By Froma Harrop
Professional partisans see every race as a mark on their team’s scoreboard. But these activists err in treating the win of a state governorship and U.S. Senate seat as similar victories. Voters might care which party runs Congress, but why would they fret over whether their state’s chief executive is a Republican, Democrat or something else? Truth is, most don’t.
Yet GOP cheerleaders saw the 2009 elections of Republican governors in “blue” New Jersey and “purple” Virginia as some extraordinary coup full of meaning for national politics. It’s like they never noticed that bluer California has a Republican governor — as does even bluer Vermont and the bluest-of-all Rhode Island.
None of these states had turned into Republican bastions in any way. It happened that Republicans ran strong candidates amenable to the local culture, and the electorate thought they’d be better managers of local affairs.
Pollsters asked voters in Virginia and New Jersey whether President Obama was a factor in their choice for governor. In both states, most said no.
Governors and U.S. senators might as well be different species. A Republican goes into the Senate and bucks the national leadership at his or her own peril. That applies to Democrats, as well, though to a far lesser extent.
Governors have to be adults. As their title implies, they actually govern. They must balance budgets. They have to deliver services to real people. And they need to work with members of the opposing party.
Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship of Virginia promising better public transportation, not the usual GOP election platform. Republican Chris Christie won in a New Jersey that was swooning under a budget crisis set against very high property taxes.
Smart Republicans are now making Christie their hero, as well they should. He’s taken on the special interests — above all, public employee unions — that have been breaking the taxpayers in many a state. In a place where these unions are powerful, Christie went directly to the people, even (successfully) urging voters to turn down local school budgets.
In a forum where a teacher yelled at him for trying to contain her compensation, he famously responded that if she didn’t like the pay, why didn’t she take another job? The audience applauded him.
New Jersey has not become a conservative bastion. In the 2008 presidential election, it gave Obama a 15 percentage-point win over Republican John McCain.
And one doesn’t have to be a conservative or Republican to fight the extraordinary deals handed some government-employee unions in recent decades. As mayor of liberal Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell went to the mat with city workers and was hailed for it.
The sad part is that the best governors often have the hardest time winning their party’s presidential nomination. Unlike Washington politicians, they can’t just borrow. Spending reductions are excruciating, and there are human needs to be met, so taxes can’t be cut lightly.
Christie had to suspend New Jersey’s popular property-tax relief checks for 2010. And his current budget underfunds public employee pensions. This means that the $3 billion not put into the fund this year will have to be found in the future.
Fiscal discipline is supposed to be a conservative virtue, but during the 2008 Republican primary debates, candidates who were senators bashed two former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for raising taxes. Again, the governors didn’t have the U.S. senators’ luxury of borrowing the money. What were they to do? Cut out kindergarten through third grade?
Playing partisan team politics is a loser on the local level. Two bad Washington continues to wallow in that unfortunate game.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.