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 hyper-partisanship gripping Washington, governors, too, 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 10 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 play down 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) face difficult reelection bids next year as well, as may Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D).
On Thursday night, Obama appeared at a DGA fundraiser and met on Friday with Democratic governors at the White House 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 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.”
Obama will host all the governors at a black tie dinner Sunday night and reconvene for a meeting with them 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.