05.19.11

GOP Govs' Popularity Plummets

Less than a year after a cadre of Republican firebrands swept into statehouses from Ohio to Florida to Wisconsin, voters are turning on them. John Avlon on what this means for 2012.

The cycle of over-reach and backlash is in over-drive these days—with significant implications for the 2012 presidential election. In pivotal swing-states where voters narrowly elected Republican governors in 2010—like Florida and Ohio (with 47 electoral votes between them)—evidence of buyer's remorse is piling up fast.

The latest sign: on Tuesday, Alvin Brown became the first Democrat elected mayor of Jacksonville—Florida's largest city—in 20 years.

Just seven months ago, Republicans swept the Sunshine State with Tea Party-backed candidate Rick Scott winning the governor's office with a 1.2 percent margin of victory.

But instead of consolidating support by reaching out and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition, as popular past Republican governors like Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist have done, Scott continued with his campaign posture of refusing to talk to the press. He canceled a $2 billion federal high-speed rail project and is seeking to delay (and functionally deny) implementation of an anti-gerrymandering reform ballot referendum overwhelmingly passed in 2010.

Now Rick Scott finds himself the least popular newly elected governor in Florida history. It's not just a matter of the honeymoon being over—this looks like a drunken Vegas marriage heading for a shotgun divorce.

Fifty-five percent of Florida voters disapprove of Scott's job in office, while only 32 percent approve, according to a mid-April PPP poll. The Suffolk University poll found that 41 percent of respondents said the new gov's first months in office had been "negative and damaging" while only 26 percent described it as " positive and productive." The analysis by Suffolk Political Director David Paleologos is worth quoting at length: "It's taken Gov. Scott less than 100 days to begin a free fall in popularity and to generate negative perceptions about job performance and damaging the state he was elected to lead…There has been a backlash in public opinion on both sides of the aisle in response to his aggressive and uncompromising leadership style."

"It's taken Gov. Scott less than 100 days to begin a free fall in popularity."

Reflecting on the upset in the Jacksonville mayor's race, St. Petersburg Political Editor Adam Smith said, "Jacksonville is a Republican stronghold, but even with that relatively conservative electorate polls show Barack Obama more popular than Rick Scott. That election in Florida's largest city was not about Obama or Scott, but there's no question that Scott's talk about draconian cuts to school budgets and other services helped elect a Democrat arguing that cuts need to be targeted and strategic. One of the best days for Democrat Alvin Brown came when Rick Scott came to Jacksonville to campaign for the Republican mayoral nominee at a Tea Party rally."

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich is struggling as well, after narrowly defeating Democrat incumbent Ted Strickland last fall. A new Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday found Kasich's approval numbers decidedly upside down, with 49 percent of voters disapproving and 38 percent approving of his efforts in office to date. This was a nominal improvement over the previous month, when he had a 46-30 split. But the persistent gender gap facing Kasich is stark—women disapprove of Kasich's job in office by a margin of 51 to 33 percent.

It's an old saw that no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. To be sure, the 2012 election is still 17 months away and a week can be a long time in politics (just ask Newt). Unlike Rick Scott, the genial John Kasich has a reservoir of good will that comes from his long service in Congress. But while rust-belt unemployment numbers should point to a decidedly uphill climb for President Obama, Republicans' failure to build on their 2010 gains bodes badly for conservatives in the Buckeye State, especially in a high-turnout election.

It's not an isolated dynamic—the accelerated buyer's remorse is evident in other states as well. In Maine, Tea Party-backed Republican Paul LePage beat Independent candidate Eliot Cutler by less than 7,500 votes last fall. His stormy tenure has been marked by skirmishes over removing labor-history murals, initially refusing to attend MLK day celebrations and refusing to sign legislation to ban the chemical BPA because—in his words—"the worst case is some women may have little beards." A recent poll found that only three out of 10 Maine residents approved of LePage's job in office.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker's new effort to have same-sex couples' hospital visitation rights rescinded is unlikely to improve his approval ratings, especially among the 27 percent of independent voters in the state.

There will be those who look at the rapid reversal of fortunes for these GOP governors and project their ideological biases on the results. Some liberal activists will argue that the backlash is a result of "anti-union" budget cuts, justifying more Medi-scare attacks. Likewise, some conservatives will dismiss the significance of plummeting approval ratings, saying instead that they are a short-term reaction to an executive making tough decisions to impose fiscal discipline.

But fighting for fiscal responsibility does not have to be a polarizing process that dooms an executive to unpopularity. It's largely a matter of approach.

In New York, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo closed a $10 billion budget deficit without new taxes or new debt. Instead, he cut spending and gained concessions from public sector unions. His approval ratings actually went up—reaching a sky-high 73 percent. This Democrat was rewarded politically by implementing some fiscally conservative ideas. But he did it by building bridges instead of burning them—and that can make all the difference.

The larger issue is one of trust. Swing voters supported Republicans in 2010 because they wanted a check and balance against unified Democratic control of Washington. They wanted to rein in unsustainable spending in the name of generational responsibility. They took Republicans at their word that social conservative evangelizing would be 'de-emphasized' in favor of more urgent economic concerns.

But the conservative activist crowd couldn't help themselves. Like liberals did after 2008, they misinterpreted their election victory as an ideological mandate. And so the pendulum swings again, as the cycle of over-reach and backlash accelerates. Extremes are always ultimately their own sides worst enemy—in this case, making it more difficult for Republicans to win swing votes in these pivotal swing states come 2012.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.