Republicans began their march to dominance in statehouses around the country shortly after Barack Obama won the presidency. Running anti-Obama candidates, the GOP captured a net of eight governors’ mansions between 2009 and 2013, giving the party 29 in all. In 24 of those states, the GOP also controlled the legislature. Some of those governors ruled boldly by cutting government spending, signing controversial right-to-work legislation, and limiting the right of public workers to strike. They prompted the ire of unions, who targeted half a dozen GOP governors for defeat this year. Labor largely failed, however, because as exit polls suggest, state voters actually approved of many of the boldest moves made by Republican governors over the last four years.
Consider Wisconsin, where Scott Walker has now fought—and won—three elections in four years. Walker was the Number One target this year of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the giant public-sector union, thanks to union opposition to his Act 10, a law limiting collective bargaining rights for government workers. Walker had already survived a recall election in 2012, largely because Wisconsin residents had an opportunity to see how Act 10 worked for nearly a year before the recall took place. Even Walker’s opponent in the recall, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, used elements of the bill to reduce his city’s budget. Since then, anti-Walker enthusiasm had actually cooled, even though government unions poured enormous resources into trying to defeat him again this year. Walker bested Democrat Mary Burke because, as it turns out, his supporters were far more enthusiastic about reelecting him than his opponents were about bringing him down. Only 35 percent of those who voted in Tuesday’s election had come out to vote against Walker in the 2012 recall. The rest of those recall voters, who gave Barrett 46 percent of the vote in 2012, apparently stayed home. By contrast, 50 percent of those who voted on Tuesday had also voted in the recall for Walker, and they massively supported him again. Wisconsin residents now side solidly with Walker’s effort to reform public-union collective bargaining. On Tuesday, 52 percent of the state’s voters told pollsters that they had an unfavorable view of unions in government.
John Kasich once seemed among the most vulnerable of Republican governors, especially after Ohioans in 2011 voted to rescind his budget bill, which similarly sought to limit government workers’ collective bargaining rights. Opponents of Senate Bill 5 poured nearly $30 million into the successful repeal effort, led by $1 million contributions from AFSCME and the Communications Workers of America. Kasich’s popularity nosedived and the AFL-CIO put him on its list of vulnerable Republican governors alongside Walker, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Maine’s Paul LePagee, Florida’s Rick Scott, and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett.
Still, Kasich pressed ahead with an economic revival agenda. He eliminated the state’s estate tax, cut the tax rate on business profits up to $250,000, and reinvested billions to upgrade the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. At the end of 2009, the year before Kasich assumed office, Ohio’s 10.2 percent unemployment rate was the nation’s tenth-highest. By this September, the rate had plummeted to 5.6 percent; 31 states now have higher unemployment than Ohio. The better jobs picture made Kasich popular, even among some trade-union groups, who liked his pro-growth agenda. On Tuesday, 53 percent of voters in union households pulled the lever for Kasich, compared with just 42 percent who voted for his Democratic opponent, former assistant county prosecutor Ed Fitzgerald, whose campaign sputtered after revelations that he drove for years without a valid Ohio driver’s license. In a state where voters three years ago overwhelmingly rejected limiting collective bargaining for government workers, 48 percent of Tuesday’s voters viewed government unions unfavorably, compared with 46 percent with a positive view.
Michigan’s Rick Snyder was nearly as controversial as Walker. He signed bold tax-reform legislation that, among other things, ended exemptions on state income taxes for government-worker pensions and for some pensions in the private sector. Snyder also enacted laws giving emergency fiscal managers broad powers to cut costs in struggling municipalities. He signed a law making Michigan a right-to-work state. Perhaps most controversially, his appointed fiscal manager for Detroit, Kevyn Orr, ultimately decided to take the Motor City into bankruptcy, where it could void worker contracts and cut benefits. Snyder’s opponent, Democrat Mark Schauer, tried to drum up resentment over Detroit’s woes. But the race didn’t play out the way most pundits predicted. Older voters had been expected to vote heavily against the governor’s tax reforms, but 53 percent of those 64 and older backed Snyder, as did an equal percentage of those between the ages of 45 and 64. Those two groups alone made up two-thirds of the electorate. Snyder also tried to steer Detroit’s bankruptcy down a middle road that required the city to make significant cuts but at the same time used state aid to bolster municipal government going forward. That, too, proved popular, with 65 percent of voters saying that aid for Detroit was good for the state. Half of voters said the state’s economy was good and heading in the right direction, and only 26 percent said it was poor and getting worse.
In the end, the AFL-CIO was able to defeat just one Republican governor on its list: Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, who was unpopular even among members of his own party. By contrast, Republicans picked off three more governor’s mansions from the Democrats, most prominently by defeating Illinois incumbent Pat Quinn. If anything, Quinn’s defeat showed the price of not taking bold action when it’s needed. Facing the biggest state pension crisis in the country and years of persistent budget problems, including billions in unpaid government bills, Quinn—urged on by union allies—raised taxes by $7 billion in 2011 but failed to offer any sensible pension reforms. Illinois residents watched as the state’s pension system gobbled up much of the money from the tax increase. Illinois’s unpaid bills grew to $5 billion, and Quinn doubled down this year, proposing to extend the 2011 tax increases. But he couldn’t get his own legislature to go along. Instead, it passed what the Chicago Tribune dubbed a “kick-the-can-down-the-road budget” that left most of the state’s fiscal issues unresolved. Now Bruce Rauner, the former investment banker who defeated Quinn, faces the task of wrestling with huge problems left over by his predecessor.
Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” A handful of Republican governors must know that feeling today. One suspects they’re not just exhilarated, but emboldened by their victories.