The curious circumstance of politicians is that their fate depends on the opinions of the public, while simultaneously, their actions and words shape the opinions of the public.
Some politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are reeds in the wind who let their votes sway whichever way they believe is politically beneficial. Others try to be more like oak trees, which stand firm in their beliefs no matter how strong the winds of a news cycle may blow, and call on others to join their movements.
When Republicans manage to get elected in Democratic states or districts, for the long-term sake of conservatism, they should try to be oaks.
Consider this unfortunate situation: Republican Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Paul LePage of Maine score A-grades on the Cato Institute’s 2018 fiscal policy report card. Martinez has vetoed wasteful spending, resisted tax hikes in times of sagging revenue, and championed tax cuts. LePage has consistently cut taxes, opposed Medicaid expansion, and cut the number of state government employees. Yet, Martinez (-19 percent net favorability) and LePage (-14 percent) are some of the most unpopular governors in the nation (though LePage’s bombast surely contributes to this).
On the flip side, Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland score D- and C-grades, respectively, on fiscal responsibility. Baker has raised taxes on workers (through a payroll tax hike) and innovation, in the form of a new tax on ride-sharing. Hogan has at least proposed tax cuts, and managed to cut taxes with the legislature for some select businesses, but has failed to get the state legislature behind broad-based tax cuts. Despite their fiscal failures, Baker (+52 percent) and Hogan (+51 percent) are the two most popular governors in the country, even though they’re Republicans governing deep-blue states.
The fiscally conservative GOP governors have struggled to sell their blue-state denizens on their policies, while the irresponsible GOP governors have little to no fiscal conservatism to sell their constituents on. (Granted, even the irresponsible GOP governors have better fiscal policies than their Democratic opponents would have.)
GOP governors and legislators need to do whatever it takes to sell voters on small government.
The popular ones need to use their political capital to persuade voters to the virtues of lower taxes and less spending. The fiscally conservative ones need to make clear to their voters why a sounder public fisc and a smaller government footprint is in their interests. Tell the stories of constituents who write in, thankful for tax cuts or economic reforms. As Ronald Reagan put it, “You can’t be for big government, big taxes, and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy.”
Thanks to changes on the federal level, states are poised for conservative reforms in the next four years if voters elect GOP majorities to their statehouses and gubernatorial mansions. The Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME will lessen the labor union grip over the political and fiscal process, and the strict federal limitation on the state and local income tax deduction should spur tax cuts in high-tax states, or at least be a roadblock against further tax hikes.
After the 2014 elections, 31 governorships were held by Republicans. The number has since increased to 33. Regardless of whether that number rises or falls in 2018, GOP governors need the courage to pursue fiscal conservatism, and a better message to sell their skeptics on.