Democratic governors have something that senators want: results.
From New York to Montana, governors have been exhausting their executive powers, tailoring policies to combat President Trump. But a handful of leaders angling for national attention have gone a step further, touting state causes that are strikingly similar to those that Senate Democrats have been unable to advance under a Republican-controlled Congress.
It’s unusually early for intraparty one-upping. But multiple strategists and former governors said it’s precisely that kind of prioritizing that could be governors’ best offensive strategy in 2020, when senators will likely promote similar progressive visions but—given the realities of serving in the minority—fewer results to back them up.
“You’re standing on a debate stage and one of them says, ‘This is what I want to do,’” a well-placed Democratic strategist said. “And the other one says, ‘Well, I’ve already done it.’”
“People’s bullshit meter is really high,” another strategist put it bluntly.
Some of the party’s best known prospective candidates are senators, and the top two Democratic rivals in 2016—Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—had Senate experience. But voters elevated four times as many governors as senators to the presidency since the mid-1970s. And Congress’s low approval rating may further highlight that preference.
But above all, some strategists suggest, the crossover between Senate proposals and state actions may stand out the most to voters.
According to a National Journal analysis, some of the Senate’s top potential aspirants are promoting policies that are already on the books in states with nationally ambitious governors, including Colorado, Montana, New York, and Washington.
In New York, for example, Andrew Cuomo has signed laws that overlap with nearly a half-dozen presidential hopefuls in the Senate, including fellow New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Kamala Harris of California, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Sanders of Vermont.
Spanning his two terms in office—and ramping up during Trump’s first year—Cuomo created protections for residents ranging from “Dreamers,” one of Harris’s top crusades, to those affected by sexual assault, gun violence, and the criminal-justice system, some of Gillibrand, Murphy, and Booker’s biggest causes.
But perhaps the starkest parallel comes from one of Cuomo’s sharpest moves leftward, pioneering a tuition-free program for students attending state and city colleges—the first of multiple states to offer that plan. It closely mimics a talking point that Sanders used to rally legions of supporters. Sanders, who spent the past year revisiting many of his campaign stops, including in New Hampshire and Iowa, has reignited support for his cause on the road.
Sanders’s new bill was cosponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another possible progressive presidential hopeful. It would make in-state tuition free for students at community colleges and public colleges for lower-income families—with details similar to what Cuomo pushed through in New York.
“For Governor Cuomo, it’s a smart strategy,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a onetime presidential candidate. “He’s a very skilled politician.”
But Cuomo’s approach is not unique. A flock of governors possibly seeking higher office, including Montana’s Steve Bullock, Washington’s Jay Inslee, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, could also use the technique to their advantage, strategists suggest.
In Montana, Bullock, who is slated to lead the National Governors Association, sat among several prominent Democrats, including Gillibrand, Warren, and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, at a think-tank conference in D.C. last year.
“Washington has become a place where talking is often a substitute for doing,” he said then.
Months later, he became the first to successfully challenge the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net-neutrality regulations by signing an executive order that requires internet service providers to abide by the federal rules put in place during the Obama administration, something that Cuomo did days later.
In rebuking Trump, the Montana governor was also taking action on a policy that’s been top of mind for another senator vying for national attention. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been pushing bipartisan solutions to cyber issues, introduced a plan in December to undo the FCC’s action against net neutrality. Only eight weeks old, it remains to be seen how it will fare. But some critics insist the pattern is consistent: introducing legislation may not go far enough for voters seeking results.
“Senators don’t labor under the burden of people expecting results from them,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a 2016 presidential contender, told National Journal before boarding a plane to Iowa. “Senators can debate and propose and all of that stuff, but governors have to deliver.”
In Colorado, Hickenlooper, briefly floated last year as a potential “unity ticket” candidate with Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, paved the way for another contrast in 2020 by defending his state’s decision to legalize marijuana in an August letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But the Colorado governor may have to refine his stance to draw contrasts between Booker, one of the Senate’s top proponents of that cause. Further muddying the waters, Inslee also signed a legalization measure into law, while Cuomo recently said he is looking into it for New York.
The governors’ groundwork could be problematic for Booker. He was until recently the sole sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act in the Senate, which would make pot legal nationally. Gillibrand later added her signature to it along with a social-media kickoff.
But even if the cause becomes another 2020 litmus test, some strategists argue that like other Democratic issues introduced under a Republican Congress, governors may have the inherent advantage.
“There’s a lot of things that they can actually do that are in line with what Democrats in D.C. talk about,” one strategist said.
Another example came just more than a year ago, when Inslee became the first to successfully block Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants traveling from several Muslim-majority countries.
“The nation needs checks against a president who’s prone to rogue behavior, and governors will assume a more important place in the democratic system,” Inslee said a couple of weeks after Trump’s inauguration.
Days later, Harris filed her first bill as a freshman senator, protecting access to legal resources for those who were detained while attempting to enter the country. But the bill has remained stalled for the past year under GOP leadership.
Harris took on immigration again recently, this time voting against reopening the government because she wanted further assurance of a vote to protect Dreamers.
“It’s still early, but it can’t help to be part of a dysfunctional Congress,” Richardson said.
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