Republicans are in charge of several big purple states, and that’s not necessarily a blessing for the GOP governors up for reelection in 2014. Prodded in some cases by conservative legislatures, they are compiling records that seem tailored to help Democrats energize women, minorities, and labor and to shrink the traditional GOP turnout advantage in non-presidential election years.
The skirmishes over abortion rights, union rights, and voting rights have produced policies applauded by Republican donors and base voters, but they don’t project the moderation that may be needed to win in states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. “If you’re a swing-state governor, you want as little controversy as possible. But, sometimes, even when you’re trying to avoid it, it finds you,” says Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
That’s particularly true as these governors run for second terms. They were swept into office in the conservative wave of 2010 and are now battered survivors, some of them with the underwater approval ratings to prove it. A few stirred the pot in their first two years by imposing restrictions on voting, abortion, and unions, with mixed results. In a 2011 referendum, Ohio voters repealed curbs on collective bargaining that had been championed by Gov. John Kasich. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived an extraordinary June 2012 recall election over similar issues. Florida Gov. Rick Scott reduced early-voting days and polling hours early in his term, and in May he signed a law restoring them.
But GOP legislatures in many cases are blocking initiatives supported by their GOP governors (such as expanding Medicaid under Obamacare) and are working their way through conservative wish lists that they know will never become reality nationally, given a Democratic White House and Senate. And they do not seem overly concerned with political timing.
Kasich, for instance, just received and signed a budget that cuts funding to Planned Parenthood and to rape-crisis centers if victims are counseled on abortion. He is socially conservative, so there was no conflict there, and had he used his line-item veto to excise those provisions, he might have faced an override. On the other hand, “these are contentious issues even among Republicans,” says political scientist Paul Beck, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University. “The bottom line is, he would rather have faced those things after reelection, not before.”
Planned Parenthood wasted no time jumping onto the Ohio airwaves with a preview of what Kasich can expect in the campaign to come. “Being raped was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. But Planned Parenthood provided the care and the support that I really needed,” Audrey Imes says in the ad. “So when I heard that Governor John Kasich had signed a budget that could defund Planned Parenthood, I felt very sad for Ohio women. This budget even restricts the help that rape counselors can give survivors like me.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder also was nudged into a difficult position by his Legislature. For three years he said that a right-to-work law was “not on my agenda,” but when the Legislature rushed one through at the end of last year, he signed it. In a state often called the birthplace of the modern labor movement, his approval rating plummeted and has not recovered. Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, says Snyder was pressured to go along by legislative leaders, important fund-raisers, and “potentates” of the Republican Party. He says Snyder’s approval rating dropped for two reasons: “He seems to have flip-flopped,” and his carefully cultivated “one tough nerd” image as a moderate took a hit when he signed into law “one of the articles of faith of conservatism.”
For some governors, contentious issues could repeatedly make headlines as Election Day 2014 approaches. In Pennsylvania, a strict voter-ID law supported by Gov. Tom Corbett was stayed last fall and is scheduled for another court hearing July 15. Whichever side prevails, the case will likely end up before the state Supreme Court. The ongoing battle has the potential to mobilize minorities, another problem for a governor who is already in a trough (a recent GOP poll found only a quarter of voters thought Corbett deserved reelection).
In Wisconsin, three days after Walker quietly signed a controversial abortion law in the middle of the long Fourth of July weekend, U.S. District Judge William Conley temporarily blocked a provision requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. He said the requirement would make it impossible for some women to have abortions, and the state had not shown that the rule would have any impact on women’s health. Another hearing is set for July 18.
Democrats are pleased but somewhat bewildered by the ammunition falling into their laps. “These are issues that have been litigated. We’ve seen this movie before. The president and Democratic Senate candidates ran pretty aggressively on the war on women, labor, and economic fairness,” says Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. And that worked out pretty well for them.
A host of other issues will influence the fates of these governors, from their economic records, to whether they fulfilled their promises, to who ends up running against them. Still, GOP strategists acknowledge that their party’s dreams come true are also a boon for Planned Parenthood, labor unions, and other Democratic advocacy groups. Not only will they be able to raise more money, they’ll also have better, more current data about their backers. Both are crucial in low-turnout, low-intensity, off-year elections that can hinge on getting messages to the public and supporters to the polls. In very close races, they could tip the scale.