Connecting state and local government leaders
After Democratic governors in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin rode a blue wave into office four years ago, their priorities hit a red wall in their GOP-controlled legislatures. But experts say they still have a shot at winning second terms. Here’s why.
Legislative victories have been few and far between for three Democratic governors seeking re-election in states where Republican majorities control the legislature.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned in 2018 on the promise to “fix the damn roads,” but Republicans in Lansing blanched at her proposal to raise the state gas tax by 45 cents to pay for improvements. She orchestrated a smaller bonding bill instead.
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly hoped lawmakers would finally vote to expand Medicaid eligibility beyond families with children, a shift made possible by the decade-old Affordable Care Act. But that idea never gained traction with GOP lawmakers in Topeka.
And Wisconsin’s Gov. Tony Evers was stymied on just about every front with the Republican majorities who control things in Madison. They rejected his budgets out of hand and seemed to relish the ritual of gaveling out special sessions the governor called – on everything from school funding to gun violence – almost as soon as they started.
All three rode a Democratic wave into office in 2018, amid widespread dissatisfaction with then-President Trump. They stepped into the increasingly rare situation of presiding over states where the opposite party controlled the legislature. Now, they face potentially stiff challenges for re-election in November, with partisan control of their state government at stake.
Not getting their top priorities into law might seem to be a liability with voters come November, but several experts told Route Fifty that those thwarted plans could actually help, as long as the Democratic governors use it to show that they’ve stood up to Republican lawmakers.
“They have and they will point to the legislatures as a foil,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report. The election analysis firm rates the Wisconsin and Kansas gubernatorial contests as “toss-ups” but recently changed Michigan to “lean Democratic,” because of Whitmer’s popularity there.
Christina Amestoy, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, said “extreme gerrymandering” helped Republicans retain majorities in swing state legislatures but said voters statewide continued to support the issues the Democratic governors ran on in their first term.
“They want to see these governors’ visions come to light,” Amestoy said. “They are willing to re-elect these governors to continue this progress even if it isn’t as fast as in a state where you don’t have Republican obstructionism.”
“Voters are also willing to hear the stories that our governors and other partner organizations can tell about the obstructions and the moves that the Republicans have made to try to foil a lot of these policies that voters support every day,” she added.
Amestoy also said that recent events reminded voters about the importance of governors and the broad influence they can have outside of the legislative process. The governors were at the front lines of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak, coordinating resources and deciding on public health policies. Then, the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath highlighted the role that governors and other state officials play in carrying out that function. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate legal protections for abortion has pushed questions about abortion policy to the state level, as well.
“A lot of everyday voters saw what was happening in the states and suddenly realized that it’s not just a matter of who’s president or who you send to D.C., but who is in these individual states will really make a difference,” she said. “It was a wake-up call for the nation.”
Middle of the Road
One of Laura Kelly’s first TV ads of her re-election campaign shows the governor standing on the yellow stripes of a two-lane highway in rural Kansas. “Like most Kansans, I’m not too far right or too far left. I’m pretty middle of the road,” she says. “And that’s how I’ve governed.”
In Kansas, the public expects Democratic governors to keep the Republican-dominated legislature in check, not to have “huge agendas” on their own, said Bob Beatty, the chair of the political science department at Washburn University in Topeka.
“It’s a Republican state and a very Republican legislature,” he said. The only way Democrats can win statewide is to peel off moderate Republicans, particularly in the suburbs. “To get those moderate Republican votes, a Democratic governor is going to be a check on the Republican legislature and stress economic development and education.”
That seems to be the approach Kelly has taken so far, Beatty said. The Democratic incumbent added Medicaid expansion to her list of top priorities, but those efforts faltered.
But she will be able to appeal to centrist voters by touting the fact she worked with GOP lawmakers to lower property taxes and gradually eliminate the “grocery tax,” the state’s sales tax on food. Meanwhile, the budgets passed that Republican lawmakers and Kelly agreed to all have “fully funded” schools as required by the state constitution, Beatty noted.
Kelly also teamed up with Republican legislators to authorize more generous subsidies for electric vehicle and battery manufacturers, which helped the state earlier this month to lure a Panasonic battery factory that could create as many as 4,000 jobs.
On the other hand, Kelly has blocked many conservative ideas from becoming law, especially during the last half of her term. She twice vetoed bills to prevent transgender girls and women from participating in high school or college sports. The governor also killed a proposal to prevent government officials from ever imposing mask mandates. Kelly also nixed a controversial idea to create a “parental bill of rights” for schools.
One conservative measure she did sign, though, was a proposal to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in the state, after the Kansas City government passed immigrant-friendly policies. The measure passed the legislature with wide margins, and it was championed by Kelly’s presumed Republican opponent, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Kelly’s signature gave Schmidt a policy win, but it effectively took the issue off the table in the governor’s race, Beatty said.
Both Kelly and Schmidt have largely kept out of the fight over a state constitutional amendment on the ballot Tuesday that would allow the legislature to ban or restrict abortion. But if that measure passes, Kelly could use that as another example of the check she could provide to Republican lawmakers when she campaigns in the general election, Beatty said.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers might not come off as particularly partisan, either, but as the top Democrat in a state riven by party warfare for a decade, he’s clashed over and over again with the Republicans who control the state legislature.
