The wave of Republican governors elected in 2010, during the depths of the economic recession, spent the first several years in office battling the same fallout of the slow and jobless recovery that had doomed Democratic predecessors at the polls.
For many, the result was public disappointment and low job-approval ratings in the early years of their tenure.
But as the national economy has rebounded, so, too, have the political fortunes of those Republican governors — reducing Democrats’ chances of denying them reelection this year.
As the 2014 battles for the governor’s mansion in 36 states heat up, the slow but steady economic recovery has given incumbents once beset by low poll numbers something to brag about.
Despite disappointing employment numbers for December, the long-term trend has been promising: Since 2011, when these governors took office, every state in the union has experienced job gains and unemployment declines.
Although the big Republican wins in 2010 will make 2014 a big year for reelection races, most of the governors who are seeking reelection — 19 Republicans and 10 Democrats — appear set to benefit from the rising national economic tide. The relatively good news has inevitably set off a political debate about the future: Republicans say their governors have created more jobs, while Democrats counter that their governors have created better jobs. Both sides will make the case that they are laying a foundation for long-term success.
Florida: Perhaps no governor has benefited more from long-term trends that began before his tenure than Rick Scott, a first-term Republican. Florida’s unemployment rate peaked at 11.4 percent in the first quarter of 2010, when Scott was running for office. By the time he was sworn in the following January, the rate had dropped to 10.9 percent, a downward pace that has continued during his three years in office.
This year, Scott is likely to face his immediate predecessor, Charlie Crist, who was elected as a Republican in 2006 but later became a Democrat. In a ‘white paper’ touting his accomplishments, Scott’s administration lays blame for the economic collapse at Crist’s feet: “Prior to Gov. Scott taking office, Florida had lost more than 800,000 jobs in just four years,” the document reads. An accompanying bar graph shows state debt ballooning during Crist’s tenure, in blue, and shrinking during Scott’s term, in red.
Ohio: After a controversial beginning to his tenure, just 30 percent of Ohio voters told Quinnipiac University pollsters that they approved of John Kasich’s job performance in a March 2011 poll.
But as the economy has improved over the rest of his tenure, so have Kasich’s approval numbers: In late November, 52 percent of voters said they approved of the way he was handling his job. In the three years since he took office, Ohio’s economy has added 124,500 jobs and the unemployment rate is down two percentage points.
The good economic statistics will force challengers to get creative with their arguments against reelecting incumbents. Kasich’s likely opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D), cites the large number of Ohioans who are out of work.
Matt McGrath, a spokesman for FitzGerald’s campaign, said that Kasich “inherited an economy in recovery. A full calendar year before he took office, Ohio was adding jobs. What’s happened since? The trajectory of the state has showed growth continued through his first year in office, but it’s dropped off considerably, especially in the last year. . . . As his policies have taken root, it’s slowing down the economy.”
On the campaign trail, Kasich has dubbed the recovery the “Ohio miracle.” His team is careful not to take too much undue credit.
“Governors don’t create jobs, businesses do,” said Rob Nichols, a Kasich spokesman. “What we want to do is to make the state as business-friendly as possible so that as the economy continues to improve, more Ohioans will reap the benefits.”
Wisconsin: Political claims notwithstanding, voters tend to believe that the state and federal governments can do a great deal to create jobs, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist and pollster at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. In a January 2012 survey, 76 percent of Wisconsin residents said they believed the federal government could do a great deal or a moderate amount to create jobs, while 78 percent said the same about state government.
Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is seeking reelection this year, pledged to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Wisconsin added 91,700 positions between January 2011 and November 2013, the last month for which figures are available, while the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.4 percent to 6.3 percent.
Colorado: In Colorado, where polls suggest that Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) faces a competitive reelection fight, Republicans have seized on reports this week that Magpul, a gun manufacturer, will relocate after the state passed tough new gun-control laws.
But since Hickenlooper took office, the number of jobs in Colorado has increased by 155,500 — a 7 percent spurt, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a faster growth rate than in all but one of the seven states bordering Colorado, all of which have Republican governors.
“The most important reason why traditional [Democratic] states are home to good long-term, well-paying jobs is their support of education and training and early childhood development, state university systems and infrastructure,” said Colm O’Comartun, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “The type of job counts. And that is the long-term commitment to the economy of the future.”
Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said governors can “champion, foster or promote” policies that help their state turn around.
Said Franklin, “A governor can initiate or propose a tax cut that can directly lead to more of a certain business moving to that state.”
More immediately, governors are left claiming credit, or deflecting blame, for changes to the economy that are largely out of their control. In a globally connected economy, a governor’s actions have far less impact than factors such as the health of the Greek economy, the whims of a major corporation or the fate of the stock market.
“If the actual impact of state policy is limited in the face of national economic forces, then governors are left to claim credit when economies improve and blame others for bad times,” Franklin said. “Voters may hold them responsible in either case.”
Democrats and Republicans agree that five states, all held by Republican governors — Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — will be highly competitive in this year. Four years ago, races in those five states attracted more than $100 million in outside spending.
Democrats hope to contest Republican-held states such as South Carolina and Georgia, while party strategists on both sides think Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has little chance of winning a second term. Republicans hope they can defeat Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Hickenlooper in Colorado and win the governorship of Arkansas, where Democrat Mike Beebe is term-limited.
The political arguments are clear, but the economic data, and individual state circumstances, preclude any broad conclusions about whether one party is better at managing state economies than the other.
Since January 2011, the average state governed by a Republican has had a nearly 2.1 percentage-point drop in its unemployment rate, compared with an average drop of almost 1.9 percentage points in Democratic-run states. The average Republican-led state has had a 4.6 percent increase in jobs, compared with 3.8 percent in Democratic states.
But in Democratic states, those positions appear to be paying more. The median household income, in 2012 dollars, in a Democratic-run state has fallen from $56,838 in 2008, just before the recession began, to $55,126, a 3 percent decrease. In Republican-controlled states, the median income has decreased 4.6 percent, from $52,266 to $49,824.