The headlines immediately following the “Republican Wave” election of 2010 focused on Congress, where Democrats lost control of the House. But attention quickly shifted to the states, where a new class of Republican governors, often working with allied legislative majorities, began implementing agendas far more extreme than those of their compatriots in gridlocked Washington.
That extremism has made many of these Republican Wave governors vulnerable in 2014—so vulnerable that billionaire campaign donors and business interests are scrambling to save them. Recent revelations of secret meetings organized by the Koch brothers and secret donations to groups like the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee confirm the connections—and the sense of urgency. But even a massive spending spree may not keep these governors in office.
That’s because what’s good for campaign donors has not been good for GOP-led states, many of which trail the national average in job creation. In some states, such as Kansas, economic stagnation is so severe that moderate Republicans are endorsing Democratic gubernatorial nominees who promise to stop catering to out-of-state special interests and to focus on education and jobs.
The failure of the GOP austerity agenda stands in stark contrast to the success of states where Democratic governors have invested in infrastructure, services and schools. California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, both of whom replaced Republican governors four years ago, are well ahead in the polls. While some Democratic governors are in tight races, perennially embattled Illinois Governor Pat Quinn edged ahead of Republican Bruce Rauner in a mid-September Chicago Tribune survey, at least in part because of a campaign warning that Rauner would impose on Illinois the right-wing policies that are widely seen as having slowed growth in neighboring Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker began his tenure in 2011 by attacking public employees and their unions and securing a budget that slashed spending on education and public services. He advanced laws restricting access to women’s reproductive health services, establishing harsh voter-ID requirements, undermining environmental protections, and generally rubber-stamping the agenda of corporate-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Walker made big news, but his extremism was hardly unique. Michigan’s Rick Snyder used “emergency manager” laws to dismantle democracy in Detroit and other cities and signed an anti-labor “right to work” law in the home state of the United Auto Workers. Maine’s Paul LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” hired corporate lobbyists to help him rewrite regulations, and intervened so aggressively against unemployed workers that the US Labor Department had to step in. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett hit all the wrong marks by appointing cronies to key positions, making statements that offended women and Latinos, attacking unions, and scrapping the state’s school funding formula in a move that led to devastating cuts.
Corbett’s misdeeds are so well known that he’s trailing as far as twenty points behind Democrat Tom Wolf, a businessman running as an ardent advocate for public education, a supporter of unions and a champion of manufacturing. Walker, Snyder and LePage are all locked in what the RealClearPolitics “Poll of Polls” ranks as toss-up races, as are Republican Wave governors Rick Scott of Florida, Nathan Deal of Georgia and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
That scares the Koch brothers; they highlighted governors’ races at a secret summit in June, where—taped by the Undercurrent and shared with The Nation and the Huffington Post—Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Cox told assembled donors, “We’ve really had no stronger partner over the last four years than [the Koch-funded] Americans for Prosperity.” Personally thanking David Koch for getting “heavily involved” in helping Walker fend off a 2012 recall challenge, Cox said the RGA—which can accept unlimited contributions from billionaires—has steered $18 million toward keeping Walker viable, and that it planned to spend as much as $20 million this year to protect Scott. Arizona Republican Doug Ducey, locked in a tight race for that state’s governorship, told the billionaire summit, “I can’t emphasize enough the power of organizations like this.”
The Koch brothers and their inner circle are not the only sources of cash for failed GOP governors. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington recently revealed documents showing that ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Walmart and other corporations joined a Koch Industries lobbying affiliate in paying $250,000 each to be part of an elite “Statesman” group established by the RGA to provide, among other things, “an exclusive breakfast with the Republican governors and members of their staff.” The concern, of course, is that those special interests will get a lot more than breakfast from the governors.
Despite all the money that will flow into state races over the coming weeks, it is the fear of what Republican officeholders will deliver for their donors—at the expense of education, public services, job creation, fairness and equal rights—that may be the biggest barrier to a Republican Wave in 2014.