Governors of both parties are taking charge of the coronavirus pandemic, setting up rules and plans for their states as federal officials scramble to keep up.
They’re also raising their political profiles as they become the go-to authorities for citizens.
Governors were the first to limit gatherings to specific numbers of people, the first to shut down businesses and community programs, and the first with information while the president and his aides put out sometimes inaccurate updates.
The governors’ actions have transcended party. Republicans such as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Mike DeWine in Ohio and Larry Hogan in Maryland, as well as Democrats including Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsom in California have taken the lead in getting health care and information to constituents.
With notable exceptions (Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, last weekend tweeted he took his family to a mall food hall), most have counseled their state residents to stay home and avoid meeting other people.
“I do think that the governors moved out more efficiently than the federal government did, particularly the president and the administration,” said Bob Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York Albany. “Particularly Illinois and New York, and Newsom did a decent job in California. Look at what you see even from Alabama, Washington — the states have taken the lead.”
For example, within the first 11 days of March, Republican governors in eight states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio and Utah — all declared a state of emergency. A dozen Democratic governors also had taken that step by then. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency March 13.
The Federal Housing Administration on Wednesday suspended foreclosures. Many governors already had moved to do that, including Democrats Newsom in California and Laura Kelly in Kansas. Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday banned evictions and foreclosures and barred utilities from disconnecting customers, as part of a sweeping emergency package.
Griffin said governors like Cuomo, DeWine and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, are “much more aligned with where the nation needs to be. They are sending a message that, ‘This is important. But be calm, and we can get through it.’”
Cuomo held a news conference March 17 to explain why he ordered businesses, restaurants and other operations to close. It was not, he said, local officials’ responsibility, it was his. “Be upset at me,” he said. “The buck stops on my desk. I assume full responsibility.”
Trump held a news conference March 13 to declare the national emergency. Asked by a reporter if he should take responsibility for the inability of the federal government to distribute more coronavirus tests earlier, Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
“Gov. Cuomo moved relatively quickly on this and has been pretty much spot on,” said Griffin, who served in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2010-2017. “Even in things he was criticized for initially, like the National Guard helping in New Rochelle,” the area declared a containment zone because of an outbreak.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, said in an email that governors of both parties are showing leadership that could help them politically.
“Many of the nation’s governors are demonstrating that they know how to act decisively and well in times of crisis,” she said. “A person from Mars observing the rhetoric and actions of our leaders would reasonably assume that Andrew Cuomo is the president.”
Trump repeatedly bashed governors, especially Democrats, in the early days of the crisis, referring to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “failing” and hitting Cuomo for urging more federal assistance. But he backed off several days later and appeared to have patched things up with Cuomo.
Some of the federal government’s inability to act stems from federalism itself: States have powers not found in the national government, over schools, for example, and voting. The federal government cannot change election dates or voting processes; that is a state function.
Ohio postponed its March 17 primary, but other states held theirs. Some states are looking into voting by mail.
Oregon and Washington already run entirely vote-by-mail elections. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had been chairing a committee of the Democratic Governors Association on expanding the practice to more states.
“Ensuring accessible elections is something that governors take seriously, and as we head into spring and summer primaries, states are exploring many options to protecting voters’ rights and keeping them safe, including increasing vote by mail,” said Christina Amestoy, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association.
Maryland’s Hogan and Ohio’s DeWine, both Republicans, are among those who have taken the most forceful action.
They postponed primaries and were among the first governors to cancel school statewide, along with closing businesses and restaurants and bars. On March 12, Hogan closed schools, restricted access to nursing homes, fully activated the state’s emergency management plan and closed the cruise terminal in Baltimore.
DeWine was among the first to require health screenings for visitors to jails and prisons as well as nursing homes.
But some Republican governors lagged.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who took heat for several days over refusing to close the state’s beaches for spring break, Thursday finally declared, “The party’s over in Florida.”
And Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, also a Republican, departed from his counterparts in other states by refusing to close schools statewide, though many school districts closed independently.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in executive branch politics, said many governors have certainly “enhanced their respect and their standing” in this crisis. State residents now understand how powerful they can be in an emergency, he said.
“People are gaining a new perspective on what their governors can do,” he said in a telephone interview. “If they look at the federal response as inadequate, they will look to states to be more nimble and responsive in the future.”
The governors’ political future, he said, may rest on how they handle the crisis. “I think you are going to see people — like Mike DeWine — come out of this looking like a presidential contender, and maybe Andrew Cuomo too,” he said. But if governors are perceived to have handled the crisis poorly, “they are toast.”
Asher Hildebrand, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said that before the virus struck, states and the federal government were living in an era of “uncooperative federalism,” with Republican- and Democratic-led states going in different directions.
Republicans were mostly cooperative with the Trump administration, while Democrats struck out in different directions. The dynamic was reversed during the Obama administration.
But, he said, previous natural disasters have shown federal and state officials will work together when necessary.
“In the coronavirus situation, because the federal government was so slow to act initially, you saw state leaders, Republicans and Democrats … stepping into that void and taking matters into their own hands,” Hildebrand said in a phone interview. “They have been accustomed to that in the Trump era.
“It has given them a greater license to say, ‘We’re going to go ahead and figure this out,’” he said. “Now that the federal government has kicked into action, you are seeing more cooperation like what you see in times of natural disaster.”
Hildebrand doesn’t expect the kumbaya attitude to last.
“We’re facing an election,” he said, noting that in North Carolina, where he lives, the Democratic governor and members of the Republican-led General Assembly are on the ballot. “I expect us to revert back to fighting those battles at this point. I’m not optimistic that this ushers in a new era of bipartisanship.”