lives in the governor's mansion.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R)

After a frustrating tenure for Republican Gov. Mary Fallin -- one that suffered amid budget shortfalls and protests by teachers -- Stitt seems to have steadied the ship.

He campaigned on giving the governor's office greater authority to hold agency heads accountable, and after he was elected, the legislature agreed to enhance his powers. He also worked with legislators to beef up the state's rainy day fund and signed an open-carry gun bill that Fallin had vetoed. Perhaps most welcome to many Oklahomans was the relative calm of the legislative session.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D)

After eight years in the shadow of his predecessor, four-term Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, Newsom has been quick out of the gate and pursued a plethora of policy ideas.

A number of Newsom's legislative accomplishments have involved items that Brown hadn't championed, including an expansion of pre-school, a repeal of taxes on diapers and menstrual products, funds to clean up toxic drinking water, and, in a nationwide first, the extension of health care to unauthorized immigrants through age 25.

The Democratic-controlled legislature has occasionally curbed Newsom's efforts -- legislators opposed his promise to protect tenants from eviction and high rate increases, for instance -- but he's won more often than he's lost.

Some say Newsom could have done a better job executing his decision to slow down California's "bullet train," which had been a favorite of Brown, and in handling the debate over the future of the death penalty in California; some also worry that the state's rainy day funds are insufficient to handle a future economic downturn. But Newsom is credited with an energized, engaged term in office so far.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)

DeSantis has proven to be more popular than his contentious, razor-thin victory would have suggested, thanks to some deft political moves combined with efforts to tend to his base.

DeSantis has taken a more liberal approach to marijuana policy and the environment, including replacing members of the South Florida Water Management Board and issuing an executive order to clean up Florida waterways, an effort that took aim at toxic blue-green algae and red tide.

At the same time, he's pursued a more conservative tack on other issues, including a ban on sanctuary cities, expanded access to educational vouchers and a bill reining in aspects of the voter-passed measure to re-enfranchise ex-felons. He also signed an expansive toll road plan opposed by environmentalists.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R)

DeWine, who's been fine-tuning his Ohio political skills for decades, has had a smooth transition into the governor's office, exuding a low-key style of leadership and forging a working relationship with Democrats.

He's prioritized services for children and kept his pledge not to cut the Medicaid expansion that his Republican predecessor John Kasich enacted to some discontent on the right. He also agreed to a 10-cent gas tax increase to fund infrastructure repairs instead of the 18 cents he had favored.

DeWine signed a stringent anti-abortion bill but kept a low-profile about it in an effort to minimize backlash from opponents. He's also done his best to avoid being a casualty of budget skirmishing between the state House and Senate.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D)

Walz has taken an energetic approach to governing, and he and his lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, have traveled the state extensively.

Walz's major accomplishment has been a bipartisan budget deal that gave him political cover for increasing license fees and business taxes. He's also taken up the thankless task of fixing long-running technical problems with the state auto licensing system, bringing aboard a private vendor.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D)

Mills has worked effectively with the Democratic-controlled legislature, collaborating on an $8 billion, two-year budget that passed in a largely bipartisan fashion. Squabbles over various tax and social issues persist, but she's managed to return the tone of governance to the more civil pattern seen before the two combative terms of her Republican predecessor, Paul LePage.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R)

Noem, who underperformed other South Dakota Republicans in winning the governorship, has since impressed observers with her communications skills.

Noem strongly opposed legislative efforts to legalize industrial hemp, ultimately using her veto pen to block a measure. But she's been in tune with the GOP-controlled legislature in trying to head off protests by Native Americans and environmentalists over pipeline construction. Noem signed legislation to allow the state to sue over "riot-boosting," or encouragement of protests that turn violent. Opponents sued, however, and the law is now headed to court.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R)

A long-serving lieutenant governor, Little has arguably worked more productively with the legislature than did his three-term predecessor, Republican Butch Otter.

Little's had a relatively quiet six months. The most contentious issue he faced may have been a bill that would have made it much harder to place ballot initiatives; Little vetoed it. He also signed into law a compromise bill implementing the voter-passed Medicaid expansion, which included work requirements.

 

SURVIVING

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D)

In a state wracked by budget problems under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, Kelly has been blessed with an improved budget picture.

She's taken advantage of the fiscal climate to get a major school funding bill through the legislature that passes muster with the courts -- light at the end of the tunnel in a long-running legal case. Kelly vetoed a GOP-backed tax cut bill and the legislature fell short of overriding it, giving Kelly an opening to pursue a more moderate bill that would cut sales taxes on food. And she secured additional funding for prisons and the foster care system.

