Election 2016

6 Rabidly Right-Wing Republican Governors Who Might Get the Boot

They put right-wing ideology first—and voters don’t like it.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott visits Verizon in April.
Photo Credit: FlGov.com

Six of the nation’s most heavy-handed Republican governors are facing tough 2014 re-election contests that leading Beltway analysts say are “toss-ups,” which means current polling suggests that they face good odds of being ousted by voters this fall.

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The endangered Republicans include party leaders on a litany of issues that have come to define the modern GOP as being more driven by anti-government ideology and corporate giveaways than helping the middle- and working classes. The governors are known for cutting corporate taxes, public-sector union-busting, defunding education, gutting social safety nets, not expanding Medicaid for the poor under Obamacare, loosening gun laws and stripping voting rights. Many have used their office to reward their allies and bully opponents. In response, pollsters are saying they are in 2014’s closest races.

That’s the conclusion at RealPolitics.com, The Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and by other political handicappers. In contrast, the three “toss-up” races involving Democratic governors have very different dynamics. Two are rematches with past candidates who lost to incumbents (Connecticut, Hawaii). A third involves a GOP millionaire running against an uncharismatic governor in a large blue state (Illinois).

Let’s look at the six endangered Republicans who may be ousted this fall.

1. Florida’s Tea Party Republican Rick Scott. Florida under Scott has not been a state of warm sunshine and welcoming beaches. Joblessness, foreclosures, crimes preying on the elderly, economic inequality have all risen under his tenure. Scott also has overseen cuts in needed programs, from education to social welfare. Scott made his fortune as the head of a hospital chain that was fined $1.7 billion in the late 1990s for Medicare fraud— as Politifact Florida put it, stealing from the elderly. His re-election strategy is based on spreading fears about Obamacare and trashing the health reform. Like most ideological Republicans, he did not expand his state’s public healthcare for the poor—Medicaid—under the Affordable Care Act, despite federal funding covering the startup costs.

Scott’s Democratic opponent is likely to be former moderate Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who switched parties and has attacked Scott for putting profits ahead of people—in the private sector and as governor. Scott favored tax cuts, but raised taxes when economic growth faltered, Crist said. He tried to purge voter rolls of hundreds of thousands of non-white voters, but backed down under Department of Justice pressure. “It’s kind of a pattern. It’s fraud,” Crist said in May. “That’s what he does.”

2. Wisconsin’s Union-Buster Scott Walker. Two years ago, Walker became the darling of the GOP’s union-busting wing by ripping up collective bargaining rights won by most of the state’s public employee unions—teachers and civil servants but not police and fire fighters. That prompted tens of thousands of people to protest for weeks at the Capitol in Madison and sparked a special recall election. However, Walker won after Democrats put forth the same lackluster candidate who lost to him in 2010. His tough-on-crime policies also have been singled out as racially discriminatory, leading to the country’s highest rate of African-American men behind bars, the New Republic reported. Walker also refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. This year, he faces Democrat Mary Burke, an ex-Trek Bicycle executive and ex-state secretary of commerce. She has a record of creating jobs, while under Walker the state has seen poor job growth compared to its nieghbors.

Walker also is emeshed in a corruption scandal for being at the center of an “criminal scheme,” as prosecutors—including Republicans—recently put it, for funnelling $20 million from a who’s who of right wingers to front groups who backed him during the recall. Walker, who sees himself as a 2016 presidential contender, told Fox News that case was “resolved.” However, it’s not, and the political money-laundering affair will keep reminding voters of his arrogance and imperial management style into the fall.

3. Kansas Pro-Business Libertarian Sam Brownback. Most pundits consider Kansas to be an irrevocably red state, but voters are apparently rethinking their anti-government attitudes after seeing what Gov. Sam Brownback, the former U.S. senator, has done as governor. Brownback ran on a platform that embraced the conservative fantasy that cutting corporate taxes would create so much economic growth that revenues would balloon and cover public programs. Brownback’s plan, adopted after taking office, is spectacularly backfiring. State tax revenues have fallen by 9 percent, leading to cuts in teacher salaries, larger classrooms, draining the state’s rainy day fund, and lowering its bond rating. Brownback, like other GOP governors who like to throw their weight around (i.e., New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christy), is under investigation by the FBI for “whether members of his inner political circle tried to pressure companies to hire certain lobbyists close to Brownback’s administration,” the AP reported.

