State Watch

10 governors shaping the future of politics

The Hill photo illustration

The Trump administration is dramatically reshaping the relationship between the federal government and states.

It has shifted the burdens of paying for everything from health care to infrastructure out of Washington and into the states.

That transition is putting a new spotlight on governors as they meet this week for their annual gathering — and their annual audience with President Trump. What happens in state capitals often ends up driving the agenda in Washington. Here are 10 governors experimenting with new ways of doing business whose ideas are likely to shape the national debate.

Greg Abbott, Texas Republican

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched his bid for a second term with a rally in San Antonio, where his wife’s family lives. Then he spent a day and a half in the Rio Grande Valley, campaigning in some of the most reliably Democratic territory in Texas.

{mosads}At a time when Republicans nationally have struggled to connect with Hispanic voters, who make up much of the state’s  electorate, Abbott actively courts them.

“It’s asinine to run a campaign that only seeks votes from a portion of the voters and be successful,” said David Carney, Abbott’s chief strategist. “Hispanic voters in Texas have a long history, predating Anglos, and they are intertwined in every facet of Texas civic fabric. Gov. Abbott engages with Hispanic voters, listens to their aspirations and actively solicits their support, and that has paid off at the ballot box.”

Abbott is no less conservative than most Texas Republicans. Last year, he signed a measure banning “sanctuary cities” and has threatened to withhold funds from cities and counties that do not cooperate with immigration officials.

But his state relies heavily on trade with Mexico, and early in Trump’s term he told then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall by levying tariffs on imports would be bad for Texas businesses.

His outreach has produced results: Four years ago, Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. This year, with more than $40 million in the bank and facing weak Democratic challengers, he hopes to beat that mark.

Charlie Baker, Massachusetts Republican

For such a liberal state, Massachusetts has a notable history of electing a certain type of Republican governor, a non-ideologue with a business background willing to work across the aisle with Democrats who control Beacon Hill.

William Weld. Paul Cellucci. Mitt Romney. And now Charlie Baker.

As Trump molds the national Republican Party in his own image, Baker has stood out for his willingness to break ranks. Baker said publicly he did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. He opposed Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. And when Trump used derogatory language to describe El Salvador, Haiti and African nations, Baker said Trump should apologize for what he called “appalling and disgraceful” remarks.

Given the choice between Trump and Baker, Massachusetts voters seem stuck on the hometown boy. Trump’s approval rating in Massachusetts stands at 29 percent, according to a WBUR poll conducted last month. Baker’s approval rating, meanwhile, stands at an astounding 74 percent. 

Baker spent his first several years cutting taxes and boosting funding to fight the opioid epidemic, but he largely avoids the partisan scrum that infects many other states. He does not face a top-tier challenger as he seeks reelection in 2018.

Baker is one of a handful of Northeastern Republicans who remain popular even in deep-blue states, along with Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Vermont’s Phil Scott. Together, they are proof that the right Republican can still win a blue state.

Kate Brown, Oregon Democrat

Portland, Ore., rarely draws the same kind of scrutiny for its liberal policies as Seattle or San Francisco. But the City of Roses has produced some of the most reliably liberal politicians in Washington or Salem, including Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) — and Gov. Kate Brown.

Since ascending to the governorship after her predecessor quit over an influence-peddling scandal, Brown has pursued arguably the most aggressively liberal agenda of any governor in America. She signed a measure to expand coverage of abortion services to low-income residents, and another ending Oregon’s reliance on coal-powered electricity.

This year, Brown’s legislative agenda includes a version of cap and trade and a bill that would allow law enforcement to take guns away from someone convicted of stalking a partner.

“Gov. Brown’s progressive agenda, especially her focus on closing loopholes to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers and stalkers as well as her efforts to help make Oregon a leader on reducing carbon emissions, should be replicated across the country,” said Tina Kotek, the Democratic Speaker of the state House.

At a time when Democrats debate the best ways to win back white working-class voters in red and purple states, Brown is giving progressives an agenda to cheer. She faces a potentially strong challenge in 2018 from state Rep. Knute Buehler (R), but Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982, the second-longest streak of continuous Democratic rule in the nation.

Steve Bullock, Montana Democrat

Trump won the White House in part by railing against a system rigged in favor of the elites and against the average American. The same night he carried Montana by 20 points, Gov. Steve Bullock won reelection by four points — in part by carrying the same message, one that could inform national Democrats who have fallen out of touch with voters in exurban and rural areas.