Kelly's biggest disappointment has been a continuing inability to pass a Medicaid expansion; it cleared the House but stalled in the Senate.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R)

Kemp, like DeSantis in Florida, narrowly won a highly polarized contest in a politically competitive state despite the national Democratic midterm wave.

Also like DeSantis, he's made some moves to broaden his base, including the appointment of minorities to state and local offices.

But Kemp gave his GOP base a big win when he signed a fetal heartbeat abortion bill. It was cheered by abortion opponents but may not play well in the swingy Atlanta suburbs.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D)

Whitmer seems to enjoy the job and has been consistent in trumpeting her main campaign promise -- "Fix the Damn Roads" -- which would hike the gas tax to pay for a $2.5 billion transportation package annually for the next decade. But turning that into a legislative victory is proving to be challenging; she and the Republican-controlled legislature remain far apart.

Meanwhile, despite early veto threats, Whitmer signed an auto insurance rate reform bill that had eluded resolution for years. It earned unanimous Republican support while splitting Democratic legislators. The downside risk for Whitmer is that if differences over the gas tax persist, it could push the state to the brink of a government shutdown.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D)

Lujan Grisham rode a Democratic wave into office, and she's been benefiting from a gusher of new shale oil revenues from the state's Permian basin. The flush coffers enabled an increase in public school funding, and the governor was able to sign a minimum-wage hike.

However, Lujan Grisham alienated some conservative Democrats with progressive stances on hot-button issues including abortion and gun control.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R)

Lee's tenure has been somewhat reactive. He was slow to respond to a scandal that forced House Speaker Glen Casada, a fellow Republican, to resign his post, and he didn't take a strong stand amid the controversy over his signing of a commemorative proclamation for Confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forest.

Lee also spent significant time and political capital on a relatively small-scale school voucher bill. Still, he remains popular with voters.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D)

Faced with a GOP legislative majority determined to hold on to power, Evers has had to fight off efforts to curb his power. He did sign a budget, but it fell $2 billion short of what he had sought, and it lacked provisions he backed, including a Medicaid expansion.

Evers did, however, wield his line-item veto pen aggressively. The governor and the legislature remain far apart on expanding Medicaid, funding transportation and spending on education. As Wisconsin becomes perhaps the biggest 2020 presidential prize, it remains to be seen how close the two sides can come -- or whether relations will worsen further.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R)

Gordon has had a largely quiet tenure so far, using executive powers to launch an advisory group on big game migration, a review of policies on sage grouse conservation, and a task force to address the high rates of murdered and missing American Indian women.

Gordon had a minor skirmish with the mayor of Cheyenne, and has had to deal with fallout from coal mine closures in the state.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D)

Lamont came into office with expanded Democratic majorities, which enabled him to enact family and medical leave and a phased-in $15 minimum wage. Lamont also signed a budget on time and, thanks to a $600 million surplus, managed to do it without depleting the state's rainy day fund.

But two other issues caused Lamont some heartburn: a public option for health insurance and tolls.

Insurers CIGNA, CVS Aetna and United Health have a large footprint in the state, and they used their leverage as major employers to fight Lamont's public option.

Meanwhile, Connecticut -- unlike its neighbors -- lacks tolls to apply to the sizable flow of Interstate traffic passing through the Northeast. Lamont made numerous efforts to enact tolls but could not get enough Democratic votes in the legislature to overcome the opposition of Republican legislators.

 

STRUGGLING

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R)

Even beyond the state's record heat and expanding wildfires, Alaskan governance this year has been a head spinner.

Dunleavy has sought deep cuts in the state budget, and he's aligned himself with a conservative minority in the legislature to block overrides of his line-item vetoes. He's opposed increases in K-12 education, moved to cut 41 percent of Alaska's higher education operating budget and rejected any expansion of Medicaid funding. At the same time, he's pushed for increases in the oil-derived permanent fund dividend that every Alaskan receives.

Matters became especially problematic when Dunleavy called a special session -- not in the state capital of Juneau, but hundreds of miles away in Wasilla, a hub for conservative hardliners. Dunleavy's allies met there, but legislative leaders, along with Democrats and moderate Republicans, refused. Ultimately, Dunleavy got his cuts, but his victory may come at too much cost. Already, Dunleavy's actions have prompted protests and taken a bite out of his approval ratings.