Brownback faces House Minority Leader, Democrat Paul Davis, who has made the state fiscal crisis the top issue in his campaign. On May 30, Kansas’s Department of Revenue reported that Brownback’s 2012 tax plan created a $310 million shortfall for the current fiscal year. Davis’s first messages have called for “leadership, not experiments.”   

4. Pennsylvania’s Anti-Teacher, Pro-Fracking Tom Corbett.Like other governors elected in 2010’s Tea Party wave, Corbett, a former state attorney general, ran as an anti-tax crusader and then proceeded to gut basic public services while pandering to private interests—especially the natural gas fracking industry. Upon taking office, he faced a $4 billion deficit. Corbett’s response was to not raise taxes but to cut thousands of teacher jobs and social services for the poor. A year later, he pushed Act 13, perhaps the nation’s worst new environmental law, through the GOP-led Legislature. It gave gas companies unchecked authority to drill anywhere, overturn local zoning, seize private property and muzzle physicians from discussing fracking-related illnesses in patients.

Corbett also presided over a GOP-led voting rights crisis, where the Legislature imposed a tougher voter ID requirement but then the state could not provide required new IDs to thousands of legal voters before 2012’s fall election. That debacle prompted the state’s top court to suspend the law. He also refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, but “presided over corporate tax cuts of $1.2 billion,” The New York Times reported. In May, Democats chose businessman and ex-state revenue secretary, Tom Wolf, as their nominee. He has hit Corbett for firing 20,000 teachers, the state’s current $1.4 billion deficit despite tax cuts, and portrayed him as a cold-hearted, out-of-touch governor.

5. Georgia’s Ethically Challenged Nathan Deal. Before Deal ran for governor and won in 2010, he was the rare congressman whose conflicts of interest were so brazen that the action-averse House Ethics Committee was poised to officially sanction him. He resigned from the House as that action was pending and ran for governor in Georgia, where he was accused of campaign violations and in 2012 settled those charges. Deal is another GOP governor who rejected expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing 650,000 low-income Georgians from getting health insurance. He also signed what has been called the worst pro-gun bill in the U.S. adopted after 2012’s Sandy Hook School massacre. It allows guns in bars, nightclubs, schools, churches and government buildings. 

Deal is being challenged by state Sen. Jason Carter, a lawyer and grandson of ex-Georgia governor and President Jimmy Carter. Carter is running on “education, ethics, and the economy,” and also promising to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The Republican Governor’s Association, headed by New Jersey’s Gov. Christy—who did expand Medicaid under Obamacare in his state—just bought $500,000 in ads attacking Carter for that stance. This early mudslinging underscores Deal’s vulnerability.

6. Maine’s Combative Tea Partier Paul LePage. Maine has a long history of electing political mavericks—candidates who relish being outside the mainstream. But LePage’s election amid the Tea Party’s 2010 wave resulted in what some pundits say is the worst governor in the nation. Beyond following the same anti-Obama playbook of right-wing peers, LePage is been cited by watchdog groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) as uniquely abrasive and corrupt. He appointed lobbyists to top state posts, where they have pushed anti-regulatory agendas. He ordered a mural celebrating the Labor Movement removed from a state office building and then bullied state labor department for approving too many unemployment insurance claims. He’s known for his rough style and set a record for vetoing bills, including 15 in one day.

LePage is in a three-way race for governor that includes Eliot Cutler, who almost won in 2010, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud. The most recent statewide poll found Michaud and LePage in a dead heat, with many likely voters saying they were waiting to see who would could beat LePage in the fall—Michaud or Cutler. “I think he’s shown a lot of disrespect for the office and for the people of Maine,” businessman Matthew Howe told the Portland Press Herald. “He’s really become an embarrassment.”

Had Enough?

Howe’s sentiments could describe how many voters—not just Democrats—feel about these six Republican governors, all of which are said to be in toss-up fall elections. In Washington, Tea Partiers may be powerful contributors to congressional gridlock. But back in the states where voters see how these firebrands actually govern, they’re not impressed. These races are toss-ups because voters are sick of ideology—not governance based on public service.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).