Executive Experience a Double-Edged Sword for Some GOP Candidates
Policy + Politics

Executive Experience a Double-Edged Sword for Some GOP Candidates

Throughout his first six-and-a-half years in office, one of the attack lines Republicans have consistently deployed against President Obama has been that he assumed the presidency with no significant executive experience. The Oval Office, they complained, was no place for on-the-job training. 

Among those most frequently smacking Obama for his lack of executive experience were a special subset of GOP presidential contenders: current and former state governors who could claim to possess the experience Obama lacked. It was no accident that much of the Republican establishment, if not all elements of the base, rallied early behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012. 

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The ever-growing GOP field for 2016 includes multiple current and former governors, including five who have already declared and at least three who are expected to announce within the next few weeks. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is the only sitting governor to have officially declared at this point, but he is expected to be joined shortly by New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Ohio’s John Kasich. 

Former Governors in the running include Florida’s Jeb Bush, New York’s George Pataki, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and Rick Perry of Texas. 

While the experience of serving as the chief executive of a state is a helpful selling point for a presidential candidate, some of the sitting governors looking to move up to the presidency are discovering that running a state while running for president is a double-edged sword. 

Specifically: It’s hard to tout your experience running a state when your constituents don’t think you’re running it particularly well. 

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Jindal, who was reelected in a landslide in 2011, and still had approval ratings above 50 percent as recently as last December, has seen his status with the public in his home state crater. Last month, he hit an all-time low of 31.8 percent approval, with 64.7 percent of the population reporting that they disapprove of the job he is doing. 

Last week, when Louisiana residents were asked in a statewide poll who they would vote for in a hypothetical presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Jindal, 42 percent said they would choose their own governor. And Clinton, in a state that does not have a single state-wide elected Democrat, would receive 44.5 percent. 

Earlier this month, Jindal irked his fellow Republicans in the state legislature by forcing them to adopt a convoluted budget proposal that relied on a complicated series of education tax credits that were “paid” to students but actually delivered to the State University system. The primary reason behind the structure was to allow Jindal to claim that he had not raised overall tax revenue. 

In New Jersey, Christie has followed a trajectory similar to Jindal’s. After unseating the incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, Christie went on to win reelection in 2013 by a 22-point margin over his Democratic challenger. But then, trouble set in. 

Christie was tarred by a scandal in which aides arranged to close off a town whose mayor has angered them from access to the George Washington Bridge, creating major problems in the state for days. The state suffers from an ongoing battle over the budget, and Christie’s controversial decision to balance the budget in part by not making payments to a state pension fund created controversy. 

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As of Tuesday, the man who won 60.3 percent of the vote in his reelection campaign in 2013, couldn’t find quite half that many people who thought he was doing a good job. A Fairleigh-Dickinson University poll of voters found that only 30 percent approve of his performance, while 55 percent disapprove of the job he is doing. More than half of respondents said that the biggest obstacle to solving the state’s various budgetary problems was a lack of leadership in Trenton. 

Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who effectively won three gubernatorial elections in the space of four years, when taking a recall election into consideration, is also running into more resistance on the home front than he is used to. 

Like Jindal, Walker has been reluctant to raise taxes in advance of a presidential run, but his preferred methods for funding necessary expenditures – such as highway construction – have come under fire. According to a report in The New York Times on Tuesday, Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers are unhappy with his proposal to issue $1.3 billion in state debt to fund road repairs rather than finding a way to fund it through increased revenue or spending cuts. 

The combination of budget battles and Walker’s increased out-of-state travel as part of his preparation for a presidential run have taken a toll on his approval rating. Two statewide polls taken in April found that Walker was underwater in terms of job approval, with 41 percent approving and 58 percent disapproving. Of the respondents, 52 percent said that the state was going “in the wrong direction” and 59 percent said that they are opposed to Walker running for president at all. 

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The exception to all this is Kasich, the Ohio governor who has not officially entered the race yet. A former Congressman and Office of Management and Budget Director, Kasich has been elected twice in a key swing state. He has tamed the state budget, and presided over strong job growth. He enjoys a solid approval rating among all voters, and among Republicans in particular, his job approval rating is above 70 percent. 

Kasich solidly beats the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 47-40 in a hypothetical matchup in Ohio, something none of his competitors for the GOP nomination can claim. (Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul edges Clinton 44-41.) 

While any number of things can happen to shake up a race this far out from the actual GOP primary, the fact that the executive experience that has for years been seen as a key differentiator for Republican candidates is now looking, at least potentially, like a liability for some, is a shake-up all its own. 

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