Stateline Story

First-Term Govs Largely Successful

  • July 25, 2008
  • By Louis Jacobson

Almost a year ago, Out There examined the records of new governors and found that most survived their first legislative sessions with flying colors. Now, midway through their terms, the class of 2006 has lost one member and accumulated lots of battle scars. But most first-termers are avoiding the voter discontent directed at Congress and the presidency.

The 11-member group declined by one when New York's Eliot Spitzer (D) resigned amid a sex scandal. Five of the others - Democrats Mike Beebe of Arkansas, Ted Strickland of Ohio and Chet Culver of Iowa, and Republicans Sarah Palin of Alaska and Charlie Crist of Florida - range from very popular to rock-star status.

Two others - Democrat Bill Ritter of Colorado and Republican C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho have had mixed reviews. Another two - Democrats Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Martin O'Malley of Maryland - have struggled. Then there's Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons, whose approval rating has gone from bad to worse.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D)

Arkansas

The star of the class may be Beebe. His approval ratings have ranged from 70 percent to 80 percent, and not from avoiding controversy. Working with the Democratic Legislature – which sometimes had strained relations with his predecessor, Republican Mike Huckabee - Beebe has slashed the sales tax on groceries in half, increased school funding and raised the severance tax on natural gas for the first time in decades. Winning the severance-tax fight meant facing down the energy industry and securing a three-fourths majority in both chambers.

Beebe learned state government over more than two decades, serving as a state senator and later as attorney general. "It's highly unusual for a governor to win all of the battles with legislators here, but Beebe hasn't lost one - large or small - yet," said Carmie Henry, a utility lobbyist in Little Rock. Beebe is considered a lock for re-election.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)

Alaska

Palin has continued her strong run in the polls, with approval ratings approaching 90 percent. When she took office, she promised to reduce government spending, advance plans for a 1,715-mile natural gas pipeline and increase government accountability and transparency.

"She followed through on them all," said Dave Dittman, a Republican pollster. Her reformist impulse, which helped launch her from small-town mayor to top state official, has helped sustain her popularity against a backdrop of corruption investigations and trials of other Alaska politicians.

However, while voters like Palin- she's married to an oil-field worker and has five children, the youngest born with Down syndrome - political elites are more skeptical. Her relationship with the Legislature has been frosty ever since she vetoed much of the first budget sent her.

Still, Palin's clout is such that one of her key rivals, Senate President Lyda Green (R), decided to step down rather than face losing to a Palin-backed primary opponent.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R)

Florida

Despite a weak economy - which has forced cuts to such popular programs as schools, nursing homes and funding for the disabled- Crist's blend of fiscal conservatism and social moderation is popular. He won voter approval in January of a ballot measure to slash property taxes by $12.4 billion. And environmentalists are thrilled with his efforts to attack climate change and to spend $1.75 billion to buy out sugar producers' holdings of 187,000 acres in the Everglades.

One Democratic strategist, only half-jokingly, called Crist "the best Democratic governor the state's had."

But it's unclear whether Crist's standing will survive his high-profile backing of GOP presidential candidate John McCain, especially Crist's not-so-subtle bid for the vice presidency. Crist endeared himself to the McCain campaign- but risked losing support at home- by switching his position on offshore drilling. This could enable a Democrat like state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink to paint Crist as an opportunist in 2010.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D)

Ohio

Despite continued economic worries in the Buckeye State, Strickland still enjoys the honeymoon that started after he took over from a scandal-plagued GOP administration.

So far, a scandal involving Attorney General Marc Dann, a fellow Democrat, has been his main challenge. Strickland had nothing to do with it, but the details, including an affair between Dann and a staff member, could have caused collateral damage to the governor. However, he got ahead of the issue by approving an investigation of Dann's office and calling for Dann to resign, which he did just over a week later.

"He wasted no time in cutting Marc Dann loose," said Bill Binning, a former Republican official who teaches political science at Youngstown State University, adding, "Strickland is teflon in Ohio" and is "not to be underestimated."

