Steven Malanga joins Aaron Renn to discuss the results of this week’s gubernatorial elections. States such as Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin flipped blue after eight years of GOP governance. In highly publicized races in Florida and Georgia and heavily blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts, Republicans prevailed. All told, Democrats gained seven governorships.
Ten years ago, Democrats won a host of governorships during President Obama’s first election, and 2009 proved be a record year for state tax hikes. A decade later, state tax revenues have still not recovered to their pre-recession levels, and costs are rising (especially for state Medicaid programs). But if history is any guide, tax hikes and spending increases will be on the agenda after years of comparative taxing discipline.
Read Malanga's story at City Journal about the gubernatorial elections, “A Tax-and-Spend Revival in the States?”
Aaron Renn: Hello this is Aaron Renn, contributing editor at City Journal, and I’m joined by my colleague, Senior Editor Steve Malanga, to talk about his new piece for City Journal on the results of the election from the standpoint of the statehouses. It’s a big midterm election. There’s a lot of talk about the democrats capturing the House, the republicans adding to the majority in the Senate. But there’s a large number of governor’s races out there as well, and they haven’t gotten as much attention, and so that’s the focus of Steve’s new piece. So Steve, thanks for joining me. So I wanted to maybe just walk through a few different categories of governors, and talk about some of the races in specific and get your take on them. One of them is, some of these states that did flip from red to blue, Illinois was one where republican governor Bruce Rauner lost his reelection bid to JB Pritzker. What’s the story in Illinois? It seems like a blue state to me.
Steven Malanga: Of course it’s a very blue state. The thing is that there have been governor reformers who have won in democratic states as republicans. Rauner, however, basically took a very tough position with the democratically-controlled state legislature. It was essentially that his reforms were all or nothing. As a result of that, the state went several years without a budget. It was complete gridlock in Springfield, and in 2017, members of the republican state legislature actually voted with democrats to override Rauner’s rejection of the latest budget. So there was really gridlock, and Rauner’s approval rating declined. I think it was always going to get tough reelection. But he was significantly unpopular and he didn’t even come close to winning reelection. So that was no surprise at all.
Aaron Renn: Yeah, I mean basically he was ineffective, I think is basically fair to say.
Steven Malanga: Yes and you can contrast that with a couple of other governors in democratic states, who actually won reelection overwhelmingly. The two most interesting ones were Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. Now, both of them were popular in very democratic states as republican governors. In part that was because both of them actually sought compromise to get things done. I’ll give you an example. After the federal tax reform bill passed, essentially it meant that state tax collections were going to go up because people were going to be keeping more of the federal money. Hogan wanted to give that money basically back to Maryland residents. The democratic legislature got to keep some of that money. So in the end although Hogan fought, he compromised and essentially gave some of it back, but also kept some of it for the state. That omnibus legislation that he signed might not be popular with fiscal conservatives; it essentially got the job done. The same—Baker has been consistently ranked as the most popular governor in America within his own state, and that’s powerful for a governor—a republican governor in a democratic state, and he won reelection with two-thirds of the vote, which is, again, pretty extraordinary. So those, I think, two examples are quite striking contrasts with Rauner. The other thing about those two examples is both Baker and Hogan essentially ran away from Trump.
Aaron Renn: Right.
Steven Malanga: Neither one of them embraced Trump. But you know, you’re talking about two very democratic states and I think that’s probably an important strategy in places like that if you’re looking for reelection as a republican.
Aaron Renn: Right. Neither of them are in crisis, either, like Illinois where just very difficult and unpopular things are going to have to be done. Massachusetts is interesting because it does seem to have at least some history in electing these moderate, competent governors, Mitt Romney, of course, being governor there. So they’ve been willing to entrust the governor’s office to republicans.
Steven Malanga: If you look at patterns of election and reelection of governors in states, there are a lot of states, I’ll give you two examples: Michigan and Maine, both of which had republican governors, which over the last 50 years, have tended to flop between the parties, meaning generally after eight years, the voters of that state tended to move to the other party. And that’s part of what happened this year. In both cases, Maine and Michigan had republican governors for eight years. So republicans who ran this time around were really facing an uphill battle. In both cases, democrats won by a comfortable margin. If you look at historical precedent, it wasn’t a shocking outcome. It was part of the precedent.
