Democrats Foresee Revival in Republican Governors’ Stumbles

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.

While governors of both parties have had to make difficult choices to contend with deficits that may reach $112 billion in the coming fiscal year, Democrats are trumpeting what they claim are signs that voters are souring on Republicans seeking to scale back government, a development they hope will bolster them in next year’s presidential and Congressional races. Democrats who have made similar cuts, such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Jerry Brown, have seen less damage in the polls.

“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,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina, which works on behalf of Democrats. “They somehow want taxes not to go up but for everything they have now to stay the same.”

“Frankly, voters are just very unreasonable,” he said.

Not Only Republicans

Democrats, eight of whom are freshmen, 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.

Connecticut’s Malloy was disapproved of by 40 percent in March, 5 percent more than approved, according to a Quinnipiac poll. A March poll by We Ask America found Quinn out of favor by 2-to-1.

By virtue of Republicans’ success last fall, which put them in charge of 29 states, they are suffering the same pushback that cost Democrats when they held majority power. Florida’s 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.

The Scott Effect

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 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.

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.

Bounce Back

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,” said Weber, who is a member of the Bloomberg Government Advisory Board.

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.

Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich’s detractors outnumber supporters 56-33 percent, according to a survey released last week by Public Policy Polling. 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.

Forging Ahead

Kasich has said he expected backlash from his proposals because “change is hard” and he’s not letting it deter him.

“Anybody that would say they wouldn’t like to have better numbers wouldn’t be telling the truth, but I don’t fixate on it,” Kasich said in an April interview in Columbus.

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.

“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.”

Hanging in There

Such strategies can pay off, as they did for Indiana’s Daniels. A Quinnipiac poll released today shows that New York’s Cuomo enjoys an approval rating of 61 percent after he cut the budget and supported a cap on property taxes, policies typically embraced by Republicans. In California, an April poll found that Brown, who has pushed budget cuts, had an approval rating among likely voters of 46 percent, versus 32 percent who disapproved.

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.”

Editors: Stephen Merelman, Jerry Hart.

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