KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Governors seem to be strikingly popular these days, especially compared to national political figures and institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court.
— This tendency appears to be holding for the nine rookie governors who took office for the first time after last November’s elections.
— While the nine rookie governors’ approval ratings run along a spectrum from passable to great, none is in dire straits politically. A few have leveraged unified party control in their state to enact aggressive agendas, while others are building up their policy records more slowly, often because they have to work with opposition-party control of one or both legislative chambers.
Assessing the new governors
In a pattern we first wrote about a year ago, governors appear to be strikingly popular these days, especially compared to national political figures and institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court.
This perception was bolstered by the findings of the most recent 50-state survey by Morning Consult, the only polling undertaken nationally on gubernatorial approval ratings. The Morning Consult findings, which were released April 19, found that every single governor in the country was above water — that is, with the percentage of respondents approving of their job in office higher than the percentage of respondents disapproving. In fact, Morning Consult found that 48 of the 50 governors were at least 8 points above water, with only two above water by smaller margins (Mississippi Republican Tate Reeves at 6 points above water and Oregon Democrat Tina Kotek at 3 points above water).
With the recent passage of 100 days since most gubernatorial inaugurations and the ending of legislative sessions in some states, we decided it was time to check in with one particular group of governors: the rookies.
In this article, we’ll look at how the governors who were elected in November 2022 have done in their first few months in office. We’re not including two governors who were elected to their position for the first time in November 2022, but who had been elevated to the office prior to that: Democrats Kathy Hochul of New York and Dan McKee of Rhode Island.
A key division shaping the nine rookie governors’ performance in office is whether their party controls the legislature.
Six of the new governors have the good fortune of serving with a legislature controlled by their own party: Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Arkansas) and Democrats Josh Green (Hawaii), Wes Moore (Maryland), Maura Healey (Massachusetts) and Kotek in Oregon, plus Republican Jim Pillen in Nebraska, whose unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan but widely accepted to be Republican-leaning.
The remaining three rookie governors are in the less fortunate position of sharing power with the opposing party. They also happen to govern a trio of vitally important states in presidential elections: Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
Two of these governors are mirror images: Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Joe Lombardo. Hobbs succeeded Republican Doug Ducey, who was term-limited, while Lombardo ousted incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Hobbs faces a state House and Senate that are GOP-controlled, though narrowly, while Lombardo faces a Democratic Assembly and Senate with larger Democratic margins.
The final governor, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, helped carry in a new, and narrow, Democratic majority to the state House, but the state Senate remains in GOP hands.
In broad strokes, our research and interviews with political experts in these states mirrors the Morning Consult findings: None of the rookie governors is in dire straits politically, and all of them, to one degree or another, seem to be well-regarded by their constituents. Of the nine, Kotek faces the strongest headwinds, though it appears that voter concerns owe heavily to a hangover from the weak approval ratings of her predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, and particularly the longstanding problems of homelessness and crime in the state’s biggest city, Portland.
The other division we found among these governors is between those that have managed to implement a substantial agenda fairly quickly, including Sanders for the Republicans in Arkansas and Moore for the Democrats in Maryland, and those who are expected to get their initiatives passed eventually but, often due to a slower legislative calendar, have not signed many bills yet.
Not surprisingly, the three governors that are sharing power with the opposite party have seen more limited chunks of their agenda enacted than those with unified partisan control. In fact, one of these governors, Hobbs, has made her name less from signing bills than from vetoing large quantities of Republican legislation.
Here’s a state-by-state rundown.
Rookie governors with unified partisan control
Sanders, a veteran Republican figure who became best known for serving as White House press secretary for then-President Donald Trump (and whose father, Mike Huckabee, previously served as Arkansas governor), may have put the largest imprint on policy of any of the nine rookie governors.
Sanders’s agenda was aggressively conservative — more so than that of her predecessor, Asa Hutchinson, who is now challenging Trump from the center-right in the GOP presidential primary. But it seems to have been accepted by the majority of voters in her solidly red state, which Trump won in 2020 by 28 points. Liberals in the state are livid, but they represent a small proportion of the electorate, and observers detect little organized or open pushback from establishment Republicans who are more in line with Hutchinson’s approach.
Sanders made her first moves immediately after her inauguration, issuing executive orders on culture war issues such as a prohibition on “indoctrination” through critical race theory and a ban on the government’s use of the term “Latinx.” She followed up by signing a bill to prevent transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice at public schools and another to authorize a monument near the state capitol marking abortions performed in the state prior to the Roe v. Wade decision.
Sanders also pursued other conservative priorities beyond the GOP’s current focus on social issues. She signed a bill to cut both personal and corporate tax rates, one to establish publicly funded school vouchers (paired with a boost to starting teacher pay), and another to boost prisons and require higher mandatory minimum sentences. She also signed a bill to ease several child labor protections, including one that required employers to secure the written consent of a parent or guardian for children under 16.
