The GOP is supposed to be closing in on a banner Election Day. So why are so many Republican governors flailing?

(Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News/AP Graphics)
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·West Coast Correspondent
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Nov. 2, 2010, was a very nice day for a certain kind of Republican. You know the type. Talks about liberty and freedom and the Founders. Carries a pocket copy of the Constitution. Loves tax cuts and "job creators." Hates Barack Obama and unions. Has probably attended a tea party rally (or 10).

But how were the next four years?

It's a difficult question to answer. When the dust settled in 2010, the GOP had picked up six seats in the Senate and another 63 seats in the House. Deficit-despising, austerity-advocating insurgents were largely responsible for the shift.

But then they went to Washington … and did what, exactly? With a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate standing in the way, it was impossible to make new laws, let alone implement an entire economic agenda. In D.C., at least, the class of 2010 has been forced to settle for obstruction.

To get a clearer sense of how the 2010 Republican wave riders have fared — and how the ideas that animated their big electoral victory have worked in the real world — you have to look beyond the Beltway. You have to look at the politicians who've actually have had the power to do what the party's D.C. delegation could only dream of doing: cutting taxes, slashing pensions, upping welfare requirements, and so on.

You have to look at the governors.

***

With one month to go before Election Day, the major storyline about the 2014 midterms seems to be that the GOP is up and the Democrats are down. Republicans will hold the House; they're even favored to win the Senate.

But turn your attention to the gubernatorial contests, and a different picture emerges. Eight Republican incumbents are in danger of losing re-election; only three of their Democratic counterparts find themselves in the same situation.

Eight Republican incumbents are in danger of losing re-election. This is remarkable.

This is remarkable. According to Louis Jacobson, the re-election rate for governors between 1998 and 2012 was 82 percent, meaning that incumbent governors were almost five times as likely to win as to lose. To put the GOP's current predicament in perspective, the number of Republicans currently at risk — again, eight — is the same as the total number who were unseated during the entire 14-year period that Jacobson surveyed.

So what's going on?

It's the electoral version of "be careful what you wish for — you just might get it." For the most part, the new coterie of conservative leaders who swept into statehouses across the country four years ago weren't your standard-issue Republicans. They were bolder. More principled. Less willing to compromise.

Sam Brownback in Kansas. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania. Paul LePage in Maine. Rick Scott in Florida. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Their goal was to practice what the tea party preached. "My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, 'See, we've got a different way, and it works,'" said Brownback. "We'll have a real, live experiment."

And that's just what they did. In Kansas, Brownback eliminated the top income bracket, reduced the others and ended taxes on certain kinds of small-business income. He instituted strict new welfare and food-stamp requirements. He rejected federal funding for Medicaid, eliminated thousands of state jobs and cut money for education.

In Pennsylvania, Corbett reduced state aid to public schools by $900 million, resulting in thousands of teacher layoffs; he also refused to tax the natural-gas companies currently profiting from the big Marcellus Shale drilling boom.

In Maine, LePage implemented the largest tax cut in state history, which lowered the top income tax rate and doubled the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million. He went on to limit welfare benefits and repeal restrictions on big-box stores and mining.

In Scott's first year in office in Florida, he slashed the state budget by $4 billion, cut corporate taxes, and vetoed $615 million worth of spending for, among other things, "homeless veteransmeals for seniors, whooping-cough vaccines for low-income mothers, an independent living center for the developmentally disabled and, of course, public radio."

And then there's Walker in Wisconsin, whose famous 2011 "budget repair bill" eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, reduced Medicaid spending by $500 million, and removed more than $1 billion from the state's education coffers.

The point of these reforms was to show that balancing the budget by taking money away from the government and giving it back to the people would trigger explosive economic growth. Brownback, for one, compared his tax cuts to "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy" that would "pave the way to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs, bring tens of thousands of people to Kansas, and help make our state the best place in America to start and grow a small business."

But there's the rub.

Brownback, Corbett, LePage, Scott and Walker promised that governing 2010 style would be an economic slam-dunk. The data tell a different story.

Brownback, Corbett, LePage, Scott and Walker promised that governing 2010 style would be an economic slam-dunk. The data, however, tell a different story.

Four years later, most of these states are struggling. In Kansas, the budget is hemorrhaging revenue. Both Moody's and S&P have downgraded the state's bond rating. And since Brownback's cuts took effect, job growth in Kansas has lagged behind the national level and all but one of its neighboring states.

Wisconsin is in a similar bind, ranking 35th in job growth during the first three years of Walker's term, and dead last among its immediate neighbors, including Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio. And now the state is facing a new $1.8 billion deficit in the 2015-17 budget "because of tax cuts enacted by Walker and lawmakers and lagging growth in other state taxes."

Back east, the situation is the same. Forbes recently named Maine the worst state in the country for business, noting that "job growth projections are the worst in the U.S and only Vermont is expected to have slower household income growth over the next five years." And Pennsylvania isn't faring much better. The Keystone State ranks 42nd in job growth over the past 12 months — and 49th since the beginning of Corbett's term.

Only Florida's economy seems to be outperforming America's as a whole, growing by 2.2 percent in 2013 vs.1.9 percent nationwide (after seven years of below-average numbers). But then, Scott is the only member of the class of 2010 who shed the tea party ties of his first year after polls showed him losing re-election by wide margins, recasting himself as "a pro-education champion of higher teacher salaries" and promising to restore some of his earlier environmental cuts. Last June he signed the largest budget in Florida's history.

***

Are the tea partyish policies of Brownback, Corbett, LePage, Scott and Walker solely to blame for these subpar economic stats? Nothing in politics is that simple. Larger structural forces matter more than any one governor's agenda; politicians can only turn the Titanic a couple of degrees at a time.

Still, there's a reason why Kansas Democrat Paul Davis has secured endorsements from more than 100 current and former Republican officials who oppose Brownback's administration, and leads the governor in every poll released during the past month. There's a reason why Corbett trails his Democratic rival, Tom Wolf, by an average of 15.5 percentage points, making him very likely to become the first incumbent governor in Pennsylvania history to lose re-election. There's a reason why only 39 percent of Mainers are telling pollsters they plan to vote for LePage in November. And there's a reason why Scott and Walker are neck and neck with their flawed opponents.

The bottom line is that the class of 2010 governors promised revolutionary policies that would, in turn, spark revolutionary economic results. But while they delivered on the first half of that equation, they didn't deliver on the second — and in many cases, it's easier to argue that austerity hurt their states than to argue it helped.  

Of course, Brownback, Corbett, LePage, Scott and Walker weren't the only Republican governors elected in 2010. Iowa's Terry Branstad, Ohio's John Kasich, New Mexico's Susana Martinez and Michigan's Rick Snyder also came to power that year. But none of them veered as far to the right as their imperiled compatriots — and none of them are in real danger of losing re-election.

A wise ex-governor probably said it best: "It's the economy, stupid." If Nov. 4, 2014, doesn't end up being as nice a day for Brownback & Co. as, say, Nov. 2, 2010, they'll have only themselves to blame.

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