Aaron Renn: A couple of states where there were some democratic candidates that were gaining national enthusiasm were Florida, with Mayor Andrew Gillum from Tallahassee, and in Georgia with Stacey Abrams running on the democratic ticket. Both of them seem to have lost to the republican, although I think Abrams has not yet conceded, says there may be a recount—we’ll have to see there. What happened to these races?
Steven Malanga: Well it’s very interesting. First of all, if you looked at the way states have been leaning they’re-- maybe Florida would be considered somewhat purple-ish. But they’re—republicans have had some success in both of these states, particularly in Georgia. In both of these cases, the republicans who won the state’s nomination were not establishment republicans but more what you would call Trump republicans. And they basically ran against the establishment within their own state, won the republican primary, and then had fairly tough, if you will election campaigns. Although in both cases they were running against pretty much left-of-center democrats. I have a sense that in particular in Florida, if democrats had nominated a more centrist candidate, they might have had a better chance. In both cases, it seems as if the republicans and the Trump-supporting republicans won. But the races were fairly close, particularly in Georgia, closer than previous elections where there’s been a pattern of electing republicans there. So those were interesting cases where the Democratic Party had an opportunity, but may have squandered it based on who they nominated.
Aaron Renn: Well it looks like the democrats picked up seven governorships, but the republicans didn’t capture any that had been held by the democrats. What is going to be the implication of this plus seven democratic pick-up going forward?
Steven Malanga: The other thing you have to look at is the composition of the state legislatures. You know, a governor isn’t going to drastically change the direction of the state without cooperation of the legislature. Republicans have control of 31 legislatures around the country. Now, if you look back to 2008, democrats controlled 29 governorships. There was a whole round of tax increases. In fact 2009 was essentially, the states recorded the largest net aggregate tax increase for states across the country in history. Agendas of some of these governors, like Pritzker, for instance in Illinois, or Ned Lamont in Connecticut, I think we’re likely to see tax increases, especially since the… revival of, if you will, of state tax revenues in the last ten years, really the slowest rebound state tax revenues after a recession since World War II. The result of that, even though we’re nine years into economic expansion, state budgets are private… in other places, where there’s democratic control, [there’s] a series of tax increases. I think they’ll be tailored towards tax increases on businesses and also on the wealthy. I think that’s pretty clear from the agenda of some of these governors, but that’s going to break with what’s been going on the last eight years.
Aaron Renn: What is likely to be the impact on redistricting after the 2020 census?
Steven Malanga: Well we still don’t know completely because there is a significant election coming in 2020 where we’re going to have 11 more governorships up, and some of these state legislatures will be in play again. But clearly what happens after the 2020 census is by really, 2021 and 2022 when we start getting the results of this, you get new congressional districts drawn, and the legislature in many of these places, in collaboration with the governor, that gets to control that process. So the mores states that your party controls, the more likely it is that you can redistrict your state, based on the 2020 census numbers, in a favorable manner. This election tilts things a little bit more favorably towards the democrats, although republicans are still significantly more in favor of control, we still have another important election in 2020, which could further determine how this goes. But this definitely tilts the landscape more favorably towards the democrats than it was, and that influences the makeup of the House of Representatives.
Aaron Renn: One last question: A state that many people wouldn’t think of having a republican government , but does, is Vermont. And the republican governor there won reelection. How did Vermont come to have a republican governor?
Steven Malanga: First of all Vermont is a very unusual state. The governor’s race is every two years, and he wanted one reelection. And essentially Vermont can be somewhat fiscally conservative. It’s not really an extremely high tax state for instance. And essentially, what’s happened is that Descott there has focused on managing the state’s finances. He’s focused on keeping the taxes restrained in his state and keeping the budget under control. And it’s actually, again, not an outlandish result. I think it’d be more unexpected to see the legislature to turn republican. That takes a much braver, if you will, political shift in tides. But it’s not as crazy as people think because there’s a streak of fiscal conservativism that runs through Vermont, too.
Aaron Renn: Alright Steve, thank you very much for joining me and everyone can check out your article at city-journal.org.