When the Republican Governors Association holds its winter meeting in Washington, D.C., this month, it will be a full house. The party now controls more state governorships than at any time in almost a century while also having a friendly president and Congress.
“With 33 Republican governors, the most in 95 years, GOP chief executives are fired up to take action, reform their states and get results,” said RGA communications director Jon Thompson. “And now with Republican control of Washington, including a Republican in the White House, they are glad to finally have a seat at the table and have great hope that Washington will adopt many of the reforms they have championed in the states.”
Democrats don’t have as many reasons to be hopeful. In addition to losing the White House and being in the minority in both houses of Congress, they hold only 16 state governorships (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an Independent). Their state-level position is the worst it has been since the Civil War, as Democrats now have complete control — the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — in just five reliably blue states.
The New Republic described this statehouse stomping as “The Democrats’ biggest disaster.” Republicans have majorities in both legislative chambers in a number of important presidential swing states: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia and Iowa.
Former President Obama’s strength in national elections did not translate well to down-ballot Democrats, especially at the state level. His party lost over 800 state legislative seats during his two terms in office, even though he won a majority of the national vote in both presidential elections.
Republicans invested heavily in state-level races during the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, spending $68 million to pick up nearly two dozen state legislatures. This gave them control over redistricting in many states, which in turn will help protect the Republican congressional majorities.
Conservatives are eager to see Republican governors cut taxes, balance state budgets and enact market-friendly reforms. Eric Greitens was elected governor of Missouri in November. In the short time he has been in office, the Republican has signed an executive order freezing new regulations on business and legislation making Missouri the 28th right-to-work state in the country. These states forbid compulsory union membership or dues payment.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, elected in 2015, has signed legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks and requiring doctors to display ultrasound images to women seeking abortions. Bevin had less success rolling back Obamacare in the state, though he received a federal waiver to alter Kentucky’s approach to Medicaid expansion.
Some of these governors are looking to Republicans in the nation’s capital to help them deliver. Others heading to the RGA meeting want to be a model federal Republicans can follow.
“Republican governors will gather and share ideas with each other, talk about the 38 gubernatorial elections occurring over the next two years and participate in policy panels on what’s working in their states and what Washington and the federal government can learn from their success in the states,” Thompson said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, currently the RGA chairman, faced a backlash comparable to the anti-Trump movement when he reformed public-sector collective bargaining. Protesters poured into Madison, Democrats and liberal groups worked to recall Walker and government workers’ unions and organized labor more broadly made him their top target.
Walker won his election, beat the recall and won re-election anyway. In November, Wisconsin voted Republican in a presidential election for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide re-election bid in 1984. Maybe the anti-Trump “resistance” will prove similarly futile.
Republicans gained plenty of governorships in states Trump lost, too. This includes Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and New Mexico. Some of these governors are quite popular. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan both have job approval ratings above 70 percent. Clinton broke 60 percent of the vote in each state.
Mike Leavitt, a political adviser to Hogan, pointed to several of Hogan’s accomplishments: three balanced budgets without tax increases, moving Maryland from last to first in Mid-Atlantic job creation and record education funding. “Job creation is something everyone can agree on,” he said.
“I think the reason why Gov. Hogan has been and remains popular in Maryland is a relatively simple formula,” Leavitt added. “He says what he’s going to do and does what he says he’s going to do. He’s a straight shooter.”
One test will come in a state that is divided on Trump. Virginia will elect a new governor this year. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe can’t run again because the state doesn’t allow governors to serve consecutive terms, creating a GOP pickup opportunity.
The supermajority of Republican governors faces political challenges, but few of them would want to trade places with the Democrats.