Over the past few years, political pundits and commentators have written extensively about a perceived division between conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party. This apparent conflict, sometimes even described as a “civil war,” is seen as a contest between Republicans in purple states and those in deep-red states, or between the so-called “Establishment” and “Tea Party.” Often, political “hot spots” in this internal division in the GOP are centered around foreign policy, fiscal management, or compromise with the Democratic Party. And the assumption among commentators seems to be that these debates within the party showcase ideological differences between conservatives and moderates. However, there is a rarely mentioned aspect of this internal feud. Many times, when prominent Republicans openly debate one another, the battle lines are drawn between state governors and U.S. senators. The purpose of this article is to examine this dimension of the split in the GOP, because such a divide has the potential to shape the 2015-2017 congressional term, the 2016 Republican presidential primary, and ultimately the future of the party.
The first area of conflict between governors and senators in the GOP is that of foreign policy. This divide is characterized by two feuds. Last year, New Jersey governor Chris Christie locked horns with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on this issue. Paul also received support from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The governor advocated a more hawkish position on national security programs, while the senators opposed, and still oppose, wide government surveillance initiatives. Then, just two months ago, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, criticized Sen. Paul in a Washington Post op-ed, accusing the senator of advocating foreign policy “isolationism.” The senator responded with a piece in Politico Magazine, criticizing the governor as “stuck in the past.” Foreign policy is just one area where some Republican governors and senators have disagreed over the years.
A second source of frequent debate between state executives and national legislators in the GOP is the subject of fiscal management, and associated budget negotiations with Democrats in Congress and President Obama. In August of 2013, when many Republican lawmakers indicated their willingness to allow a shutdown of the federal government in order to force Democrats to accept cuts to the Affordable Care Act/”Obamacare,” Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was a vocal skeptic of the strategy, according to Jonathan Martin of the New York Times. Martin also wrote at the time that “because of the very nature of their jobs, Republican governors mainly fall into the pragmatist camp on this issue.” In 2012, Louis Jacobson wrote an argument in a Governing.com piece that would support Martin’s comment: “Being governor teaches you how to work with a legislative body.” In another Times article, Jonathan Martin wrote that “while members of Congress vote on legislation, bills can be passed without their support. But governors face decisions that affect the residents of their states.” These quotes all shed light on how working from the governor’s mansion, as opposed to working from Capitol Hill, can impact a politician’s willingness to cooperate with members of the other party, and perhaps for good reason. Republicans hold a majority of governorships in the United States, but a minority of seats in the Senate. Effective management at the state level is therefore imperative, regardless of whether or not doing so requires working with Democrats.
The final “hot spot” between Republican governors and senators has characterized the party for years now: the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” and the associated state-by-state Medicaid expansion. Several GOP senators rode the wave of anti-Obamacare sentiment right into office. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky were both elected in 2010, when the health care reform legislation was one of the top issues in the congressional midterms. Even as recent as 2012, Ted Cruz of Texas was winning political support for his criticism of the legislative measure. However, some Republican governors who are also contenders for the presidential nomination in 2016 have chosen to take federal money and expand their state Medicaid programs. Two of these governors are New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich. In February of this year, Kyle Cheney and James Hohmann wrote for Politico that “Govs. Rick Snyder in Michigan, John Kasich in Ohio, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Bill Haslam in Tennessee and Terry Branstad in Iowa each embraced some form of Medicaid expansion, accepting federal Obamacare case to cover their low-income population.” Again, the issue of Republican governors embracing certain elements of the Affordable Care Act while their counterparts in the Senate vehemently oppose the bill is related to the point mentioned earlier: governors have to serve their state populations, while senators are able to draft and pass legislation, but have little role in actually implementing policy. This gives each side a unique perspective in debates about policy issues.
What is the impact of this governor-senator divide within the Republican Party on the 2016 primary season? It would initially appear that the gubernatorial wing of the party has the political advantage. Two of the top three spots on RealClearPolitics 2016 polling average are occupied by governors. Additionally, governors can also flaunt experience in policy execution, and the following quote by Louis Jacobson supports this point: “When running for president, former governors have all the advantages of learning the policy ropes without assembling a lengthy record of votes on potentially controversial bills, amendments, and procedural matters.” And in 2016, there’s a strong chance that Republican governors would prefer seeing a presidential nominee with some experience in a governor’s mansion. Both Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have said that they want to see a governor win the nomination and ultimately the presidency.
However, there are also disadvantages for governors who are considering the presidency. Allegations of wrong-doing by governors, even if the accusations are false, can be devastating. This February, Jaime Fuller of The Washington Post wrote that “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s various scandals have portentous meaning for the presidential election, so we’ve been told. The investigations into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s office have people wondering whether he truly is the post-Christie presidential front-runner.” Governors are generally more vulnerable to accusations of corruption than senators, because governors actually work with implementing budgets.
The 2016 Republican primaries will obviously be heated, and there is the potential to see the gubernatorial wing of the party collect around one candidate, while the congressional wing of the party unites behind its own candidate. A presidential candidate with experience as a governor might accuse his or her rival of causing gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. Meanwhile, a presidential candidate emerging from the U.S. Senate might point to his opponent’s compromises with Democrats, and especially if that governor expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In the end, the split within the Republican Party may not just be about ideology, about moderates versus conservatives. It may also be about two competing styles of government: the governors outside of Washington versus the senators on the inside.
For more information about topics discussed here, read the following articles:
“Will a Governor Win the White House in 2016,” by Larry Sabato in Politico Magazine.
“Governors in the White House: How Well Do They Do as President?” by Louis Jacobson at governing.com.