Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Tale of Two GOP Governors

While all the talk has been about Senate races in this year's midterm, there are a number of gubernatorial races that are proving to be litmus tests for both parties. Republicans face tough elections in Florida, Wisconsin and Kansas, while Democrats face equally tough challenges in Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts. As things stand now, all six states would be flips for the opposing party.

And though many pundits keep insisting that 2014 will be a wave election for the GOP, I have been insisting just the opposite. If anything, what the polls have been telling me - and anyone else who is paying attention - is that, far from a wave, 2014 is shaping up to be more of a backwash election. Voters are not happy with incumbents, period. They may not be in love with Obama, but they've been less than thrilled with their own leaders.

The GOP faces, perhaps, a more perplexing problem. In 2010, they were the out party looking in. It was easy to blame everything on Obama and Congressional Democrats. Give us the reigns, they said, and we'll show you how it's done. Well voters did just that and not just in Congress. The GOP swiped eleven state houses from Democrats that year, including Wisconsin and Ohio.

And it's those two states, or more to the point, their two governors that I want to focus my attention on today. I'll cut to the chase. If I'm a Republican strategist with half a brain (that's asking a lot, I know) I would be taking a close, hard look at what is going on in both those states. Because, regardless of what happens next month, most people agree it will have little impact on the next two years, at least as it pertains to policy. Who knows what nonsense a Republican majority in the Senate will pull, especially with the likes of a Ted Cruz running around.

No, the real prize is 2016. And if the GOP has any intention of bagging that one, it had better nominate someone who can, at the very least, convincingly win his own state. And that brings us to one John Kasich, the current governor of Ohio, who is running against what I can only imagine is a mannequin posing as a Democrat. At last polling, Kasich was up around 22 points. Suffice to say that, barring an alien ship beaming him up over the next nine days, he'll be a shoo in to win reelection. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if on election night, Ohio isn't among the first states called by the networks, that's how popular Kasich is in the Buckeye state.

Meanwhile, over in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is tied in his race against Mary Burke. In fact, some polls show Burke slightly ahead. Why is the Wisconsin race so close while Ohio appears to be a rout in progress? Or, put more bluntly, why is Scott Walker in deep shit, while John Kasich is fresh as a daisy?

Both states are part of the Rust Belt region of the country and both are essential swing states needed for any successful presidential bid. Both governors won in the 2010 midterms and both were Tea Party darlings who were beholden to core conservative principles. By any and all accounts, both should either be sinking or swimming together. And yet just the opposite is occurring.

So why the disparity? To quote the legendary Sherlock Holmes, "Once you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." I can think of only one thing that differentiates these two men and yet, as improbable as it might seem, that one difference will spell success for one and likely failure for the other. And that difference is Medicaid expansion. John Kasich decided to accept it; Scott Walker chose not to.

While Obamacare may be unpopular as a whole, the law remains a political paradox. For instance, nearly a third of people polled who oppose the law are progressives who wanted a single-payer system. For them, the law doesn't go far enough. But even among those who don't like the law at all, the Medicaid expansion provision remains very popular.

If you want to know how popular, just take a gander at Kentucky. The Democratic governor of that state decided to take the Medicaid funding and, as a result, overall Medicaid costs for the state have dropped. This forced Mitch McConnell, the current Senate Minority (and would-be Majority) leader into a tight corner. While he has publicly stated his opposition to the law, he has had to dance carefully around the issue of whether he would support outright repeal.

Kasich, to his credit, knew well enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. By accepting the Medicaid funding, overall costs in Ohio have gone down and voters appear poised to reward him with another four years in the governor's mansion. Meanwhile, Walker has been defiant to a fault and, as a result, his opponent Mary Burke has had a tactical advantage over him down the stretch.

The difference between John Kasich and Scott Walker has nothing to do with political leanings. Both remain staunch conservatives who are anti union and pro big business. The difference comes down to ideology, pure and simple. While one stubbornly clings to it, the other has been far more pragmatic in his approach. Want to know how pragmatic? This is what John Kasich had to say recently about the Affordable Care Act.

“The opposition to it was really either political or ideological. I don't think that holds water against real flesh and blood, and real improvements in people’s lives.”

Now, to be fair, there is some controversy as to what Kasich meant by "it." The inference was that he was talking about the ACA itself, but his aides were quick to point out that he was merely referring to the Medicaid expansion part of the law and that he is still committed to its total repeal. But even if that's true, the simple fact that a Republican would praise any aspect of Obamacare is newsworthy. In fact, it's akin to a Catholic walking into the Vatican and spitting on the Pope. It just isn't done.

I'm not sure where all this will lead to in 2016. There's still a chance Walker could eke out a win in Wisconsin. But if the Republican Party is taking notes, it should take heed at what's happening in Ohio. If Hillary Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee, they are going to have to find a candidate who can go toe to toe with her with independents and moderates. I'm still not sold that John Kasich could be that man, but I'm more than positive it won't be Scott Walker.


Prof. Walter Jameson said...


So you believe that support of Medicaid expansion under the ACA is the one thing that differentiates the fortunes of these two governors? Hmmm ... not improbable, for sure, but I think Mr. Holmes would advise you to go back and look for other things that still remain. And the things that remain are not only far from improbable, but, actually, very likely.

Allow me to offer up a few things for consideration. James Carville, you know, was never anyone's village schmendrick. It was he who came up with the simple, yet brilliant, campaign strategy in '92 to focus like a laser light on the economy. That strategy was enforced every single day with the simple phrase, "It's the economy, stupid!" How successful was it? Ask George H.W. Bush, the incumbent president, who enjoyed a job approval rating of over 90% in the year before the election. He'll tell you how successful it was.

So what does this have to do with the topic of your essay? Well, I think it's actually THIS issue (kitchen table economics) that defines the difference, not Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Right before Gov. Kasich was elected in 2010, Ohio's economy was a basket case, with unemployment about 10.5%. Over the past four years, Ohio has rebounded quite a bit. Job creation is strong and unemployment stands at around 5.7%. Rightly or wrongly, the governor gets the credit; he's the point guy. Also, Kasich is a very likable fellow. He gets along with a lot of people - on both sides of the political aisle. As you rightly pointed out, he's not an ideologue.

Now for Wisconsin's Governor Walker. Oh man, where to begin on this one. Well, not nearly as much improvement on his watch. The unemployment rate is down by about 2% (5.7% from 7.7%) since he entered office and job growth has been anemic. In fact, he came into office four years ago promising to create over 250,000 new jobs with his wonderful supply-side theories. I believe the last count had the figure at about 100,000 actual jobs created. So, it's very likely that a large part of that 2% drop in the unemployment rate represents people who have dropped out of the workforce. Of course, Mr. Walker represents that statistic in an entirely different light. But the people of Wisconsin know the truth. They experience it in their own lives every day. A badger is not easily fooled - and they can be quite ornery when crossed.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I was hoping you'd go off on Kansas.