He could face Republican challenges in 2010 from former U.S. Reps. John Kasich and/or Rob Portman.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D)

Iowa

Working with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Culver was able to enact an expansion of children's health care and a sales-tax change that boosts rural schools. But he spurned his political allies on other occasions, blocking a move to boost negotiating leverage for public employees and a pay raise for state officials, including himself. This should make him less vulnerable to Republican attacks in 2010.

Culver got high marks for his leadership during the devastating floods that hit Iowa this year, and Republicans and Democrats alike expect this to help him politically.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D)

Colorado

Republicans and Democrats differ in their assessment of Ritter. His focus on alternative energy and educational achievement makes him popular in this Democratic-trending state. But he has stirred up several hornets' nests that could energize opposition in 2010.

They include issuing an executive order that unionized government employees; proposing to raise the mineral severance tax in the face of strong opposition from gas and oil interests; and seeking to freeze property-tax rates (which otherwise would have fallen) so that the excess could be directed to selected programs - a plan ruled unconstitutional by a lower court.

State University political scientist John Straayer said "Ritter's all-over-Colorado approach and positive outlook serves him very well." But Republican consultant Katy Atkinson said disillusionment over his policy failures - many of which stem from fiscal problems he inherited - will filter down to rank-and-file voters eventually.

"If the Republicans come up with a half-decent candidate, Ritter will be a one-term governor," she said.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)

Idaho

One would think Otter would thrive in such a Republican state, but he's faced consistent opposition from his party as well as from Democrats. The Legislature rejected or shrugged off his proposals to accelerate road repairs, build a private prison, enact a food-tax cut and eliminate two departments. His party also rebuffed him when they voted to oust a state chairman he aggressively backed.

The good news for Otter is that he's still favored to win re-election in 2010, given the Republicans' continuing, if increasingly fractured, domination of the state and the lack of a strong Democratic rival.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D)

Massachusetts

Deval Patrick appears to be getting over early stumbles, including much-criticized overspending on his trappings of office and the demise of his plan to build three casinos. The latter setback, at the hands of the Democratic Legislature, has forced him to scale back some of his campaign promises - notably education and infrastructure improvements - for lack of money.

Increasingly, he has drawn praise for his handling of the state's landmark mandatory health-insurance law. "

This is a highly complex program, but it is working well, and enrollment during its first year far exceeded expectations," said Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. And 2010 shouldn't be a problem: Even Republicans acknowledge that their bench in Massachusetts is all but empty.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D)

Maryland

O'Malley's popularity was doing fine until a November 2007 special session to deal with sagging state revenues. It resulted in a1 percent sales-tax hike and other tax increases.

"He did what needed to be done to help solve the state's structural deficit problems," said University of Maryland-Baltimore County political scientist Thomas Schaller. "But in politics, like life, no good deed goes unpunished, and his approval numbers have suffered accordingly."

While O'Malley is still likely to be strongly favored for re-election in such a heavily Democratic state, he may face an unusually strong challenger: his one-term predecessor, Republican Bob Ehrlich, who is still popular despite being ousted in the Democratic wave of 2006. O'Malley also could face tough times fiscally if a slots referendum fails in November.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R)

Nevada

Gibbons entered office amid allegations - forcefully denied by him - that he had touched a woman inappropriately outside a restaurant. He also faced questions about his dealings with a defense contractor as a member of Congress. Yet things have gotten worse for him in 2008.

A marital split-up included the spectacle of him and his wife battling over who had the right to reside in the governor's mansion, as well as the disclosure that he had sent almost 1,000 text messages in a six-week period to a woman who was not his wife - on a state-owned cell phone.

All this has overshadowed Nevada's sizable economic challenges, including a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. Conservatives appreciate Gibbons' efforts to keep his no-new-taxes pledge, but several GOP strategists said not even a recent staff shakeup can win him a fresh start. Some of them said the odds are only 50-50 that Gibbons will finish his first term. And if he does run again, GOP officials who are neutral in public expect, and even encourage, a primary challenge by Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki or U.S. Rep. Jon Porter.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.