Why governors hold power in the battle for GOP healthcare votes
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In the fight over the Republican healthcare bills, there is a new player in the wrangling for Senate votes: governors.

In Nevada, for example, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has more than 60 percent approval, leaned on a Republican Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE with 40 percent approval — and wouldn’t you know it, Heller has come out against the Senate bill.

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In Ohio, among the most prominent voices against the Senate bill is Republican Gov. John Kasich, whose approval rating outstrips fence-sitting Republican Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHow to save the Amazon rainforest Biden to offer 22K additional guest worker visas, 6K targeted toward Northern Triangle GOP Rep. Steve Stivers plans to retire MORE. In Colorado, Arizona, and other states, the same dynamic might develop.

It should not be surprising that this arrangement has cropped up with respect to healthcare, and Medicaid, in particular. Governors with the responsibility to maintain state healthcare systems depend on Medicaid to meet their obligations.

Indeed, many red state governors accepted Medicaid expansion despite their public protests about ObamaCare. A similar pattern could emerge in other areas where states depend on federal funding that is being threatened by Congress. When the budgetary rubber meets the road, governors might be inclined to drop partisan objections faster than their senators would.

Moreover, it is not just the governors of Nevada and Ohio that might have some leverage. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, the governor in 31 states is more popular than at least one of the U.S. senators from that state. Americans’ preference for executives — for “doers” — might give governors a built-in advantage over senators in many cases. And when their preferences collide, as with Medicaid, we might expect governors to press that advantage, and get points for bashing Washington to boot.

The possibility of governors checking senators has deeper implications for governmental relations in the United States. Here, it helps to start with a brief history lesson. For more than a century, the American people did not vote for U.S. senators. Prior to 1913, senators were selected by state legislatures. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution instituted direct election of senators, and so today, senators are chosen by statewide popular vote — just like governors.

There were many good reasons for this switch, not least of which was the value of people being able to select their own representatives. One objection, though, was that the 17th Amendment seemed to disempower state governments. When state legislators had the power to reappoint (or not), the feeling was that U.S. senators would retain at least some allegiance to their home-state governments. Today’s opponents of the direct election of senators — yes, they exist — make this same states’ rights argument.

That brings us to the healthcare debate. As mentioned above, Gov. Sandoval has pushed hard against congressional Republicans’ attempts to undo ObamaCare and the Medicaid expansion. And his pressure, in part, seemed to help turn the state’s up-for-reelection senator against the Senate bill. By leveraging his popularity, Gov. Sandoval may have highlighted a way for state governments to reassert some power over the U.S. Senate: through political pressure from the governor.

Nevada is not the only place this tactic might be effective. I mentioned earlier Gov. Kasich’s lobbying in Ohio. Meanwhile, Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Former GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampBill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment MORE (D-N.D.) are up for reelection in 2018. They both trail their governors in popularity and come from states that accepted Medicaid expansion.

Looking ahead to 2020, the same pattern holds for Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R-Colo.), Bill CassidyBill CassidyBottom line Calls grow for national paid family leave amid pandemic Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats MORE (R-La.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay Ernst15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Child care advocates seek to lock down billion in new federal funding GOP senator: Raising corporate taxes is a 'non-starter' MORE (R-Iowa), and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week MORE (R-Mont.) — they all come from states accepting Medicaid expansion, and are all behind their governors in opinion polls.

On issues from immigration to climate change to voting rights, state leaders have stepped up where their federal counterparts have stepped back. Perhaps healthcare is the next frontier. And perhaps this means there will be a new channel — governor to senator — for political pressure in the age of Trump. Or to put it another way: when you are done calling your senators, call your governor, too.

Zachary Clopton is a professor at Cornell Law School. He writes about civil litigation, national security, international affairs, and government relations.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.