Democrats Foresee Revival in Stumbles of Republican Governors

Fast becoming one of the least popular U.S. governors, Florida’s Rick Scott swung through a Jacksonville Tea Party rally on an April Friday to urge voters to elect a Republican mayor.

Voters instead made Alvin Brown the first Democrat chosen since 1991 to run the state’s largest city.

Democrats are seeing signs that voters are souring on the new class of Republican governors seeking to scale back government, a development they hope could bolster support in next year’s presidential and Congressional races.

“All you have to do is look at the downward trajectory in public opinion polls of overreaching GOP governors to see what a drag these chief executives stand to be on GOP hopes in 2012,” said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee in Washington. “After attacking workers and slashing critical services and operating in office as right-wing ideologues, the political fortunes of a whole host of GOP governors has fallen off the cliff.”

Seven months after winning a majority of governorships in an election seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama, opinion polls show Republican governors are increasingly unpopular in presidential battlegrounds in the Midwest and Florida.

Scott took office in January and by April his disapproval among voters doubled after he called for cutting spending for schools and health care to close a $3.8 billion deficit. In May, his popularity was at the lowest of his five months in office.

Lightning Rod

David Beattie, president of the Hamilton Campaigns consulting firm in Fernandina Beach, Florida, and a pollster for Brown, said Scott’s standing helped make his candidate mayor of Jacksonville.

“It had an impact,” he said. “Rick Scott’s image in the state makes him a foil in a lot of ways for problems that they see.”

In Wisconsin, the partisan backlash against Governor Scott Walker’s effort to curb the bargaining power of public-sector unions is threatening to undermine his agenda. The state is headed toward recall elections for nine senators in July -- six of whom are Republicans -- that could deprive his party of control of the Senate.

Bounce Back

Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota advising Tim Pawlenty on his presidential bid, said the governors have plenty of time to repair their images once the impact of their policies sets in.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican whose approval rating dropped to 45 percent as he challenged unions and moved to cut the budget during his first year in office in 2005, coasted to re-election in 2008 even as Obama carried his state. He was courted as a 2012 presidential candidate, until he decided against running.

“When you’re going broke, you’ve got to stop spending, and the people that sort of put the brakes on the spending machine are in the short run going to be unpopular,” Weber said.

In Florida, Scott’s approval rating was 29 percent, according to a poll released May 25 by Quinnipiac University, and 54 percent said the $69.7 billion budget passed under Scott was unfair to people like them. His approval was the lowest of the six new governors tracked by the university, two of whom are Democrats. In February, Scott’s supporters outnumbered his opponents in the poll 35-22 percent.

Do-Over

Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich’s detractors outnumber supporters 56-33 percent, according to a survey released last week by Public Policy Polling, which works on behalf of Democrats. That’s two points worse than the previous month. Fifty-nine percent said they would vote for his opponent if the election were held again.

Sixty percent of Michigan residents polled May 9-11 gave fair or poor performance ratings to Governor Rick Snyder, according to a poll by EPIC-MRA, a Lansing-based opinion research firm.

With officials across the country forced to close state deficits of as much as $112 billion for the coming fiscal year, Democrats aren’t immune from opprobrium. Dan Malloy of Connecticut and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn both raised taxes to help shore up their budgets and suffered with voters as a result. In California, an April poll found Jerry Brown with approval from fewer than half of likely voters.

Voters ‘Unreasonable’

The erosion of support for Republicans marks a turnabout for a party that in November heralded its statehouse victories as a step toward winning the White House in 2012.

“Voters will say in a vacuum that they want politicians who are willing to make the tough decisions, and that sort of rhetoric can be very appealing in a campaign,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which is in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Almost all of these new Republican governors have become really unpopular because the reality is voters don’t want cuts to education, they don’t want cuts to health care, they really don’t want cuts to anything,” he said. “Frankly, voters are just very unreasonable.”

Kasich is a case in point. Elected last year vowing to “fix Ohio,” he backed a move to curtail collective bargaining by public employee unions, created a private entity to oversee economic development, proposed a budget that cut spending for school districts and other local agencies by about $1.4 billion, and is seeking to sell or lease prisons and the state turnpike.

That Man’s Scope

“He promised the voters he was going to make some big changes in the government but with the ultimate goal of making the economy grow,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “It’s easy to see why his numbers declined, given the scope of change that he was proposing.”

Such strategies can pay off, as they did for Indiana’s Daniels. A Quinnipiac poll released today shows that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, enjoys an approval rating of 61 percent after he cut the budget and supported a cap on property taxes, policies typically embraced by Republicans.

There are early signs of improving economic conditions for states, which, if sustained, may forestall the need for unpopular spending cuts next year. During the first quarter, state tax revenue rose 9.1 percent from a year earlier, the fifth-straight gain and the biggest jump since 2006, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

“These folks have all made difficult decisions and implemented them, and in the short run, pain is not popular,” said Weber, the former Minnesota congressman. “But they’ve all laid the groundwork for a rebound in their own popularity and the economic circumstances of their states.”

To contact the reporters on this story: William Selway in Washington at wselway@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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