When things go south, both parties look to their governors to revitalize their fortunes. The Democrats in the 1980s used the Democratic Leadership Council, stocked with promising governors like Bill Clinton, to develop traction against the Reagan Revolution. Republicans a decade and a half later embraced George W. Bush and his record in Texas to regain the White House. With 30 gubernatorial seats, the GOP is now as primed as ever to trumpet the success of its state executives. But unfortunately success is far from the whole story.
Beneath the surface of the top-tier Republican governors who are taken seriously both as national figures and as presidential candidates (Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Sam Brownback, Scott Walker) is a string of disappointments and outright flops. Consider the case of Florida governor Rick Scott. A former hospital executive, he self-financed his way to success as a novice candidate in 2010 in part by using the fresh unpopularity of the health care law. Two years into his term, Scott decided he wanted Florida to participate in ObamaCare after all by accepting federal dollars for expanding Medicaid eligibility. The legislature rebuffed him, though Scott notched a victory with his other first-term priority of teacher pay increases.
The Medicaid expansion offer has been something of an acid test this year for GOP governors when it comes to limited government: ObamaCare makes the tantalizing proposition of federal funding for 100 percent of the expansion, but only for three years. This infusion of cash amounts to a much easier path to balanced budgets in the short run while leaving states on the hook to pay for a new class of beneficiaries in the long run. Washington is supposed to cover 90 percent of the costs after three years, but in a recent paper Charles Blahous of the Mercatus Center points out that owing to long-term fiscal pressures it is "quite unlikely that the federal government will make the full amount of Medicaid payments now scheduled under law." Ohio's John Kasich, Michigan's Rick Snyder, and Arizona's Jan Brewer are other high-profile Republican governors who broke with conservatives to support expansion. Only Brewer has been successful in ramming this through the legislature -- thanks to a last minute special session she called in coordination with the Democratic caucus.
Even apart from Obamacare, the GOP gubernatorial scene is littered with disappointments for the conservative issue mix. In Florida, Scott chose not to support a major pension reform bill that would have closed the defined benefit plan for new state workers and saved billions in future costs. Mary Fallin quashed hopes of phasing out the income tax in Oklahoma by declaring victory following passage of a quarter-percentage-point rate cut that doesn't kick in until 2015. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell's signature accomplishment is a transportation bill that comes with a flurry of tax increases. "This may technically be transportation legislation, but at the end of the day, it's a jobs bill," he said at the signing ceremony. Gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and other Republicans on the ballot in Virginia this fall beg to differ.
The propensity of Republican governors to cave on conservative principles can in part be traced back to another once high-flying GOP state leader, Indiana's Mitch Daniels. Back when he was mulling a White House run in 2010, Daniels gave an interview to the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson in which he declared that the next president "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues." Daniels never entered the presidential fray, but his prescription prompted many in the Republican Party to follow the general spirit of his advice and triangulate on both social and economic issues. The truce metaphor led some of these GOP governors down a rabbit hole of policy choices that have alienated them from many of the conservative legislators and voters who helped them win office in the first place.
Beyond the issues, several governors have shirked basic political and governing responsibilities. Brewer and South Carolina's Nikki Haley are among those who have poisonous relations with their legislatures. Haley prefers press conferences to lobbying in the state house chambers. Brewer refuses to meet with most Arizona lawmakers and brought legislative activity to a halt this spring by carrying through on her threat to veto all bills until her pro-Obama Medicaid expansion passed. GOP governors who are unpopular in their conservative legislatures tend to rely on political consultants for guidance and opt for imagery rather than legislative accomplishment.
Not surprisingly, many of these gubernatorial disappointments up for reelection in 2014 are highly vulnerable. The New York Times average of the three most recent polls shows Scott's job approval rating at 34-54 percent, and South Carolina voters disapprove of Haley 40-43 percent. Both won their first terms by tiny margins in a Republican landslide year. Michigan's Snyder and Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, who has left voters weary of his continuous role in the Penn State saga and after two years switched from tax cuts to tax increases as the centerpiece of his budget strategy, are also in negative net job approval territory. Recent experience shows that fortunes can recover, as in Ohio where an economic comeback helped Kasich go from the mid-30s to net favorability and New Jersey where -- even before his Hurricane Sandy bromance with Barack Obama -- Christie's combativeness in resisting proposed Democratic spending and tax increases has over time transformed him from whipping boy to icon.
Republican governors as a whole should not be written off. In addition to the credible presidential prospects listed above, there are fresh faces like North Carolina's Pat McCrory: a full-spectrum conservative who is embracing big ideas like tax reform. Nor does the decidedly mixed record of success for Republicans at the state level mean that we should stop looking to our governors to win national elections again. It is simply a matter of identifying the right ones to promote. Unfortunately, not all Republican governors are created equal.
Jeffrey Bell and Rich Danker are, respectively, policy director and economics director at American Principles Project