The Republicans' Governor Problem

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Republicans, when pushing back on the claim that their party is in dire straits, are fond of pointing out that the party holds 30 governorships. But there are increasing strains between Republican governors and national conservatives -- because the heterodoxy that has made it possible for Republican leaders to thrive at the state level is not what conservatives want.

I'm not just talking about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Seven other governors, many of them with high national profiles, have declared their intentions to accept Medicaid expansion funds. None of these governors are on the Conservative Political Action Conference agenda either. Beyond that group of eight, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell cut a deal with Democrats creating a commission that may lead to Medicaid expansion -- in order to gather their support for his transportation funding reform, which conservatives also hate because it raises taxes.

This means a swath of Republican governors once considered rising stars in the party -- Christie, McDonnell, New Mexico's Susana Martinez, Ohio's John Kasich, Florida's Rick Scott -- are now on the outs with conservatives.

But with the exception of Scott, all these governors are polling strongly in their home states. Kasich just scored his highest job approval rating ever following his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio. These governors aren't randomly trying to annoy conservatives; they are breaking from conservatives when conservatives oppose policies that are popular and broadly beneficial to their states.

In 2016, Republicans will come to regret spurning these popular leaders. What are the alternatives to nominating a popular governor like Christie or Martinez who sometimes makes compromises on important economic issues? One option is to nominate a hardline governor like Texas's Rick Perry or Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who will spurn federal aid in furtherance of dead-end political fight with the president. Jindal has a job approval rating of 37 percent in Louisiana. We saw how Perry worked out last time.

Or Republicans can nominate someone like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has compiled a hard-right voting record in the U.S. Senate and who is advancing the theory that Republicans can win with the same tired economic agenda so long as they liberally sprinkle in the words "middle class."

The situation is not much different from the Democrats' in 1992, when they realized that a pragmatic, centrist governor was what the party needed to regain plurality support -- and that the party's true believers would have to agree to put up with that governor abandoning them on the issues where the party was most toxic. One of these popular governors can be the Republicans' Bill Clinton. But that won't happen until conservatives realize that change is their only choice -- and this week's CPAC episode makes clear they are not there yet.

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