GOP governors and legislatures: divided by a common party

August 13, 2013

Republican governors are wielding a nearly unprecedented level of power across the country, with 24 of them working with a GOP-controlled state legislature.

But partisan control doesn't always mean the governor is in charge. Indeed, the setup has also led to a number of intra-party showdowns reminiscent of the larger divides in the national party.


North Carolina lawmakers recently moved to tighten abortion restrictions. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Takaaki Iwabu)

As the GOP seeks a new path forward ahead of the 2016 presidential race, Republicans retain complete control over the legislature and governor’s seats in nearly half of the 50 states – compared to just 13 for Democrats.

While some of these governors have expressed a desire for a more moderate path, Republican state legislatures have been understandably eager to put their newfound control to use – and often on some divisive issues.

Republican legislators in several of these states have spurned their governor’s priorities – in some cases balking at proposed tax cuts, for example – and instead have passed new abortion regulations, voter ID laws and legislation reducing the power of unions, often without the initial support of the governor.

As with many issues on the national stage right now, these bills have forced governors to choose between pleasing the conservative base and appealing to a broad electorate that may not support the legislation. In almost all of these cases, the governor wound up signing the bills.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is the most recent example. On Monday, he signed into law an extensive and divisive voter ID law that the Justice Department is looking to challenge, and two weeks ago, he signed a new abortion law that has also drawn the scorn of the left.

Neither piece of legislation was on McCrory’s list of priorities, allies say. McCrory supported Voter ID during his 2012 campaign and the idea is broadly popular, but the state Senate attached numerous other measures to the bill that Democrats contend are aimed at suppressing minority and young voters and could prove more problematic for McCrory.

In the case of the abortion law, McCrory actually threatened to veto the bill, having pledged in his 2012 campaign not to sign into law any further abortion restrictions. The legislature eventually changed the legislation to give the state health secretary the ability to write the new rules – with specific guidance.

In the end, McCrory embraced both bills whole-heartedly and said they were the right thing to do. But McCrory allies say the governor would rather he didn't have to deal with them.

“There have certainly been issues sent Gov. McCrory's way that are not part of his agenda, and in some cases he has outright disagreed with policies that he worked to reshape and in some cases will veto," said one ally, granted anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

The aide said McCrory "isn't afraid of drawing fire from the left and the right."

North Carolina political analyst John Davis said McCrory is simply dealing with the fact that North Carolina is under Republican control for the first time since the 19th century.

“Issues like voter ID and abortion have been on the Republican slate forever; they just never had an opportunity for 114 years to get them out of the committee,” Davis said. “So it’s no surprise that a lot of issues like that are not priorities for McCrory … will come to his desk.”

McCrory’s situation is familiar to other blue and swing-state GOP governors.

After Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and Michigan Republicans rode to victory in the 2010 election, the state legislature moved on a so-called “right to work” bill, under which workers could no longer be compelled to donate to labor unions as a condition of employment. Union supporters contend that bills are aimed are reducing their influence.

Snyder made clear early on that he didn’t want any “right to work” legislation -- once deemed unthinkable in a state with such a heavy union presence – but the state legislature pressed forward with it, and Snyder eventually signed the bill.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has clashed with the GOP-controlled state legislature over several issues, including the federal Medicaid expansion, Scott’s proposed pay raises for teachers and campaign finance.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) also has fought with a state legislature opposed to the Medicaid expansion. And he left open the possibility of vetoing abortion restrictions included in a recently passed budget, though he ultimately declined to veto them.

The situation is even more pitched in another nominally blue state under GOP control, Pennsylvania. There, Gov. Tom Corbett has run into a GOP-controlled state legislature that has flouted a list of priorities that includes liquor privatization, transportation funding and the state pension debt.

As in North Carolina, though, Pennsylvania Republicans have made a point to pass new abortion laws and a voter ID law.

“Clearly, Corbett’s priorities failed not in spite of Republicans controlling the legislature, but rather because Republicans control the legislature,” Pennsylvania political analysts G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young wrote last month.

Some of the governors mentioned are among the most unpopular in the country. Corbett, Scott and Snyder are three of the The Fix's four most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection in 2014, while Kasich's approval rating has rebounded significantly after a rough start.

McCrory remains relatively early in his tenure, but the limited polling in the Tarheel State suggests he may have paid a price for signing the abortion bill.

Democrats say these Republican governors ran as moderates but have shown their true stripes when tough issues came to their desks.

“They're in line with their Republican legislatures who are ‘forcing’ them to do these things; they just lie about it during their campaigns because their positions are deeply unpopular,” said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.

North Carolina Democratic consultant Thomas Mills said the state legislature has put McCrory in an unenviable position, and that McCrory hasn’t figured out how to deal with it.

“I don’t think he’s necessarily having his hand forced as much as he doesn’t know what else to do,” Mills said. “He’s just kind of followed the lead of the legislature.”

These GOP governors haven’t gone along with everything the state legislatures have done. Snyder, for instance, vetoed a bill that would have allowed people to carry guns in schools; Kasich has used the line-item veto repeatedly (few governors have this tool); and a person with knowledge of McCrory’s plans says he is likely to veto a bill requiring drug testing of Welfare recipients.

Davis said he expects to see the former Charlotte mayor stand his ground in the coming months and years, but that abortion and voter ID simply weren’t the battles to pick.

“McCrory could not have been successful in Charlotte had he not been more of an ideological moderate,” Davis said. “I don’t agree with the people that say McCrory is not able to stand up to the Republicans in the state House and Senate.”

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