The nation’s 10 most popular governors — and why

at 03:36 PM ET, 04/11/2012

It’s hard out there for a governor. (With apologies to the Three 6 Mafia.)

Tough economic times are rough on all politicians, but even more difficult for governors who have to find ways to balance their budgets. And, not surprisingly, most governors have paid a political price for the difficult budgeting decisions they have had to make.

Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott (R), Ohio’s John Kasich (R), Illinois’ Pat Quinn (D) and Connecticut’s Dan Malloy (D) struggled mightily in their first year-plus in office, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is even getting recalled this year.

But there are exceptions to every rule. And, some governors have remained strikingly popular in the midst of the economic turmoil sweeping the states. Below, we look at the 10 who have found ways to rise above the fray.

The rankings take into account all factors in determining how successful the governors have been — from approval rating to difficulty of what they have attempted to do legislatively to the political bent of their states.

What did we miss? The comments section awaits.

10. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R): The last two polls in Virginia (from Quinnipiac University and Roanoke College) show McDonnell with an approval rating at least 20 points higher than his disapproval, which is great territory for a state that has trended significantly towards Democrats in recent years and went for President Obama in 2008. McDonnell is down from a 58 percent approval/24 percent disapproval split from a Q poll in February – perhaps due to controversies in his state over divisive abortion and handgun measures, the former which won him “Worst Week in Washington” a couple months back. But he’s still got a strong profile as a potential GOP vice presidential nominee. And the GOP-controlled state legislature appears to have taken the brunt of those controversial bills, which McDonnell handled about as well as he could have, given the circumstances.

9. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D): Rocky Mountain governors are doing well overall (see below), and Schweitzer set the trend. Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies in January showed him with a 65 percent approval rating — including 36 percent “strongly” approving — and just a 24 percent disapproval in a Republican-leaning state. Automated pollsters don’t show Schweitzer doing quite so well, but it’s pretty clear that he’ll have a legacy as a successful two-term governor when he leaves office at the end of the year. The question now is whether he runs for Senate – possibly in a primary against the not-so-popular Sen. Max Baucus (D) in 2014? – or runs for president in 2016.

8. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R): Martinez says she won’t be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee due to family concerns (and we tend to believe her), but her numbers suggest Republicans might want her to reconsider. Both automated pollster Rasmussen and Public Opinion Strategies have shown her with at least a 60 percent approval rating in recent months — in large part, no doubt, to her focus on education and ethics issues in her first year in office. Despite her taking herself out of the veepstakes, Martinez is certainly a rising GOP star, who as the nation’s only female Latino governor should have a big voice in the party going forward — if she wants it.

7. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R): The same pollsters that showed Martinez passing her early tests put Sandoval in an even better spot – 67 percent approval in a Rasmussen survey and 63 percent in POS’s. Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling has him at a 46/31 split, but it’s clear he and Martinez form a formidable pair of Republican Latino governors out West. “He has good numbers because of a combination of superb political skills, an unrelentingly sunny persona, a relatively inept opposition and a serendipitous state Supreme Court decision that resolved a budget crisis,” said Nevada political guru Jon Ralston.

6. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D): The governor perhaps best known to Fix readers for taking a shower fully clothed in a TV ad in 2010 has ridden high ever since. Public Opinion Strategies in January showed Hickenlooper nabbing a 66 percent approval rating, compared to just 19 percent disapproval. Republicans accuse the governor of ducking controversy, but he’ll get another chance to prove his mettle as the state’s politically charged budget process kicks off.

5. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D): Beebe may be the most obscure name on this list to a lot of Fix readers, because he has essentially no national profile and isn’t seen as a potential candidate for other office (unlike predecessors like Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee). But he has consistently been one of the top-rated governors in the country. In fact, a University of Arkansas poll in October showed just 13 percent of Arkansans disapproved of him, compared to 72 percent who approved. Arkansas is still a friendly state for a moderate Democrat like Beebe, but a 72/13 split might be unmatched nationwide, and you’d figure the guy might take at least a few lumps after five-plus years in office.

4. New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D): New Hampshire’s four-term governor could easily have won a fifth term this fall but instead chose to retire. The most recent University of New Hampshire Granite State poll pegged his approval at 67 percent, with just 23 percent disapproving. The UNH poll has shown Lynch cracking 60 percent for the vast majority of his tenure, and he was over 70 percent for three straight years between 2006 and 2009.

3 .Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R): A new bipartisan poll in Indiana shows the two-term governor, who is in his final year in office, is set to depart with great numbers. The poll from Democratic pollster Fred Yang and GOP pollster Christine Matthews shows 63 percent approve of Daniels, while just 31 percent disapprove. “There is no doubt that Gov. Daniels is popular; his 63 percent job approval rating is impressive,” Yang wrote of the poll. Daniels did the difficult things early on — restricting public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights with an executive order and leasing a state toll road to foreign entities — and saw his approval rise as the years went on.

2. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R): Christie’s tough-talking style isn’t just a national phenomenon anymore; he’s also getting more and more popular in his own state. Fifty nine percent of his state’s residents give him strong marks in the latest Quinnipiac poll, compared to 36 percent who disapprove. New Jersey is notoriously tough on its politicians – it’s rare that anybody cracks even 50 percent approval – and the state’s Democratic lean makes Christie’s success all the more notable. Despite his tough rhetoric, 54 percent say he’s a leader, while 39 percent (read: Democrats) say he’s a bully. And considering he recently called a law student an “idiot,” that’s a pretty good split. This is more than just hype.

1. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D): Cuomo may take the cake for being the most popular governor in the country, period, but he’s also doing it in a tough state where politics is cut-throat and the budgeting process is a minefield. A Siena College poll released this week had him at 73 percent approval (!) and just 22 percent disapproval. And that’s one of many polls that show about the same ratio. Perhaps more amazing: Cuomo’s approval in the Siena poll is nearly identical across the three major political identifiers – Democrats, independents and Republicans. At this point, it’s hard not to call him an early favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Read more from PostPolitics

Ahead of trial, John Edwards’ isolation is symbol of downfall

Ann Romney fires back at claim she ‘never worked a day in her life’

‘Buffett Rule’ vs. Ryan plan: Who should chip in more?

Poll: Most Republicans turn against Afghan war

 
Read what others are saying