In conservative Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback finds his job at risk because his tax cuts ate a big hole in state revenues. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker in trouble with voters for a conservative agenda that includes curbing the bargaining rights of public sector labor unions.
This is true even though 2014 is shaping up as a great year for Republican candidates generally – from Congress down through legislative seats in state capitals. The governor’s races stand out as an anomaly.
Did these leaders go too far with a “tea party” approach to governing? Tuesday's elections are, at least in part, a referendum on that question, even though these governors might not formally tag themselves with the tea party label.
Governors Walker and Brownback, like several other governors at risk, rode to power in 2010. That was the year the tea party movement took hold as a force in American politics as a backlash to recession, to President Obama, and to the bailout ethos of Washington policymakers.
In that year, the House of Representatives didn’t just flip from Democratic to Republican control. The election also brought in a freshman class with conservatives who didn’t blink an eye at tactics like allowing a government shutdown or refusing to raise the federal debt limit – if it might help nudge the nation toward fiscal discipline.
The new class of governors carried a similar spirit into state-level politics, to varying degrees.
It’s a style that can win some big political victories, but can also fuel opposition.
When Walker severely curbed the bargaining powers for public unions, he billed it as a necessary move to chart a sound fiscal course for the state. But protesters flocked to the state capitol and mounted a recall drive in an effort to oust the governor.
More recently, Walker was among a number of Republican governors who opted out of the expanded Medicaid enrollment provided through Obamacare – a position that even some of his supporters have criticized. And Cosmopolitan magazine is among those who have editorialized against Walker’s efforts to make it harder for women to get abortions.
Wisconsin has failed to generate the 250,000 new jobs Walker promised, something his opponents are publicizing in the campaign. All this has left Walker running only narrowly ahead of Democrat Mary Burke.
Among the governor’s races, this one has special importance because Walker has presidential aspirations. If he doesn’t win this fall, his 2016 campaign is essentially kaput.
In Kansas, Brownback won deep tax cuts that have hurt the state’s revenue outlook without giving the Kansas economy a visible push forward. One result is that credit-rating firms have downgraded Kansas bonds.
Several big newspapers in the state have endorsed Democratic challenger Paul Davis, complaining not only that Brownback is causing harmful budget cuts, but also that he’s seeking too much influence over the state’s judicial branch and attacking moderates in his own party.
In Alaska, Gov. Sean Parnell isn’t cut from a tea party mold, and some of his electoral challenges this year stem from allegations that he failed to come to grips with a brewing scandal of sexual assault within the state’s National Guard. But like Walker and Brownback, he shunned the “free money” for Medicaid, by which the Obama’s health care law sought to help more low-income Americans get health insurance.
Many conservatives – in Alaska and beyond – defend that decision, not just out of opposition to Obamacare but because they worry that the currently modest costs of expanding Medicaid will rise down the road. But the stance carries political risks for Republicans.
Governor Parnell currently trails his challenger, independent Bill Walker, in several recent polls.
In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage is also in trouble against Democrat Mike Michaud. The Republican’s hopes may hinge on whether independent candidate Eliot Cutler continues to siphon votes away from Mr. Michaud.
In an editorial endorsing Mr. Cutler, the Bangor Daily News called LePage a “a pugnacious leader with an unusual contempt for consensus-based governing.” The endorsement credited the governor with addressing pension liabilities, but said his tax cuts left a hole in the budget and his rejection of the Medicaid expansion “showed a dangerous loyalty to ideology over common sense.”
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder is another Republican who has followed conservative policies in a state that’s often voted for Democrats like Obama.
He rankled labor-union loyalists by making Michigan a “right to work” state.
But Governor Snyder’s style isn’t all tea-party brash. He has built some bipartisan bridges by engaging in efforts to lift Detroit out of bankruptcy. And he accepted the Medicaid money that came with Obamacare. All that helps explain why he has an endorsement from the Detroit Free Press and an edge in polls, albeit a fairly narrow one.
It’s possible that all these Republicans will win on Nov. 4. But if, say, Snyder wins while Walker and Brownback lose, it would send a signal nationwide about the limits of conservative activism by elected officials.