Outside the Beltway, 2013 a year of emerging stars

December 31, 2013
Chris Christie was a big winner in 2013 -- but for more than just his re-election win (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Chris Christie was a big winner in 2013 — but for more than just his re-election win (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

With a divided Congress mired in partisan gridlock, no one in Washington is walking away from 2013 as a clear winner.

But outside the Beltway, 2013 told a different story. In state capitals across the country, it was a breakout year for many Democrats and Republicans, governors and legislators, who used partisan control of their states to push aggressive policy and political agendas.

Here’s a look at some of the standouts who achieved big things, and made big names for themselves, around the country:

Chris Christie and Stephen Sweeney: At a moment when national Republicans are searching for ways to appeal to women and minority voters, it’s impossible to ignore a candidate who wins 57 percent of the female vote, 61 percent of moderates and 51 percent of Hispanics on his way to a landslide victory in a blue state. But beyond the electoral politics, New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie has racked up an impressive résumé, especially with a Democratic legislature. He’s signed bills overhauling the state’s tax code, helped fill holes in New Jersey’s pension fund and fought high-profile battles with the powerful teachers unions.

And there are signs he wants to get more done — that’s why we include New Jersey state Sen. Stephen Sweeney on the list. Just after Christie won reelection by a wide margin, he tried to force state Senate Republican leader Tom Kean Jr. aside. That was a move aimed at working better with Democrat Sweeney, who doesn’t get along well with Kean. Christie isn’t done padding his résumé in advance of a possible 2016 presidential bid, and Sweeney holds the key to Christie’s priority list. They were both big winners this year.

John Kitzhaber: The Democratic Oregon governor’s first two terms in office were marked by rocky relations with the Republican-led state legislature. Now that Democrats are in control, and now that Kitzhaber better understands the job (It’s about more than being a “super-legislator,” he told us recently), he’s running the state his way. He took on sacred cows of both Democrats and Republicans, winning concessions on everything from taxes to pensions.

But next year will test him. As part of his decades-long drive to overhaul Oregon’s tax code, Kitzhaber has started a bipartisan push to levy a sales tax for the first time in state history. His sales job, and his command of the state, will be crucial: Sales taxes have failed at the hands of Oregon voters nine times before.

Sean Parnell: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had one big policy accomplishment she almost never talked about on the campaign trail: She levied big new taxes on oil companies that operate throughout her state. Her successor, Parnell, also Republican, has reversed many of those taxes, in part by strong-arming the state legislature.

Parnell got his way. But the missing revenue will leave a $2 billion budget hole he has to fill. Alaska has the rainy day fund to fill the gap, though Parnell will have to spend the rest of his first full term reinventing state government to compensate for that gap. There’s the opportunity, and a challenge, that makes Parnell a winner — for now.

Paul Thissen and Tom Bakk: Thissen, the speaker of the Minnesota state House, and Bakk, the Senate majority leader, have taken advantage of their majorities to push Democratic-friendly legislation ranging from a state-level version of the Dream Act to no-fault absentee voting and big investments in public universities. If Democrats are going to show how they would govern if given control, Minnesota stands out as one of the poster children.

Minnesota isn’t the only state in which Democratic dominance has led to an aggressive Democratic agenda. But unlike Colorado, where state Democrats faced a backlash over gun control and gay rights legislation, Minnesota Democrats aren’t feeling any kind of heat. Gov. Mark Dayton (D) looks like he’ll cruise to an easy reelection.

Phil Berger: North Carolina is the mirror image of Minnesota — a state where Republicans took control and governed with little regard for compromise. And while Pat McCrory may be North Carolina’s governor, Berger, the state Senate president, is the undisputed driving force behind policies on election law, tax cuts and social issues the legislature passed this year. To make clear just who ran the show, the legislature overrode McCrory’s only two vetoes without breaking sweat.

But if there are political consequences to Berger’s agenda, they could reverberate in 2014. The elections bill in particular is galvanizing Democrats, who, if they turn lemons into lemonade, could register and organize thousands of new voters. State House Speaker Thom Tillis, who frequently found himself in the middle of the McCrory-Berger feud, could bear the burden of the legislature’s actions as he runs against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D) next year.

Colorado Republicans: Perhaps this year’s most consequential, and most overlooked, political development is the reemergence of gun-rights groups, mobilized to defeat gun-control bills in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. After Colorado Democrats passed gun-control measures, those gun-rights advocates successfully recalled two Democratic state senators, including Senate President John Morse.

Add in new rules on energy extraction and gay rights and the mood in the state was so divided that a bunch of counties even tried to secede. The backlash against Colorado Democrats now threatens Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose approval rating has dropped precipitously over the last year. The Colorado GOP doesn’t have the best field running against Hickenlooper, but their chances of taking back the legislature improved dramatically this year.

Pennsylvania Democrats: At times this year, it seemed like Gov. Tom Corbett (R) couldn’t catch a break. In fact, all the breaks seemed to be actively going against him. From his association with the Jerry Sandusky case, stemming from his years as state attorney general, to self-inflicted wounds caused by ill-advised comments on Hispanics and gays, Corbett has had one of the more difficult years of any governor who hasn’t been forced to resign.

Whichever Democrat wins the crowded gubernatorial primary will have a leg up on Corbett in November (though Republicans think they have a chance if Democrats nominate Rep. Allyson Schwartz). The bigger challenge will be unseating the Republican majority in the state House, which the GOP controls by a 111-92 margin, and Senate, where Republicans hold a 27-23 seat edge. Pennsylvania is heavily gerrymandered, which means Democrats will need a wave to win enough seats; Corbett’s unpopularity makes that a possibility.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | December 30, 2013