In Washington, decisions being made in Congress and the White House command everyone’s attention. But often overlooked are the profound ramifications of decisions in the 50 state capitals around the country. Governors have strong connections to the businesses operating and creating jobs in their states, and simultaneously have a direct line to the federal policymakers crafting the rules of the road. For those reasons alone, outreach to governors should be part of any smart government relations strategy.
After all, when President Obama came into office he appointed two sitting and two former governors to his cabinet, and one sitting Republican governor to a high-ranking ambassador post. These leaders are not afraid to use their bully pulpits. They can be compelling forces when a client seeks to influence or endorse federal policy. These 50 leaders have access to local media, closeness to members of their congressional delegations, relationships with the members of the federal executive branch and most importantly, a fervent desire to advance the interests of their states. All these factors make them key political allies.
So what is the current political landscape in the states? The changes brought on by governors’ races in last year’s election will affect the political landscape for years to come. In 42 states, governors have a direct role in congressional re-districting. Republican governors now control 13 of the 18 states that are expected to gain or lose congressional seats based on the census. The impact of this could also signal a change in strategy for the 2012 presidential campaigns. President Obama will have fewer Democratic governors to campaign with in politically significant states like Iowa, Ohio, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Michigan. In some states, Democratic governors running for re-election will want to distance themselves from the President’s policies, while other Democrats in key states could see more access and opportunities to advocate for specific solutions that promote their states. The upcoming campaign season will give Republican governors plenty of opportunities to mobilize and unify their base against the President’s health care law and what they will deem “job-killing” policies. They will use the same tactics that Democratic governors used against President Bush in 2008. Senate races, too, will be impacted by the new slate of governors. In 2012, nine of the 11 states with gubernatorial races will also have a Senate race in play, including hotly contested campaigns in Missouri, Montana, Washington and North Dakota.
But governors have to get through 2011 first, and unlike the federal government, most governors are constitutionally bound to balance their budgets on an annual basis. Facing and attacking the current level of deficits, however, requires creative solutions. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, some 45 states will face more than $125 billion in deficits. As the recession has run its course, most governors have extinguished their rainy-day funds (if they had them to begin with) and are having to consider drastic cuts. With Republicans in control of the US House of Representatives and a new, remarkably conservative freshman class, governors know the days of federal assistance are a thing of the past. But in the wake of economic recovery, many governors are not simply resorting to raising taxes; in fact, some are lowering them in an attempt to spur economic growth. This is the sometimes unique benefit of working with governors. It is often less about partisan politics and ideology and more about actions that accomplish growth and development in their states.
During last month’s National Governors Association (NGA) conference in DC, many governors were heard beginning their statements with the proclamation, “My state is open for business…“ and ending with a factoid about how far they are willing to go to bring jobs to their states. This message was heard from governors in both parties throughout the conference. There is a level of competition and one-upmanship that is always present when the governors are together, but this year was striking. Democratic governors are in a tougher position, confronted with defending or explaining some of the administration’s regulatory policies strongly opposed by the companies they want to satisfy. When Democratic governors met with President Obama in February, the conversation centered on balancing budgets while also creating an environment that attracts business. These conversations will continue with the White House, and Speaker Boehner has a staff member dedicated as a liaison with the Republican governors to increase communication.
Meanwhile, among each other, the gamesmanship intensifies. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D) recently inked tax increases in his state to satisfy deficits, Governors Chris Christie (R-NJ), Mitch Daniels (R-IN) and Scott Walker (R-WI) pitched Illinois businesses to move to their states, with Governor Christie aggressively running newspaper and radio ads in Illinois. Around the Beltway, Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) has proposed a $54 million jobs initiative to compete with his North Carolina and Maryland neighbors. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has considered high-earner tax cuts to motivate New Jersey residents to move across the border. And in Montana, Governor Brian Schweitzer (D-MT) appeared in ads aimed at business travelers in which he asked, “How long will it be before your state’s red ink rubs off on your business?” emboldening companies to make a move to Montana.
The competition to attract business extends to a governor’s willingness to advocate at the highest levels for federal policies and regulations that will keep or create jobs in their states. This not-so-latent agenda, coupled with the relationships and opportunities on the campaign trail leading to 2012, make governors fitting messengers, and therefore fitting partners, in any advocacy effort.