Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind for GOP’s 2016 Governors

Walker, Jindal, and Christie are all discovering the perils of wandering far from home in search of higher office.

National Journal
April 28, 2015, 4 p.m.

For months, con­ven­tion­al wis­dom held that Re­pub­lic­ans would be well-served to nom­in­ate a gov­ernor as their pres­id­en­tial stand­ard-bear­er, giv­en that voters would prefer someone with ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence in­stead of a le­gis­lat­or. The GOP boasts a deep roster of ac­com­plished gov­ernors, many of whom won tough polit­ic­al and le­gis­lat­ive battles against Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion in their home states.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the nom­in­a­tion. Every cur­rent gov­ernor run­ning or pre­par­ing to run for the pres­id­ency has seen his pop­ular­ity crater since test­ing the na­tion­al polit­ic­al wa­ters. New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, who de­cis­ively won reelec­tion two years ago, has since faced end­less scan­dal and eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion back home. As budget chal­lenges grow in Louisi­ana, Gov. Bobby Jin­dal is hav­ing trouble find­ing al­lies among his own party for his fisc­al pro­pos­als. And as he spends more time out­side the state, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er hit an all-time low in job ap­prov­al this month, weak­en­ing his ar­gu­ment that he’s a prin­cipled con­ser­vat­ive who has been able to main­tain his pop­ular­ity in a Demo­crat­ic-friendly state.

The tales of Walk­er, Christie, and Jin­dal un­der­mine the strongest case for the gov­ernor-to-pres­id­ent track—that their gov­ern­ing re­cords would be un­qual­i­fied ad­vant­ages. The biggest prob­lem for them is that it’s hard to run their home states while spend­ing days far from home cam­paign­ing in New Hamp­shire and Iowa. Jin­dal spent nearly half of 2014 out of Louisi­ana, ac­cord­ing to the Bat­on Rouge Ad­voc­ate, and has spent more than 37 days out­side of the state this year. As chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, Christie spent 152 days in 2014 out­side New Jer­sey, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times ana­lys­is. A Wis­con­sin State Journ­al study found that Walk­er has been out of state for about half of this year, even as a con­ten­tious le­gis­lat­ive battle over his budget is heat­ing up.

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Even if gov­ernors in­sist they can do state busi­ness on the road, the per­cep­tion of be­ing fo­cused on polit­ics over gov­ern­ing isn’t a good look. It’s why Mitt Rom­ney stepped down after one term as gov­ernor of Mas­sachu­setts, and why his once-sol­id ap­prov­al rat­ings had be­gun dip­ping when his pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions be­came clear. On the Demo­crat­ic side, former Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing dropped to 41 per­cent in a pre-midterm Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey; he failed to get his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor elec­ted in deep-blue Mary­land. Since George W. Bush in 2000, neither party has nom­in­ated a sit­ting gov­ernor to run for pres­id­ent.

The oth­er polit­ic­al chal­lenge these gov­ernors face is prov­ing their con­ser­vat­ive bona fides to a na­tion­al GOP audi­ence, even if it’s not in their own polit­ic­al self-in­terest in their home states. As en­ergy rev­en­ues have dipped, Jin­dal has re­mained stead­fast in op­pos­ing any new tax in­creases to bal­ance the budget. But in do­ing so, he’s em­braced oth­er fee in­creases, spend­ing cuts, and oth­er short-term fixes that have hurt his pop­ular­ity back home, even ali­en­at­ing former sup­port­ers. Walk­er’s re­cent sup­port for right-to-work le­gis­la­tion was a no-brain­er in a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary, but is op­posed by a ma­jor­ity of Wis­con­sin­ites in the latest Mar­quette Law sur­vey. Christie’s en­ti­tle­ment-re­form pro­pos­al would raise the re­tire­ment age and means-test So­cial Se­cur­ity—ideas that draw in­terest from fisc­al con­ser­vat­ives, but will be a tough sell with a New Jer­sey elect­or­ate that dis­ap­proves of his hand­ling of the statewide budget.

The polling from these gov­ernors’ home states paints a bru­tal pic­ture of how they’re faring. Christie’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing dipped to 35 per­cent in an April Quin­nipi­ac poll, with a clear 55 per­cent ma­jor­ity ar­guing that his pres­id­en­tial in­terest is dis­tract­ing him from his gubernat­ori­al du­ties. Two-thirds of Wis­con­sin voters in the Mar­quette Law poll said there is no way a gov­ernor can “run for pres­id­ent and still handle their du­ties as gov­ernor.” Walk­er’s over­all ap­prov­al rat­ing dipped to 41 per­cent. In one of the most Re­pub­lic­an states in the coun­try, Jin­dal’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is un­der­wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to an April 2014 South­ern Me­dia and Opin­ion Re­search poll—the most re­cent pub­lic, live-caller sur­vey con­duc­ted of the gov­ernor’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity.

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Those num­bers should be a cau­tion­ary sign for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been ex­plor­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of his own pres­id­en­tial cam­paign but is be­hind his gubernat­ori­al col­leagues in or­gan­iz­ing for a race. He’s been one of the most pop­u­lar gov­ernors in the coun­try, hit­ting an all-time high job ap­prov­al this month (61 per­cent) after win­ning all but two counties in Ohio dur­ing last year’s reelec­tion. But to win over skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­an primary voters, he’ll risk los­ing the at­trib­utes that have made him so pop­u­lar in the first place—his pas­sion­ate ad­vocacy for Ohio’s in­terests and will­ing­ness to break with his party on hot-but­ton is­sues, from sup­port­ing Medi­caid ex­pan­sion to spend­ing pub­lic money to fight poverty.

In a re­cent tit-for-tat with Marco Ru­bio over wheth­er be­ing sen­at­or or gov­ernor pre­pares one bet­ter for the pres­id­ency, Walk­er said that “what it’s about is lead­er­ship” in ex­tolling the at­trib­utes a gov­ernor brings to the table. That’s true to some ex­tent—and Walk­er’s suc­cess­ful fight with labor in his home state is a cent­ral ar­gu­ment for his cam­paign—but it also car­ries a great deal of down­side. It’s a Catch-22: Be­ing a gov­ernor provides those ex­ec­ut­ive op­por­tun­it­ies, but the lengthy pres­id­en­tial cam­paign pre­vents them from ex­er­cising that very lead­er­ship.

It raises an es­sen­tial ques­tion for 2016: Can you be dis­liked by a ma­jor­ity of your con­stitu­ents back home and still make the case for be­ing pres­id­ent?

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