ANALYSIS & OPINION BY RUSS STEWART
Embattled Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner caught a bit of good news lately: According to a nationwide poll, he’s only America’s eighth-worst governor. He dropped a notch from ninth when Alabama’s governor recently resigned while facing impeachment.
Republican Rauner can look on the bright side: There’s just 41 governors deemed less-worse, and he’s gradually growing less-unpopular. And there are still seven governors viewed as worse, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie.
Conducted by pollster Morning Consult, 85,000 registered voters were surveyed in all 50 states, and asked: Do you approve or disapprove of your governor’s performance? The poll included all governors and senators, including those elected in 2016. The methodology was arbitrary, with Morning Consult proclaiming that those with the highest “disapprove” were the “worst” and those with the highest “approve” were the “best.” Of the ten “best” governors, all were Republicans; of the ten “worst” governors, nine were Republicans. Of the country’s 50 governors, 33 are Republicans.
A March survey by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute gave Rauner a 61 percent “disapprove,” and his nemesis, Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, a 61 percent “disapprove.” The Morning Consult poll shows a different trajectory. A September 2016 poll gave Rauner a 33-56 percent approve/disapprove. The most recent poll, conducted January to March, gave Rauner a 42-49 percent approve/disapprove. If the pollser is to be believed, Rauner’s “approval” is up 9 percent; if the Simon poll is to be believed, Rauner’s “disapproval” is growing exponentially, and a 2018 re-election is hopeless.
Nevertheless, Rauner’s advantages are not to be ignored. The election is more than 18 months away, and a lot of good stuff can happen. He’s got $50 million in his campaign account, and is already up on television pledging to “work together” to “solve” Illinois’ problems. The state hasn’t had a budget for 2 years, but there’s been no government shutdown and Rauner has thus far fulfilled his pledge not to raise the state income tax. It is the governor’s responsibility to submit the annual budget, and Rauner thoroughly understands that the budget must be balanced. So with a revenue shortfall of $5 billion, and $13 billion in unpaid vendors, any Rauner-crafted budget would have to include a tax increase. By not submitting a budget, Rauner doesn’t have to propose any tax increase.
Rauner’s predicament is both like and unlike the ten Republican governors considered “best” by Morning Consult. Rauner has a spend-less agenda, which is patently anti-union, and which will never pass the Illinois Senate, which is 37-22 Democratic, or the Illinois House, which is 77-51 Democratic. Madigan has a me-first agenda, which is to keep control of the House, not to promote an ideologically liberal agenda. Here’s a comparison:
Firewall governors: Hillary Clinton won Massachusetts by 881,699 votes, or 61 percent, Maryland by 624,305 votes, or 61 percent, and Vermont by 83,045 votes, or 61 percent, yet each has a monumentally popular Republican governor – Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan and Phil Scott, respectively. Baker’s “approve” is 75 percent, Hogan’s 73 percent, and Scott’s 68 percent. That’s because voters in those overwhelmingly Democratic states perceive the necessity of having a “firewall” – a Republican governor – to checkmate the excesses of their state’s overwhelmingly Democratic, overwhelmingly liberal legislatures. Each Republican governor is liberal on cultural issues, but conservative on fiscal issues. White voters, even liberals, do not want to pay more taxes.
It’s a symbiotic relationship: Liberal legislators know that they can glibly propose and enact all kinds of social engineering, big-spending, bureaucracy-busting, crackpot schemes, thereby appeasing their liberal, minority, social service constituencies — knowing they’ll be vetoed. The Republican governors’ role is to be a deal-maker, to sift through and reject ill-passed legislation, and to “take care of business.”
Democrats have a 34-6 Senate and 125-35 House majority in Massachusetts, a 32-14 Senate and 90-51 House majority in Maryland, and a 20-7-3 Senate and 84-54-14 majority in Vermont, with some independents. That makes Republicans inconsequential in the respective legislatures, as they are in Illinois. But the governor is a roadblock, Democrats must deal with him, and that makes voters content. Each governor will win easily in 2018.
Hogan, in particular, is a remarkable story. He won 847,107-770,511 in 2014 over the black lieutenant governor, trying to succeed Marty O’Malley, who bloated the budget with “40 successive tax, toll and fee increases,” claimed Hogan’s ads. Voters got it. O’Malley ran for president in 2016 as the left-liberal alternative to Clinton, but couldn’t compete with Bernie Sanders. Hogan was deemed a fluke…a one-termer. But then along came the 2015 Baltimore protests following a police shooting. While Baltimore’s mayor dithered, Hogan immediately dispatched the National Guard, and went on-site to take command. That’s what people expect: A governor who is decisive, competent and incorruptible. Illinois has had few of those.
