This year’s winter meeting of the National Governors Association is a reminder that, at this moment, American politics is being defined as much or even more in state capitals as in the nation’s capital.
Biden laid out a blue-collar economic program that was a signal about where he sees the Democrats’ vulnerabilities with working-class voters and what he thinks can be done about it. But there’s little chance that his ideas will go anywhere soon.
The antics in the House chamber that night underscored how toxic the governing atmosphere is as the 118th Congress begins work. More likely, Biden’s version of an America First economic agenda will become the basis for a reelection message, should he seek a second term in 2024, as he has said he plans to do.
During his first two years in office, Biden governed with narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Because most legislation requires 60 votes to pass the Senate, he was limited in what he could do. On issues like immigration and voting rights, important to the Democratic base, nothing was done. In the next two years, he will govern with a slim majority in the Senate but with Republicans narrowly in control of the House. Neither party is likely to get its way.
In the states, however, things are much different. Only two states, Virginia and Pennsylvania, have legislatures where each party controls one chamber, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 47 others, one party controls both chambers. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.)
Republicans fully control the levers of power — holding both the governor’s office and the legislature — in 22 states, while Democrats have full control in 17. That gives these governors a clear path to pursue agendas of their choosing.
With largely unchecked power, red and blue state leaders are pushing in opposite directions. This isn’t entirely new, of course. For a decade or more, red and blue states have offered competing models of governance. California and Texas often defined those differences, whether on the regulatory rules for businesses, levels of taxation, social safety net programs or environmental priorities.
Today, this dynamic is more pronounced. Florida has joined Texas at the vanguard on the right, as cultural issues have been added to the mix and as hostility between the parties has become stronger than ever.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the constitutional right to abortion, put renewed focus on the role of states. On other issues — such as LGBTQ rights, questions about gun safety, and debates about school curriculums and the teaching of history — states and local governments are defining the new boundaries far more than Congress or the president. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has emerged as the tip of the conservative spear in pushing these boundaries.
Among Democrats, Biden commands the biggest stage and the loudest megaphone, but Democratic governors — California’s Gavin Newsom, Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Colorado’s Jared Polis, New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, Maryland’s Wes Moore, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, Massachusetts’s Maura Healey, Wisconsin’s Tony Evers and others — will be defining the party’s response as much as the president.
Democratic state leaders see a federal government hamstrung to protect rights and see governors of red states pushing to restrict those rights. Some are alarmed and have spoken out. If you are looking for evidence of the concerns among Democrats about where the country is heading, look to the inaugural addresses of two blue-state governors — California’s Newsom and Illinois’s Pritzker.
“All across the nation, anxiety about social change has awakened long-dormant authoritarian impulses, calling into question what America is to become, freer and fairer … or reverting to a darker past,” Newsom said. “Instead of finding solutions, these politicians [are] void of any new ideas, pursuing power at any cost, prey upon our fears and paranoias.”
Pritzker put it this way: “Our success as a state goes hand in hand with a determination to fight against a rising tide of hate … For some, the ugly voices that sing those discordant notes sound like siren calls. Their message is amplified by elected officials or political grifters who look to harness the tremendous power of hate for their own ambition.”
In an interview on the sidelines of the National Governors Association meeting, Pritzker expanded on that theme. “They didn’t go away,” he said of those he sees as threats to democracy and people’s rights. “It’s not like we defeated them and they went home and we’re not going to hear from them again.”
But he noted that Democrats can do little where the GOP controls the executive and legislative branches of government in a state.
“They’re taking over their parties in every state,” Pritzker said. “That’s a Republican problem I can’t fix. What I can do is make sure that people understand what the Democrats stand for, not just in Illinois, but to be a beacon of Democratic values in the center of the country.”
For Democratic governors, the object of their attention and concern focuses principally on Florida, where DeSantis won his reelection in November with a margin as big or bigger than Newsom’s and Pritzker’s. Newsom has tried to tangle with DeSantis for many months, giving rise to suggestions that he was angling for a 2024 presidential campaign, perhaps even a primary challenge to Biden. He has repeatedly denied any such interest, as has Pritzker.
Recently, DeSantis has been credited by conservatives with forcing the College Board to revamp the curriculum for an Advance Placement course in African American history, though the College Board said the changes were already in the works and not influenced by DeSantis’s critique. But those education debates are playing out in both blue and red states and Democratic governors are looking for ways to play a role, even if they lack the constitutional authority to do so.
Not every Republican sees eye-to-eye with DeSantis’s approach. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, in an interview Saturday, criticized DeSantis for using what he said was a big government approach to try to force conservative values and a conservative agenda on people or corporations. “Not only will we never beat the Democrats at that game, but we should never be playing that game in the first place because we are conservatives or we should be,” he said.
Democrats see DeSantis as a politician with more grievances than solutions, skilled at provoking conflict. But they also see what is happening in Florida and other Republican-controlled states as evidence of a growing movement to roll back rather than expand rights.
Some Democratic governors have tried to protect those rights in their states through legislation. Michigan voters put abortion rights into their constitution in November. But Democrats also recognize that this is a national battle and have adopted rhetoric designed to take back the message of freedom that Republicans have long made central to their appeals. In his inaugural address, Pennsylvania’s Shapiro mentioned the word “freedom” 11 times, often using the words “real freedom” to define his goals in contrast to Republicans.
Despite conflicting agendas, partisans in some states with divided control are finding ways to work productively, just as Biden and the Republicans did on infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing and amending the Electoral Count Act. In North Carolina, Cooper said he is optimistic that the Republican-controlled legislature will approve Medicaid expansion after years of debate.
Cooper said his state is forfeiting $521 million a month in federal dollars by not opting into the expanded Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. “We are going to get it done,” he said in an interview. “It has certainly been frustrating, but we certainly see the light. Everybody sees the light.”
Still, the political climate in North Carolina is in flux. Cooper, who was first elected in 2016, noted that former president Donald Trump brought new voters into the electorate. That has slowed what Democrats had hoped was a steady move that would turn the state from red to purple to blue. “The election of Donald Trump has changed the political dynamics in North Carolina,” he said.
What Trump started now manifests itself in debates around the country, with governors at the forefront.