Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

Why Republican Governors Are More Popular

Governor Doug Ducey speaks to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce in Phoenix, March 2015. (Gage Skidmore)
They make fewer promises that they have no way of keeping

When the pollster Morning Consult published its latest round of approval ratings for the nation’s 50 governors in July, it revealed a couple of interesting findings: Eight of the ten least popular governors were Democrats, while the ten most popular governors were all Republicans.

What explains this phenomenon? Clearly it’s not random chance. Does that mean conservative governance is really so much more popular than liberal governance at the state level? There’s something to that, but a closer look reveals the answer is not quite that simple.

The ten most popular Republican governors can be separated into three categories: red states, blue states, and purple states.

There are five red-state governors whose approval ratings of 57 percent to 59 percent and low disapproval ratings land them spots on Morning Consult’s top-ten list: Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Bill Lee of Tennessee. They are all conservative governors working with conservative legislatures to give conservative voters what they want on fiscal and social issues. 

You might discount the popularity of Republican governors in red states: Is it really a big deal that Republican voters are happy with Republican governors? But then you must also ask: Why aren’t Democratic governors just as popular in blue states?

One answer is that states are subject to greater fiscal constraints than the federal government, and those constraints mean that Democratic governors can’t really satisfy their voters the way that Republican governors can. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, “49 states must balance their budgets, with Vermont being the exception.” Even without a balanced-budget requirement, progressive dreams have been shattered in Vermont by cold, hard math. The state’s former Democratic governor signed into law a single-payer health-care plan in 2011, but he had to abandon it in 2014 when he couldn’t figure out a way to come close to paying for it. The state has had a Republican governor since 2017.

Budget gimmicks are still possible at the state level, but states can’t simply rack up debt the way the federal government can. If schools can’t be funded and roads can’t be built with existing revenues, taxpayers are going to feel it very soon and blame their governors accordingly. 

Republicans can also become unpopular by taking their own ideology too far: For example, steep tax cuts in Kansas resulted in budget shortfalls; those tax cuts were repealed by a bipartisan supermajority in the legislature in 2017, and the state elected a Democratic governor in 2018. But overspending is much more typically the cause of a state’s budget woes. “Some states have consistently performed poorly, such as Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey,” the Mercatus Center reports in its latest ranking of state fiscal health. “They have experienced ongoing structural deficits, a growing reliance on debt to fund spending, underfunded pensions and other postemployment benefit liabilities, or some combination of these problems.” And, sure enough, the Democratic governors of Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey all showed up in Morning Consult’s bottom-ten list.

It is, of course, possible to govern a state that is a fiscal mess and still be a very popular chief executive. And that brings us to the three deep-blue states where Republican governors have sky-high approval ratings: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (73 percent approval), Larry Hogan of Maryland (70 percent approval), and Phil Scott of Vermont (60 percent approval).

These governors have a few things in common. Hillary Clinton won each of these states by 26 to 27 percentage points in 2016. Each governor is a social liberal or, in the case of Hogan, has promised not to alter the status quo on social issues. None of them support the sitting Republican president (Hogan publicly toyed with primarying Trump).

The blue-state GOP governors succeed not so much by advancing conservatism as by tapping the brakes on their Democratic legislatures. In Massachusetts, for example, spending has grown at 3.7 percent per year (down from about 4.5 percent under Baker’s Democratic predecessor), according to Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham. Baker, first elected in 2014, also vetoed a bill providing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Other than that, Graham contends, Baker has pretty much governed as a Democrat. Baker signed an $800 million–a–year payroll-tax hike to fund a paid-family-leave benefit in 2018, and Massachusetts still ranks 47th in terms of fiscal health, according to the Mercatus Center. But Baker’s approach has been good enough to win the support of Democratic and Republican voters.

In Maryland, Hogan described his approach as that of a “goalie” before he was first elected in 2014. “Right now it’s an open net. It’s just every single crazy thing that they want to get in just gets done,” Hogan told the Washington Times. “One major thing we can do is play goalie. There’s not going to be a huge offensive game. We’re going to be able to score here and there and we’re going to stop bad things from happening and continuing to drive our state into the ground.”

