What Rick Snyder can learn from Scott Walker

December 21, 2012

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is in a dangerous place right now.

His decision to sign "right to work" legislation — something he previously called too divisive — has apparently done significant damage to his poll numbers and made him a major target of unions in 2014.

But recent history should provide some assurance: This too shall pass.

The last two years have featured a number of governors doing very difficult political things, seeing their numbers crater, and then having them recover within a year or so.

The best example, of course, is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).

Walker proposed his controversial budget, which called for curbing collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, shortly after being sworn in  in February 2011. It passed in March 2011, and Walker's numbers took a turn for the worse.

By the time he faced his recall election in June 2012, though, he was back in positive territory and won a big victory.

Around the same time Walker was taking aim at collective bargaining rights, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was doing much the same. He signed Senate Bill 5 on March 31, 2011, and found himself among the most unpopular governors in the country. The law was even overturned by voters in November 2011 — a stunning defeat for a sitting governor.

But Kasich has since regained his good name, and most recent polls suggest he'll be favored for reelection in 2014.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's (R) first 100 days were one controversy after another, and he paid a big price. Eventually, though, he worked his way back into respectable territory.

Scott is a very different kind of politician though (one former state GOP chairman said, "I’d give him a B for governing; I’d give him an A for strangeness"), so it's anybody's guess what the future holds. And he seems to be struggling again.

On the Democratic side, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is in the news a lot these days, guiding his state through a tragedy. But early in his term, he both raised taxes and sought concessions from unions — a toxic mixture that pushed his disapproval rating higher than his approval.

Once again though, with time, he was able to recover.

And now for the subject of our current controversy: Snyder. It's time to ramp up for his reelection bid, and he starts out with some very poor poll numbers (they weren't good even before the "right to work" bill came to his desk).

But as the chart below shows, he's already recovered once in his tenure. And he's still got two years — which is an eternity in politics — to recover from the current controversy.

There will be lots of polls between now and Election Day 2014. And polls conducted during the heat of a controversy tend to be over-analyzed as far as the long-term impact of that controversy.

This is not to say that Snyder's decision to sign the bill didn't hurt — just that we shouldn't assume he's a sitting duck because of it, no matter what the polls say.

...

Despite their recoveries, all five governors listed above remain among the more vulnerable chief executives who face reelection in 2014.

Below, we list our top 15 races (out of 36 states holding contests). As usual, No. 1 is most likely to change control.

To the line!

15. Massachusetts (Democratic-controlled): Yes, Massachusetts is one of the bluest states in the country, but Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has said he won’t run for another term, which means this is one of relatively few definite open seats. And Northeastern states have often elected Republican governors in recent decades, despite being among the most liberal in the country. Republicans have been urging 2010 nominee Charlie Baker to give it another shot since shortly after his seven-point loss to Patrick in 2010. We’ll see how the field shakes out, but for now, it’s worth keeping an eye on. (Previous ranking: N/A)

14. New Hampshire (D): Governors serve two-year terms here, so Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan (D) will have to mind her reelection condition from the day she is sworn in. She's succeeding popular Democratic Gov. John Lynch (D), whose moderate profile won him praise from both parties. Republicans are hoping they will be able to convince voters that Hassan is too far too the left; but it's an argument that didn't work in 2012. Look for outgoing GOP Rep. Frank Guinta's name to surface in discussions about both governor's race and the Senate contest, but the GOP bench here isn't great. (Previous ranking: 12)

13. Wisconsin (Republican-controlled): Gov. Scott Walker (R) remains more popular than not, which makes him a favorite for a second term in 2014. But his surprisingly large margin of victory in the recall election should not be overestimated. History has shown that voters are reticent to recall sitting governors in the middle of their terms. The onus here is on Democrats to come up with a stronger candidate than Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who has now lost three governor’s races in the past decade. (Previous ranking: 13)

12. Connecticut (D): Gov. Dan Malloy (D) faces a key test in the aftermath of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. And tragedies like this can be either a moment for strong leadership or a pitfall. He had some problems after some tough early budget cutting, but he seems to have solid approval ratings now. Looming is a rematch with 2010 GOP nominee Tom Foley, whom Malloy beat by the slightest of margins. (Previous ranking: 11)

