Presidential races

GOP governors shift states rightward, bidding for primary support

Greg Nash

Republican governors with White House ambitions are enacting conservative policies in their states as they seek to appeal to GOP primary voters in 2016.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are moving aggressively to deepen their state’s conservative imprint on everything from social issues to education.

{mosads}Under Walker’s guidance, Wisconsin is likely to see stricter abortion laws in the near future; Christie is plotting an education overhaul to rid New Jersey of Common Core education standards; and Jindal has signed a controversial executive order on religious liberty in Louisiana after the issue backfired on Republicans in Indiana.

The trio of governors already had conservative records to run on, particularly on fiscal issues.

But they are finding that’s not enough to earn the trust of interest groups closely watching the primaries. They also are looking to distinguish themselves in a crowded Republican field.

“They’re all looking for a niche, that edge to help them stand out in a field that nobody seems able to break away from,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Some of these issues could be winners, depending on how they’re framed, but they’re also walking a fine line in appealing to the GOP base without alienating the general public, should they win the nomination.”

The stakes are highest for Walker, who is near the top of the Republican field nationally.

Walker famously gutted labor union bargaining rights and became a Republican hero by staring down tens of thousands of protesters or warding off attempts to recall him.

Social conservatives, however, are skeptical of his stance on abortion.

They’re not sure he considers restricting abortion a priority based on his past remarks. They also say he hasn’t been proactive enough in addressing the issue as governor.

“He’s in front of a national audience now,” said Marquette University Law School pollster Charles Franklin. “He’s competing against other pro-life candidates and facing national right-to-life groups that don’t know him and don’t have the same confidence in him.”

In March, Walker sought to allay those fears with an open letter to the Wisconsin legislature requesting a bill banning abortion in the state after 20 weeks.

In May, he met with dozens of leaders from prominent socially conservative and Christian organizations in Washington, and vowed to actively shepherd the law through the Wisconsin legislature.

The Wisconsin legislature is now debating the bill, which includes no exceptions for rape or incest. It’s expected to sale through the legislature and be signed by Walker.
“He says he’s always been pro-life and he’s absolutely right,” said Franklin. “But before, he could afford to downplay the issue because pro-life groups in the state had complete confidence that he’d do the right thing when it came down to it. He didn’t need to lead the fight rhetorically or make an issue of it in his recall or reelection efforts. That’s changed.”

Christie similarly entered the year with a strong record of fiscal conservatism, frequently pointing to his overhaul of the state’s pension system in deep blue New Jersey.

But he’s seen his polling numbers plummet amid the scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Christie has increasingly turned to major policy proposals as a way forward with GOP primary voters. He has embraced entitlement reform and staked out a position on the right on immigration.

This week, he announced he’d had a change of heart on Common Core and would begin eliminating the education standards from New Jersey. 

“Up until two years ago, he was calling Republican opposition to the standards a knee-jerk reaction,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “That was when he had a high approval rating and looked like he might be able to clear the field of presidential contenders. But with his BridgeGate downfall, that’s no longer possible, so he’s zeroed in on a wedge issue as a way to win over a portion of the base.”

Common Core has become toxic on the right, with virtually every Republican presidential candidate vowing to kill the standards if elected president. But Murray says there’s risk for Christie in flip-flopping.

“It undercuts his main selling point, that he’s the most authentic candidate in the field,” he said. “But he’s made a calculation that he’ll risk losing some of that authenticity because it’s such an important hot-button issue and he has to be on the right side of it.”

In Louisiana, Jindal may have the most hawkish fiscal record of the bunch. 

His state is scrambling to fill a budget hole that Democrats blame on Jindal’s refusal to raise taxes under any circumstances. The Louisiana budget is so austere that the state may have to get creative just to pay for its presidential primaries.

Jindal has emerged as one of the most prominent critics of radical Islam, and has turned much of his attention to other issues that are important to Christian conservatives nationwide.

This month, in an act of defiance, Jindal signed an executive order protecting religious liberty in the Louisiana just hours after a bill with the same intent died in the state legislature.

The executive order is meant to protect residents from “discriminating against persons or entities with deeply held religious beliefs” against same-sex marriage, and came after governors in Indiana and Arkansas backed down from similar laws under criticism that it would permit discrimination against gays.

“He’s taken a beating on some issues here at home, but he’s willing to take that on and risk losing popularity here because the bigger game for him is in Washington,” said Bernie Pinsonat, an independent pollster in the state. “He’s finished with Louisiana after this session. He’ll announce for president and then we’ll see very little of him.”

Tags Bobby Jindal Chris Christie ISIS ObamaCare Scott Walker

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