As governor, Hogan has balanced the budget and used his executive authority to cut tolls, but his plan to cut taxes was blocked by the legislature in 2016. Earlier this year, Hogan vetoed a bill to create a minimum wage of $15 (more than double that of neighboring Virginia). Hogan offered a compromise at $12.10, but Democrats overrode the veto to pass the $15 minimum wage. Playing goalie is a difficult job when the opposing team has the ability to pull you.

In Vermont, Scott was first elected in 2016 and had some success playing goalie during his first two-year term. He issued 14 vetoes, according to the Burlington Free Press. Scott stopped bills to raise property taxes, establish a $15 minimum wage, and raise taxes to enact a paid-family-leave program. In 2018, the same electorate that sent Bernie Sanders back to the U.S. Senate by a 40-point margin reelected Scott by a 15-point margin. The bad news for Scott is that in 2018 Democrats and progressives achieved the supermajority necessary to override Scott’s vetoes.

Perhaps the most interesting popular Republican governors are the ones who have found success in the purple states.

In New Hampshire, Chris Sununu’s 65 percent approval rating made him the third most popular governor, according to Morning Consult. The state voted for Hillary Clinton by three-tenths of a percentage point in 2016, when Sununu won his first two-year term by 2.3 points. In 2018, New Hampshire’s legislature flipped to the Democrats, but Sununu was reelected to a second two-year term by a seven-point margin.

Sununu’s popularity can be attributed in part to the state’s economic success and his fiscal restraint. “We are the most pro-business state in the Northeast and we brag about that a lot,” Sununu tells National Review. “We’re lowering business taxes, we have no sales tax, we have no income tax.” He says he vetoed the recent Democratic budget because it was structurally imbalanced and would have raised business taxes. He also vetoed a paid-family-leave bill that would have raised taxes and has instead proposed a public–private partnership. New Hampshire’s 2.5 percent unemployment rate is the fourth lowest in the country.

Beyond the economy and the budget, another key to Sununu’s success is his accessibility. “I give my cell phone to everybody,” he says. Surely this is some gimmick, right? He must have two cell phones and hands off one to a staffer? Nope. “I have one phone, one number,” he says. “People are actually very respectful of it. Very rarely do I have people who are constantly calling me.” New Hampshire’s geography and small population (with 1.3 million residents, it has about as many people as the city of Dallas) allows Sununu to operate more like a mayor than a governor. “We’re like the tax-free suburb of Boston,” he says. If Sununu were not pro-choice on abortion, he’d be a plausible GOP presidential candidate. He says the thought of running for president hasn’t crossed his mind.

Florida’s Ron DeSantis’s popularity has surprised many observers. He won a bitterly fought first term in 2018 by less than half of one percentage point, but he is the tenth most popular governor on Morning Consult’s list, with 57 percent of Floridians approving and only 20 percent disapproving.

“He’s recognized a lot of the challenges Florida takes on the environmental front. I think it surprised a lot of folks from the environmental left,” says Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Florida. DeSantis has taken climate change seriously but also focused on issues unique to Florida, such as blue-green algae and red tide. He’s also appealed to voters by enacting a large expansion of school choice.

Arizona’s Doug Ducey (with a 53 percent approval–29 percent disapproval rating) didn’t make the top-ten list, but given the political aphorism that “the only poll that matters is on Election Day,” his popularity also deserves mention.

In 2018, Ducey won a second term when he defeated Democrat David Garcia by 14 percentage points at the same time that Republican Martha McSally lost the Arizona Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by 2.4 points. 

“He’s been extremely good on dismantling the administrative state, particularly when it comes to occupational licensing,” says Victor Riches of the conservative Goldwater Institute in Arizona (Riches formerly served on Ducey’s staff). Ducey turned a billion-dollar deficit into a surplus with across-the-board cuts and has benefited from welcoming an influx of tech companies fleeing California’s high taxes and cost of living. He has taken a tough approach on border security but has also developed strong relationships with Mexican-government officials. He won 44 percent of Hispanic voters in 2018, according to exit polls.

All the popular Republican governors are worth watching to see what conservative reforms they can actually accomplish. With gridlock dominating Washington for the foreseeable future, the states are where real innovation may occur. But Ducey, DeSantis of Florida, and Abbott of Texas deserve special attention because they are governing states that will be key battlegrounds in future presidential elections and are themselves the sitting governors who are the most plausible future Republican presidential nominees.

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