In 2015, Hogan was diagnosed with lymphoma, which he has successfully fought. Hogan is bulletproof in 2018. In fact, Baltimore’s mayor may run against him for governor.
Fiscally-attuned governors: In states like Texas, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee, Republican governors Greg Abbott, Asa Hutchinson, Nathan Deal and Bill Haslam have exceedingly high “approval” ratings because they focus on economic, not social issues. They keep a tight rein on their frisky – meaning Tea Party and socially conservative legislators – and focus on an agenda which is business-friendly, job-creating and low-taxing. They maintain the status quo, and do it well. Their “approvals” are 64-24, 67-22, 63-25 and 64-24, respectively, for Abbott, Hutchinson, Deal and Haslam.
Unlike Illinois, these governors have huge legislative majorities: In Texas, Republicans have a 20-11 Senate and 95-55 House majority; in Tennessee, it’s a 28-5 Senate and 74-25 House majority; in Arkansas, it’s a 24-11 Senate and 76-24 House majority; in Georgia, it’s a 38-18 Senate and 118-62 House majority. These governors can get done what has to be done, although Deal and Haslam are term-limited. There is no doubt a Republican will succeed them.
One Republican governor who has made a remarkable resurgence is Florida’s Rick Scott, who set off on a budget-slashing campaign after his 2010 election and barely won-re-election in 2014. The rebounding economy lessened the pain, and the Republican legislature – a 25-15 Senate and 79-41 House majority – after initially resisting Scott’s meat-ax approach, eventually fell into line. Scott’s gone from worst to near best; he polls at 57-36, which is about 25 points better than 3 years ago. Scott is term-limited, but may run for senator, and his popularity helps the Republican in 2018.
Agenda-focused governors: Call them visionaries. These governors came into office with an agenda, with a base of 50-55 percent, and with a solemn commitment to enact what they promised – with no compromise. Whether they deliver or don’t deliver, they rile somebody or everybody, and have limited longevity. The most successful of this breed has been Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, elected in 2010 1,128,941-1,043,303 after 8 years of Democratic rule. Walker pledged to slash spending and curb unions’ state employee collective bargaining powers – which, with a Republican legislature, he did. That got him into a 2012 recall, which he won 1,335,585-1,164,480. In 2014, against a union-backed female liberal, Walker won 1,259,706-1,122,913. Clearly, Walker’s base loves him, although he fared poorly for president in the 2016 primaries. The Morning poll shows Walker at a 46-51 percent approval. That can be overcome if Walker seeks a third term. In 2016, the Walker operation got behind Republican senator Ron Johnson, who was trailing ex-senator Russ Feingold by more than ten points, and Johnson won by 98,766 votes.
Other agenda-driven Republican governors, all 2018 term-limited, bring up the rear. The “worst” is Christie, elected as a “firewall” in 2009, won again in 2013, ran for president in 2016, but has had a bunch of scandals. His numbers are 25-71. Democrats have a 24-16 Senate and a 52-28 House majority, and rich Democratic businessman Phil Murphy will win in November.
Next “worst” is Sam Brownback of Kansas who, after 14 years as a senator, decided he wanted to be governor in 2010 and implement Reaganomics. He cut taxes; he slashed social welfare spending; he expected an economic resurgence. It didn’t happen. The governor’s numbers are 27-66. The Republicans’ 32-8 and 97-28 legislative majorities balked, and Brownback is a pariah.
Somewhat less reviled are Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin, at 41-52, Maine’s Paul LePage, at 48-49, and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, at 40-54. Snyder and Fallin had Republican legislative majorities, and were agenda-driven, especially on school choice. They got what they wanted, but didn’t control their Republican zealots. The combative LePage has an 18-17 Senate majority and 71-77 House minority, every day is a new battle, and voters are weary.
The sole Democrat is Connecticut’s Dan Malloy, at 29-66, who capitulates to legislative liberals, spending and taxing with glee. Voters hoped to rein-in Malloy by upping the Republicans to 17-17 in the Senate and 78-72 in the House. Malloy is retiring in 2018.
Even at 42-49 and on the upswing, Rauner’s problem is that he can’t claim to be a firewall if there’s no fire. Madigan and his cohorts pass no budgetary bill that prompts voter ire. Voters are just tired of the bickering, and getting rid of Rauner is easier than getting rid of Madigan.
E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com