Bullock is a graduate of Columbia Law School who practiced at the white-shoe firm Steptoe & Johnson. But back in Montana he has fashioned an image as a populist who stands for public lands and public education, and against the big corporate interests.

That can be especially resonant in a state like Montana, where the railroads and the timber industry once owned the legislature. 

Bullock stood up for the state’s campaign finance system, which set some of the lowest contribution limits in the nation, to guard against outsized industry influence. He opposes efforts to privatize public lands, in a state where many adults have either a hunting or a fishing license. And he became the first governor to fight the Trump administration’s plans to roll back net neutrality by signing an executive order requiring state contractors to keep the Obama-era rules in place.

Montana becomes first state to implement net neutrality after FCC repeal

The cornfields of Iowa and the diners of New Hampshire will be packed with coastal contenders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bullock seems almost certain to be there too, with a decidedly different outlook on how his party should appeal to voters they have lost.

Eric Holcomb, Indiana Republican

Aides to politicians are accustomed to working in the shadows. They toil for years, with low pay and little recognition, in service of someone else. But Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is one of the rare staffers who has stepped firmly into the spotlight in his own right.

Holcomb’s career includes stints working for then-Rep. John Hostettler (R), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Sen. Dan Coats (R). He also chaired the Indiana Republican Party. But his first two runs for public office ended abruptly: He lost a bid for a state legislative seat, and ended his campaign to replace Coats.

But Indiana’s lieutenant governor quit unexpectedly, and Holcomb got his chance when then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) chose him to fill the ticket. 

He won his own full term in 2016, when the GOP swept Indiana’s top offices.

Now, the staffer has become the one who needs staff. But longtime friends say he hasn’t let the power go to his head: he still shows up to high school basketball games on Friday nights and maintains a collection of presidential autographs. He needs only George Washington and John Adams to complete the set.

Holcomb has spent his first year focused on an opioid crisis that has hit Indiana especially hard. Instead of slashing taxes, which he worked on when Daniels was governor,  he passed a 20-year infrastructure plan that raised gas taxes 10 cents per gallon and won bipartisan support. 

“This is someone who’s been at the table, sees how it works, certainly has his principles and convictions, but knows it takes a team to get the work done,” said Pete Seat, a longtime friend of Holcomb’s who has worked on his campaigns.

As Congress turns to its own massive infrastructure plan, one that foists more responsibility to the states, Holcomb’s long-term initiative in Indiana may become a national model for other staffers — and governors — to follow.

Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat

As a member of Congress, Jay Inslee published a book spotlighting the coming revolution in alternative and renewable energy. As Washington’s governor, Inslee has pushed new clean energy projects across the state, especially in areas where unemployment rates have been high for decades due to the declining timber industry.

This year, Inslee is putting his political capital into a new carbon tax plan making its way through the Democratic-led legislature, a measure that would tax oil and gas emissions and emissions from power plants at a rate of $20 per metric ton. And as head of the Democratic Governors Association, he sees the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy as a new message for his party.

Washington governor proposes new carbon tax

“This is fundamentally a jobs message,” Inslee told The Hill in an interview last year in his office in Olympia. “I was able to go out and demonstrate where these jobs are and show real people with their pickup trucks that are working today in manufacturing jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Is a renewable economy something that could anchor a run for the White House? “I’m excited about this message,” Inslee said. “It worked in my race, it’s now worked twice. So I’m very happy to run on this issue.”

John Kasich, Ohio Republican

After losing a presidential campaign, some candidates fade into the background. Others go back to work. Most never completely get over the desire to sit in the Oval Office.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is not the kind who goes quietly into that good night. He was one of the last candidates standing against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, and has emerged as one of the president’s most persistent critics.

Kasich in recent months has criticized the administration’s proposed ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority nations, taken Trump to task over what he calls “loose talk” about going to war with North Korea, ripped Trump’s handling of violent clashes between white supremacists and peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, Va., and called on fellow Republicans to disavow Trump’s comments about African nations, Haiti and El Salvador. 

If anyone is wedded to the old ideological roots of the Republican Party, it is Kasich.

Kasich’s allies still hold a candle for a comeback, and he has done plenty to stoke the fires of a possible primary challenge to Trump in 2020. His nationwide book tour, and an accompanying media blitz, makes him an evergreen public presence.