11. Arizona (R): Gov. Jan Brewer (R) hasn't closed the door on possibly challenging the state Constitution to seek a third term. While that could rally enthusiasm on Democratic side, it's not clear if she will do it, or how her own party would react if she did. Nonetheless, winning statewide here has proven a tall order for Democrats, so the GOP will be favored to hold this seat under most scenarios. (Previous ranking: 9)

10. South Carolina (R): A new addition to our list, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) continues to suffer from approval ratings that leave something to be desired. She likely did herself some good by appointing Rep. Tim Scott (R) to the Senate, but she’s hardly out of the woods. And her four-point win in 2010 was surprisingly close in a good GOP year in a strongly GOP state. It would be very interesting to see a repeat bid from state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), who is probably the Democrats’ best/only hope and sounds like he's ready to go. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Ohio (R): GOP Gov. John Kasich's numbers have been on the mend in recent months, but he remains vulnerable to a Democratic challenge in a swing state. More than a year has passed since voters rejected his measure to curb collective bargaining, but he still has his detractors: A 43 percent plurality of voters said Kasich does not deserve to be reelected in a recent Quinnipiac poll. Still, Democrats need to find a credible challenger. Expect to hear former governor Ted Strickland's name early and often. (Previous ranking 10)

8. Pennsylvania (R): On the heels of Michigan becoming a "right to work" state, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said he does not see a strong will for the Keystone State to follow in its footsteps. That sounds like a wise political move in this Democratic-leaning state. Corbett recently got his first official Democratic challenger, former state Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger, but he's likely to be just one of many Democrats looking to take on the Republican. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Illinois (D): The question here really seems to be the Democratic primary. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is perhaps the most unpopular governor in the country, but that could actually work in Democrats’ favor if he loses his primary. Top potential primary opponents include state Attorney General Lisa Madigan and a new name: former White House chief of staff Bill Daley. The best thing that could happen to Quinn is a crowded primary, and if he survives, it probably gives the GOP a good chance to win a very tough state. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Virginia (R) (2013): With Booker deciding against a bid in New Jersey, Virginia solidifies its standing as the marquee matchup of 2013. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner's decision not to run paves the way for former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe to cruise to his party's nomination and prepare for an expected showdown with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). Without apparent primary threats on either side, the question is how much each candidate is willing to moderate their views in the coming months. Both have work to do in appealing to the middle. (Previous ranking: 5) 

5. Michigan (R): Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's decision to sign a controversial measure making Michigan the nation's 24th "right to work" state gave Democrats added incentive to try to unseat him in two years. Expect most of the polling in the next few weeks to show a decline in support for Snyder. But remember, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) survived an initial backlash to a controversial measure involving labor, so Snyder isn't finished just yet. That said, he is one of the nation's most vulnerable governors and in a blue state. (Previous ranking: 8)

4. Arkansas (D): State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) has hit a significant stumbling block, with revelations of what he calls an “inappropriate” relationship with an attorney her met during his 2010 campaign. McDaniel is staying in the race, though. The question is whether he can overcome his problems. Arkansas is very conservative, but in non-federal races, Democrats have a strong track record, and outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe (D) is very popular. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Rhode Island (Independent-controlled): One of two potential three-way races in the top three on our list, Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) could use a crowded race if he wants to survive. He’s got very poor approval ratings, but he benefited from some not-so-strong competition in 2010. John Robitaille, the 2010 GOP nominee who finished second, said this week that he won't run again, which means attention will turn to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung (R). Perhaps more interesting, Chafee hinted last week that he may run as a Democrat. This race is wide open. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Maine (R): A majority of voters said they disapprove of the job Gov. Paul LePage (R) is doing in a survey from Democratic pollster PPP last month, the latest sign of trouble for the outspoken governor who won a close three-way race in 2010. The man LePage narrowly defeated, independent Eliot Cutler, could give it another go in 2014, and this time Cutler — a Sen.-elect Angus King-style moderate — would have the benefit of running against an unpopular incumbent. (Previous ranking: 1)

1. Florida (R): Gov. Rick Scott (R) has returned to the ranks of the embattled, with a poll this week from Quinnipiac University showing his approval rating dropping into very dangerous territory. Not to mention he's also got problems in the primary, where a majority of GOP voters say they would prefer someone else. Meanwhile, polls also show former Republican governor Charlie Crist (D) is favored in both the Democratic primary and in the general election. For Crist, it will be a matter of appealing to his new party. If he makes the general election, he very well could be the rare politician who serves in high office as both a Democrat and a Republican. (Previous ranking: 2)

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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