Victorious Scott Walker Could Embolden New Republican Governors

Once empowered, they will be under pressure to push conservative agendas on taxes, health care and budget cuts in their state capitals.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks at a news conference inside the Wisconsin State Capitol February 21, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin

Photographer: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is rounding out a series of post-midterm meetings by inviting newly elected governors—mostly Republicans—to the White House on Friday. It could make for some awkward moments.

Most of the Republican executives spent a great deal of time criticizing the president during their campaigns and some, including Governor-elect Greg Abbott of Texas, are already suing him over his executive orders on immigration. Once empowered, they will be under pressure to push conservative agendas on taxes, health care and budget cuts in their state capitals, where many of their top donors and party political operatives are hoping to secure victories that Obama has mostly blocked at the national level.

"The bar for what makes a successful governor is tremendously increased from where it was four years ago," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, the Washington group that pressures members of Congress to sign no-tax-increase pledges. "We now have four years under our belt of post-Tea Party Republican governors and the new models are Kansas and Wisconsin."

The re-elections of governors Sam Brownback in Kansas and Scott Walker in Wisconsin defied critics who said their aggressive tax-cutting and anti-union agendas would bring political ruin at the ballot box in November. Their victories could embolden such new Republican chief executives as Doug Ducey of Arizona, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska. They are among the seven fresh faces that can be counted within the ranks of the nation's 31 Republican governors, up from 29 before the midterm's red wave. 

Governors-elect Doug Ducey, Asa Hutchinson and Pete Ricketts.
Governors-elect Doug Ducey, Asa Hutchinson and Pete Ricketts.
AP Photo, Bloomberg, Courtesy Pete Ricketts for Governor

Club for Growth, another Washington anti-tax group, pointed to those victories as it encouraged Republicans in Washington to "go big" in January when they take over control of the U.S. Senate. "Governor Sam Brownback passed substantial pro-growth tax cuts that will reap major rewards for the Kansas economy. He won re-election despite endorsements for his opponent by the so-called 'moderate' wing of the Republican Party in Kansas," wrote the organization’s president, Chris Chocola, in a Nov. 11 op-ed in the Washington Examiner.

Norquist said the 24 states where Republicans control the governor's office and the state legislature will become the stages for much of the legislative action, as Obama winds down his administration amid a Republican-controlled Congress. "Obama has the veto, so there will be no significant conservative victories in Washington, D.C., and no significant liberal victories in Washington, D.C., for the next two years," he said.

 Post-2014 election
National Conference of State Legislatures

Overall, the GOP will control 69 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers—more than at any point in the modern era, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee. Ducey and Hutchinson will have partisan-aligned legislatures, while Ricketts will govern in a state with a unicameral legislature that is technically non-partisan, but Republican in practice.

Someone who will be watching legislative action at the state level closely is Colm O'Comartun, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "No matter what these Republican governors run on, they tend to have a very similar playbook when it comes to implementation," he said. "So it will be no surprise at all if Asa Hutchinson implements the same economic agenda as some of these other guys did."

Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, didn't respond to three e-mails seeking comment on the new class of governors. A spokesman for Ricketts, who won by a larger margin than Ducey or Hutchinson, said the governor wasn't available for an interview this week.

Walker, who by almost 6 percentage points in his third statewide race in four years on Nov. 4, has become a hero for the right because of his high-profile 2011 efforts to curb collective bargaining for most public employees. Modeling Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is exactly what conservatives want, especially if they have friendly legislatures in their states.

"They will take a look at Scott Walker and say, 'How much of his 8-point labor union reform can I do in Arkansas?'" Norquist said. "If you have a Republican legislature and you're a Republican governor and you're not passing and having the first four months of your term look like Walker's first four months, where they did everything, what's wrong with you?"

Brownback, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, won a second term by almost 4 percentage points after pushing an agenda that upset even some Republicans. In 2010, he won 13 percentage points more of the vote. His tax cuts triggered closed classrooms, fired teachers, increased class sizes and raised local property levies. He'd sold the cuts to the public as an experiment that would result in economic growth and a population surge, although neither happened. Hundreds of Republican officials, including a former state party leader, eventually repudiated the governor and condemned his actions as reckless.

Norquist argues there's no evidence Brownback was hurt by pushing a conservative doctrine, pointing to the fact that he was able to help elect more conservative state senators to replace some who had confronted him. "He now has an overwhelming majority of Reagan Republicans," he said. "All his legislators who were with him got re-elected and he's now got four years to do the spending restraint that he wants to do."

Republicans would be smart to continue to go after unions, as Walker did in Wisconsin, Norquist said. "You can change the Democrat's demographics of your state by removing these forced dues that fund the Democratic Party," he said. "You can change the rules in your state by changing state law."

So far, the incoming governors have mostly kept low profiles. Around Thanksgiving, they served meals to the homeless and filled boxes at food shelters among other feel-good actions. 

Ducey, who entered politics after a decade as CEO of Scottsdale-based Cold Stone Creamery, is a Tea Party darling who was elected Arizona's treasurer in 2010. He'll enter office in January facing a fiscal crisis because of lower-than-expected tax revenue.

Ricketts, the son of billionaire TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. founder Joe Ricketts, faces a mid-January deadline to submit a budget proposal to lawmakers.

Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney and Drug Enforcement Administration director, campaigned on making additional state tax cuts beyond some already planned to go into effect. That runs counter to advice from outgoing Democratic Governor Mike Beebe, who has said flat revenue growth and budgetary demands would suggest it would be more responsible to delay further tax cuts.

O'Comartun, the DGA's executive director, echoed Norquist's prediction that the Walker-Brownback wins will pave the way to greater activism. "Those who are most likely to skew most to the right are those who have strong Republican legislatures who will now feel that the gloves are off," he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.