Perhaps most tellingly, Kasich for America, his former presidential campaign committee, is still raising money — not a lot, just $190,000 last year — but more than other candidates who dropped out.

Only one elected president, Franklin Pierce, has ever been denied renomination by his own party. That was in 1856. But with Trump’s popularity near record lows for a first-term president, those who pine for a return to the GOP’s roots still have Kasich on the brain. Other Republicans say Kasich will never be embraced by the GOP base and that he only won one state in 2016: Ohio.

Phil Murphy, New Jersey Democrat

In all eight states that have voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, voters have passed ballot measures over the objections of their governors. New Jersey does not allow ballot measures like the ones that passed in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere — but it does have a governor who supports legal weed.

After eight years under GOP Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Phil Murphy is steering the state in a starkly different direction: He has backed new gun control measures, ordered the state to rejoin a group of Northeastern neighbors working to curb carbon emissions and pledged to restore cuts to Planned Parenthood funding.

But Murphy’s support for marijuana legalization may be the starkest departure from Christie, a former U.S. attorney who called legal pot backers “crazy liberals.” And it may reflect a new era in which pot politics are far less fraught than before.

“Phil Murphy represents the changing political dynamics surrounding marijuana. He actually campaigned on legalization and then mentioned it in his inaugural address,” said Tom Angell, a legalization advocate who founded the group Marijuana Majority. “Especially in comparison to his predecessor, Murphy’s stance shows that the politics of cannabis are rapidly shifting.”

Murphy wouldn’t be the first governor to sign a marijuana legalization law: That distinction belongs to Vermont’s Phil Scott (R), who signed a compromise bill last month. And legalization is far from certain, even with the governor’s backing. Murphy’s main obstacles at the moment are the Democratic leaders in the state legislature, who are less certain that legalization is the proper path.

But at a moment when public opinion on pot is changing, Murphy is treading on turf that was unthinkable not too long ago.

Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republican

Few accomplishments shine as brightly on a governor’s resume than landing a major factory, one that will bring hundreds or thousands of good jobs and last long beyond a gubernatorial tenure. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker now has a mega-project of his own.

Last year, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn said it would build its first major American factory in Racine County, creating as many as 13,000 new jobs and infusing at least $9 billion into the local economy. 

“The Foxconn project is a game changer for Wisconsin, with a $10 billion investment and tens of thousands of careers,” state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said. Vos said Walker and his staff worked hard to develop “an agreement that protects taxpayers while delivering the largest development project in state history.” 

Walker, and Wisconsin, paid a steep price for the project. State and local governments will give Foxconn at least $4.1 billion in tax incentives, subsidies and new infrastructure spending. Walker has also said the state will spend almost $7 million on an advertising campaign looking to attract new workers.

The Foxconn deal is not unusual in the annals of states competing for business. Washington agreed to a package of subsidies and tax breaks worth up to $9 billion in order to keep tens of thousands of Boeing jobs in the Puget Sound area. 

But Boeing had a long history in Seattle.Foxconn is new to Wisconsin, and it’s likely to foreshadow a rush of competition among states hoping to land the next big project. One only need look at Amazon, which is fielding proposals worth billions of dollars in subsidies for its HQ2 project. 

Has Walker overpaid for Foxconn? Or did he score a deal that will bolster Wisconsin’s economy for generations to come? Other governors will take note of the Foxconn experiment years after Walker leaves office.

Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania Democrat

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf came to office as a businessman, rather than as a partisan. The multimillionaire, made wealthy when he sold his firm to a private equity group, has spent his first term battling the Republican-led legislature over budget issues.

But now he finds himself in the spotlight of perhaps the most partisan fight in politics today. Big Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections handed the GOP control of the redistricting process, which they used to draw congressional district maps that gave them a leg up in the fight for control of Congress. Pennsylvania — where Democrats hold just five of 18 U.S. House seats — is the latest battleground in the Democratic Party’s multifaceted effort to reclaim control of the map-making process.

The state Supreme Court last month ordered Republicans to draw new congressional district lines. When the GOP delivered its new proposal to Wolf’s office, he declined to sign off — throwing the maps back to the court, where Democrats believe they will secure a better deal.

“Partisan gerrymandering weakens citizen power, promotes gridlock and stifles meaningful reform,” Wolf said of the new Republican maps.

Tags Dan Coats Donald Trump Earl Blumenauer governors Jeff Merkley John Kelly Mike Pence Mitt Romney state watch

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