Evers came to office with an expansive agenda, much of which stood no chance of getting passed with the Republican legislature. He wanted Wisconsin to expand Medicaid, increase funding for schools, expand labor protections, restrict access to guns, hike the minimum wage and legalize marijuana. Not only has the GOP legislature refused to go along with those ideas, but it’s also fought – in many cases successfully – to rein in the powers of the governor.
Wisconsin has “not just divided government, but, honestly, pretty much deadlocked government,” said Charles Franklin, a professor and director of the Milwaukee-based Marquette Law School Poll, which follows Wisconsin state politics.
“It allows [Evers] a perfect explanation for why some of the things he proposed didn’t get enacted. It also allows him to take credit for vetoing many of the things Republicans wanted to do,” Franklin said.
But Republican moves to constrain Evers’ power has sometimes insulated him from criticism, Franklin said. He pointed to lawsuits GOP legislators and their allies filed to limit the governor’s health-related emergency powers in response to Covid-19. The state supreme court, for example, ruled in 2021 that Evers could not impose further mask mandates without legislative approval, leaving that decision to local officials, instead.
“He didn’t really need to take the rap for any further masks or shutdowns” after the initial wave in spring 2020, Franklin said, “because it wasn’t his doing.”
Evers also headed off at least some potential Republican attacks by unexpectedly signing a two-year budget that GOP lawmakers pointedly crafted without his input. The centerpiece of that spending plan was a $2 billion tax cut, but it also ensured that the state received $2.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds for schools.
The governor and his allies have taken credit for the tax cuts ever since, with one pro-Evers group claiming in a TV ad that he “brought Republicans and Democrats together to cut income taxes for the middle class.” Of course, Republican legislators vehemently disagree.
Evers has also taken advantage of other powers of the governor’s office to accomplish things he can talk to voters about. He decided how to dole out billions of dollars of federal Covid-19 relief that went to state government, both for health-related expenses and for economic recovery programs. He vetoed bills that would have let the legislature decide how to distribute the money instead.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, Evers joined a lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 law criminalizing abortion. The governor also promised to offer clemency for doctors who are prosecuted for performing abortions in Wisconsin.
Evers’ ongoing feud with legislative Republicans “has not [impacted] Evers in the way one might imagine it could have,” Franklin said. “His job approval rating has been net positive in every one of our polls since he took office with one exception [last fall].”
In fact, Evers has performed better in those polls than his Republican predecessor, Scott Walker, who worked with Republican lawmakers to make far-reaching changes in the state, Franklin said.
‘No Common Ground’
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has enough of a national profile that she’s been parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” She gained attention from outside Michigan after fighting with former President Trump on Covid-19 responses, being targeted in an apparent kidnapping plot and emerging as an outspoken proponent of abortion rights.
But she came to office promising Michigan residents she would “fix the damn roads.”
The crumbling condition of roads in a state known as the heart of the American auto industry has long been an embarrassment and a source of frustration for Michigan residents. Whitmer decided something ambitious should be done, and she proposed raising the gas tax by 45 cents a gallon. Republicans balked, offering alternatives that avoided major tax hikes instead.
The sides were unable to reach an agreement, so Whitmer sidestepped the legislature and issued $3.5 billion in bonds to help improve state-owned roads. But that meant there was no state help for pothole-pocked local roads.
With Whitmer up for re-election, Michigan Republicans criticized the governor this spring – when potholes are at their worst – for not following through with her four-year-old promise. They released an ad on social media contrasting her promises with images of flooded and crumbling streets.
The initial standoff over roads led to further tensions with the Republican-led legislature, which only grew once Covid-19 hit. Republicans tried to curb her executive powers over public health responses.
Whitmer has been able to find some common ground with legislative Republicans on budget matters. The two sides struck a deal on reforming the state’s auto insurance system, which led to drivers getting $400 refund checks from their carriers (although some Republicans claimed they forced Whitmer into making the deal).
And, just as in Kansas, the opposing parties quickly worked together to fashion an incentive package for electric vehicle and battery factories, which convinced General Motors and its partners to spend $7 billion to build those facilities in Michigan.
As more voters have focused on abortion, Whitmer has emerged as a prominent national proponent of preserving abortion rights. Again, that has put her at odds with Republican legislators in her own state capitol.
“With the current legislature that I have, there is no common ground, which is the sad thing,” Whitmer said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“They’ve already introduced legislation to criminalize and throw nurses and doctors in jail. They’ve all endorsed the 1931 law. All of the Republican people running for governor, they want abortion to be a felony, no exceptions for rape or incest. That’s the kind of legislature that I’m working with,” said Whitmer, whose father was a Republican political aide who supported abortion rights.
Whitmer, though, appears to be in a better position than Evers or Kelly. Not only is her popularity strong, noted Taylor from the Cook Political Report, but there is a chance that one or both of the legislative chambers could switch party control after the November elections. Louis Jacobson of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia said in May that control of the Michigan state Senate is a toss-up. That would be a rare victory for the president’s party in a midterm election, though.
“Michigan could be an outlier this year,” Taylor said, “maybe on an island of its own.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.