Rookie Governors: Who’s Doing Well?

Governing Magazine

It’s been over a year since the governors of the Class of 2010 began their tenures. How are they doing?

In this second of four installments, I look at governors from the Class of 2010 who have been doing “well” so far — they’re ahead of most of their peers, but aren’t in the top tier of the six rookie governors who are doing “very well.”

As I indicated in my initial article last week, I am evaluating the 26 governors who took office at the start of 2011. I included governors who served previously, but had, until 2010, been out of office for years: Iowa’s Terry Branstad, California’s Jerry Brown and Oregon’s John Kitzhaber. I’m not including governors who replaced their predecessors mid-term and then won their first full terms as incumbents in 2010 (Alaska’s Sean Parnell, Arizona’s Jan Brewer, Illinois’ Pat Quinn and Utah’s Gary Herbert).

To gauge these governors’ performances, I reached out to several dozen experts in the states in question and looked at news coverage of their tenure. I considered gubernatorial performance from two perspectives — how popular the governor is and how much of their agenda was enacted.

I then assigned governors into one of four categories — those who seemed to be doing very well, those who seemed to be doing well, those who seemed to be having mixed results and those who appeared to be struggling.

In all, I concluded that six governors are doing well. In this list, the Republicans outperformed the Democrats. The list of those doing “very well” was more evenly balanced, with three Republicans and three Democrats.

The six governors that are doing well include:

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)

Martinez — who’s attracted a national profile due to her role as the first Latina governor and a potential vice president pick — has strong approval ratings despite a mixed legislative record in a Democratic-leaning state. In December, the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies found her job approval at 65 percent overall, including 62 percent from Hispanics and a quite respectable 49 percent from “hard Democrats.” Working with a Democratic-dominated Legislature, Martinez signed a budget that didn’t raise taxes and signed legislation that requires felons to give DNA samples. She also capped film incentives and sold the state jet. She pushed through a letter-grade system for rating schools, but a key education reform to hold third graders back if they weren’t reading was blocked. She also failed twice to repeal the state’s law that allows undocumented immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. Right now, Martinez is still benefiting from public disaffection with her Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson. Once the honeymoon wears off, it’s unclear whether enough support will remain for her limited-government approach.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)

Kitzhaber is hardly a rookie. He previously served two full terms, and it shows. Considered more of a wonk than a gladhandler, Kitzhaber successfully began a major restructuring of the state’s education and health systems, although many of the details still need to be finalized. The new Oregon Education Investment Board will oversee all education spending and link it to classroom outcomes, while the governor’s health reform effort will look to shift how it cares for chronically ill, high-cost Medicaid patients. A physician himself, Kitzhaber also put together a framework for the state’s health insurance exchange under the 2010 federal health-care law. Going against type, Kitzhaber has won plaudits from Republicans and the business community, while irritating erstwhile allies in labor unions. “We don’t have any real negative issues,” Jay Clemens, the president of Associated Oregon Industries, a business group, told The Oregonian. “He’s tackling a lot of very difficult issues, and you have to hand it to the governor for his energy and his willingness to lead change.” After a series of polls in 2011 showing Kitzhaber with approval ratings in the 40s, a more recent survey, by Oregon-based pollster Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, found him with 51 percent approval.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R)

Sandoval has benefited from not being his predecessor — Republican Jim Gibbons, whose one term in office was generally regarded as disastrous — even as Nevada faces some of the stiffest economic challenges in the nation. Sandoval, who like New Mexico’s Susana Martinez has gained national attention as a Latino Republican, is considered personable and politically skilled. Though he emphasized his conservative credentials during the Republican campaign cycle of 2010, Sandoval has governed more as a moderate. After a state Supreme Court decision altered his plan for balancing the state budget, Sandoval changed course to allow temporary tax increases (passed under Gibbons) to continue for two more years, in exchange for modifications to teacher evaluation and tenure. This raised hackles among conservatives in his own party. In October, a survey by Public Policy Polling found his approval rating at 45 percent with disapproval at 38 percent.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R)

Haslam, the former mayor of Knoxville, has taken a relatively moderate and cautious approach to governance. He’s favored top-to-bottom reviews and incremental actions over bold moves, leaving the more polarizing issues for the Legislature to handle. His biggest achievements so far have been fairly small — tort reform and some limited teacher and charter school reforms. But voters seem to be pleased: A November poll by the Vanderbilt University Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions found 53 percent approval, compared to 22 percent disapproval.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R)

Corbett has earned accolades for cutting the state budget — on time and without raising taxes — while also enacting a series of smaller policies like limited tort reform, making texting while driving illegal and allowing Pennsylvanians to cast votes on proposed property tax hikes. He also has won plaudits for his handling of two difficult tasks: the response to major floods along the Susquehanna River last summer and the alleged child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, which he had secretly overseen as attorney general before winning the governorship. But Corbett has earned criticism for appearing to be too close to the natural gas industry on the question of how to tax and regulate fracking efforts. (A Quinnipiac poll last year found that 62 percent of voters feel the economic boost from natural gas drilling outweighs the environmental risks, but 64 percent support imposing a tax on the extraction. The Legislature recently sent him a compromise bill.) He’s also avoided, for the most part, high-stakes battles over labor rights — indeed, he approved a 10.75 percent wage increase for state workers over four years. As a result, he’s fared better with the public than hard-line conservative governors in other swing states, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich. Corbett’s approval ratings stand — so far — at about 50 percent.

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