The nation’s governors descend on Washington this weekend for an annual winter meeting that has, in the past, celebrated the bipartisan cooperation of top elected officials outside the Beltway. But with an era of hyperpartisanship gripping Washington, so too do governors find themselves backed into their respective party corners.
The National Governors Association has long been an organization geared toward finding and trumpeting common ground among chief executives on national policy issues. But in recent years, states have become just as polarized as Washington, leading to two parallel sets of states headed down very different tracks.
One measure of the homogenization of state politics: Only ten governors have to deal with at least one legislative chamber controlled by the opposition party.
States controlled by Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures are expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, raising the minimum wage, expanding access to absentee ballots and early voting and granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Most states under Republican control are resisting an expansion of Medicaid, curtailing the number of days polling stations are open and imposing new limits on abortion rights.
The annual NGA meeting, which this year will include discussions of education, transportation, jobs and the economy, will strive to emphasize bipartisan solutions to vexing public policy issues and downplay the divergent paths states are taking. The group’s health subcommittee, for example, will hold a session on state efforts to combat prescription drug abuse, not the implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“We’ve got a very long, productive agenda lined up. We’re going to be talking about governors taking the lead on the issues facing our states,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who chairs the NGA. “Governors are directly working on solutions to those problems.”
But in recent years, those bipartisan feelings have been drowned out by the political wings of the two parties. Both the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association will use this weekend to raise money, court donors and, behind the scenes, discuss the landscape and their strategies ahead of the November elections, when 36 gubernatorial seats are at stake.
Republicans hold 29 of the 50 governorships and will be defending 22 seats in November.
Both parties see competitive races shaping up in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Maine and Wisconsin, where Republican governors won elections to succeed Democrats in 2010. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) will both face difficult re-election bids next year as well, as may Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D).
On Thursday night, President Obama appeared at a DGA fundraiser and met with Democratic governors at the White House on Friday for what has become an annual partisan pep rally. The president set an election-year tone for the weekend when he praised Democratic governors for enacting many of the elements of his own agenda. He then took a swipe at Republican governors.
“They’re pursuing the same top-down, failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead,” he said. “They’re paying for it by cutting investments in the middle class, oftentimes doing everything they can to squeeze folks who are bargaining on behalf of workers … They’re making it harder for working families to access health insurance. In some states, they’re making it harder even for Americans to exercise their right to vote.”
Obama will host all the governors at a black tie dinner on Sunday night and reconvene for a meeting with them on Monday at the White House. Republican governors, for their part, are preparing their own strategy for that meeting. Their goal is to avoid being thrown on the defensive by Obama and to push back if necessary with their own priorities.
The NGA’s nine-member executive committee met with Obama last month and urged the president to work with states on workforce and training programs, Fallin said.
Fallin said there is a balance between the bipartisan mission of the NGA and the party committees trying to make gains in November’s elections.
“We do have to have a balance between the governors, with their ability to come together in collaboration with the governor’s association … with the realization that there’s a role for the Democrat Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association to talk about their own individual party philosophies and ideals,” Fallin said. “This just happens to be a time when governors come together in Washington to talk about federal-state relations and issues that are important to both parties.”
The race to succeed Obama will also play out at this weekend’s meeting as a number of Republican governors seriously consider 2016 presidential bids. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are all believed to harbor presidential hopes. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are also quietly laying the groundwork should they decide to enter the race.
Christie will be the most closely watched for further signs of how the scandals that erupted in his state after his reelection have affected him. As chair of the RGA, he would normally play a high profile role at events around the NGA weekend, but at this point he appears likely to avoid the public spotlight as much as possible. The RGA will hold a press conference at the end of the meeting, but by then Christie will be back in New Jersey, according to party officials.