Unified Government Brings Risks for Governors
Sometimes in politics, your enemy is your friend -- and not in the roundabout, enemy-of-my-enemy way. A long profile of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, part of a series that "New Mexico In Depth" began publishing last weekend, examines the first-term Republican's "combative" tenure in Santa Fe:
Yet reporter Heath Haussamen draws an important conclusion from Martinez's record: While her sharp dealings with the New Mexico Legislature may harm her standing with the political class in the capital, they may be boosting her standing with her constituents. "Martinez’s efforts to shake up the Roundhouse may help explain why voters like her," Haussamen writes.
This is not just a local hypothesis; it seems likely that this dynamic helped maintain the high ratings of some other high-profile, popular governors across the country, who are now carrying good approval into their reelection cycle. By the same token, some governors whose parties held unified control have run into difficulty, and governors whose parties just gained power are sounding cautious about how they will use it.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's high approval ratings, even among Republicans, owe something to his work with the state Senate-controlling GOP to pass legislation. (And notably, Cuomo didn't fight particularly hard to keep breakaway Democrats from returning Senate control to Republicans after the 2012 elections.) Before his handling of Hurricane Sandy further boosted his popularity, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was already in high standing with Garden State residents after three years of battle with the state's Democratic legislature.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, spent the last two years burnishing the pragmatic credentials he built as Denver's mayor with the GOP-controlled state House. Republican Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Democrat Mark Dayton of Minnesota have also performed well in the eyes of voters, despite opposition in their statehouses.
At the same time, many governors who have worked with legislatures under the umbrella of party unity for the last two years have run into political trouble. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder provides the most salient, recent example. In the waning days of 2012, the state's GOP-controlled legislature took the governor to a place he had previously said he didn't want to go, passing right-to-work legislation. Snyder promptly signed the law, ratcheting up the intensity of his 2014 reelection bid. Ohio Gov. John Kasich's GOP legislature also sent him a divisive labor bill to sign, one that was repudiated via referendum in 2011.
Earlier last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's star fell a bit -- though he remains popular -- after fellow Republicans in the state legislature pushed controversial abortion legislation. Perhaps even worse, unified control means that a governor can get bogged down fighting his own party and end up alienating his base. Conflicts within the fractious Hawaii Democratic Party certainly aren't helping Gov. Neil Abercrombie raise his job approval there.
There are counterexamples on either side. Plenty of governors on both sides -- Massachusetts's Deval Patrick is one example -- have maintained robust ratings and unified control of state government the last two years. And former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue may have been a Democrat with a Republican legislature, but her ratings were very poor and she ultimately didn't run for reelection in 2012.
Still, there is something to the pattern. It's not foolproof, but working within divided government seems to be a great way for governors to stay popular. Congress is an extreme example, but legislatures in general aren't all that popular right now, with gridlock and sausage-making often turning off voters. Many see both parties as increasingly intransigent and unwilling to compromise. A governor who can battle against such unpopular forces can channel voters' displeasure. With legislative control, a governor is another cog in a machine that people hate. Without legislative control, a governor can be a critic of government and win people's hearts in doing so.
That creates a paradox for some chief executives whose parties gained power in the most recent election. Hickenlooper, for instance, "may have to start making people mad" for the first time, as the Denver Post aptly put it. Democrats regained control of the statehouse in November, and now they have the opportunity to advance legislation that could prove controversial -- a gun control law, for example.
As excited as Democrats are to finally have supermajority power in California's legislature, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and other state Democrats have spoken since the election about balancing the party's agenda against the kind of overreach that could provoke a backlash in 2014. In Wisconsin, the site of massive labor protests in 2011 and a recall election in 2012 sparked by state Republicans' legislative agenda, GOP Gov. Scott Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal that he won't be causing controversy this session, even though voters reestablished the GOP's state Senate majority. "We're not going to do things that are going to bring 80,000 or 100,000 people into the Capitol," Walker told the paper.
As Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility. It also comes with great risks, and newly empowered governors across the country seem to be mindful of it.