Jay Barth, an emeritus professor of politics at Hendrix College, said Sanders “is clearly off to a strong start” and has “accomplished her big goals. What limited public opinion polling that’s been done suggests she remains quite popular with the Arkansas electorate.”
Sanders is expected to have a high profile nationally. She was chosen to give the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address, and in April, she and three other women serving as Republican governors — Alabama’s Kay Ivey, South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, and Iowa’s Kim Reynolds — sought the national spotlight by jointly targeting Bud Light for a promotion it undertook with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
While Hawaii is a solidly blue state — Democrats hold a 23-2 edge in the Senate and a 45-6 edge in the House — the Democratic Party is so dominant that it’s effectively a big tent with lots of internal divisions. This makes it more complicated than it would seem at first glance to predict how legislators will work with the governor, even one of the same party.
Green, a physician, was elected governor of Hawaii after serving as the face of the coronavirus pandemic response during his tenure as lieutenant governor. Coming into his gubernatorial tenure, Green set out four key areas for his agenda: homelessness and housing, tax relief, climate change, and health care. In office, he has made incremental progress in each of these areas, though he’ll need to go back to the legislature for further enhancements.
On housing, Green secured several hundred million dollars more to support a variety of housing funds. On taxes, he was able to double the earned income tax credit and the food tax credit and enhance an existing child and dependent care tax credit. On climate change, he obtained an additional $100 million for green infrastructure. And on health care, Green signed bills with additional funding for key hospitals as well as loan forgiveness for social workers, nurses, and physicians working in the state, with the aim of attracting more health care workers to ease current shortages.
Green’s proposal for an across-the-board repeal of an excise tax on food and drugs died for this session, as did his proposals to legalize recreational marijuana and to enact paid family leave. Green also suffered a series of contentious confirmation battles for agency directors.
Still, observers said he has been generally on message about his agenda. “I think the public is generally quite pleased,” said Colin Moore, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Moore succeeded a moderate Republican, Larry Hogan, who was term-limited. Working with a solidly Democratic legislature, Moore has been quick out of the gate.
He didn’t get everything he wanted, but he was able to sign a version of each of his 10 priority bills into law. They included accelerating the implementation of a $15-an-hour minimum wage (Moore had initially sought to index the minimum wage for inflation, but legislators stripped that out before passage; Moore signed the bill anyway). He also signed measures to establish a service-year program for recent high school graduates, and making it easier to purchase electric trucks. And he signed gun legislation that enabled the state to save as much of its firearm regulation while still complying with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling favorable to gun rights. (Critics of the new law are planning a legal challenge.)
“Moore has worked in sync with the Democratic supermajorities in the legislature to advance a reasonably progressive agenda,” said Josh Kurtz, founding editor of the online publication Maryland Matters. “While the agenda hasn’t been nearly as far-left as Republicans maintain — or as many progressives had hoped — it’s still clear after eight years of Hogan that it’s a new day for Maryland.”
A Goucher College poll released in early May found Moore with 53% approval. That was lower than Hogan’s at the end of his term, but higher than Hogan’s at a similar point in his first term.
While Moore insists that he will remain in Maryland to serve two terms and has made a point of visiting far-flung locales in the state — such as Lonaconing in western Maryland, which no sitting governor had visited since 1996 — there’s already presidential buzz around him. He’s become a leading Black political figure and has periodically given speeches in Washington, D.C. and appeared as a cable TV guest. “Despite being a political novice, he’s got great political talent, and it shows,” Kurtz said.
Much like Maryland, Massachusetts has a new Democratic governor — Healey — who took over for a moderate Republican, Charlie Baker, in a state with overwhelmingly Democratic legislative chambers. Unlike Maryland, though, Massachusetts’s legislators are still at work, leaving more of Healey’s agenda pending.
Healey, who previously served as state attorney general, has already made an important move concerning the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA — the subway, bus, and commuter rail system that connects Boston and its suburbs. The authority has been criticized for years over reliability, cost overruns, and ineffective leadership; in April, Healey named a new MBTA general manager, Phillip Eng, who previously held high positions with the New York City-area Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Healey, who with Kotek jointly became the first lesbians to be elected governor, has also focused attention on women’s issues, including issuing an executive order protecting the use of abortion medication in the face of a legal challenge in Texas.
Much of the rest of Healey’s agenda is awaiting resolution, including taxes and housing policy.
A poll conducted in March and April by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and WCVB found Healey with a 57% approval rating, with just 24% disapproving.
Healey “isn’t as popular as Baker, but that is an unrealistic bar,” said Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Towards the end of his tenure, Baker received a 68% approval rating from the same pollster.
Pillen’s first months in office were largely stymied due to efforts by liberal legislators to block a bill that would restrict the rights of transgender people. Through procedural maneuvers, the liberal minority has forced bills to pass with a supermajority.
The first major bill to receive Pillen’s signature is one that allows residents to legally carry handguns without a permit or training.
A six-week abortion ban backed by Pillen failed after one legislator who had often aligned with the anti-abortion camp voted against the measure, saying it went too far. Pillen released a statement saying he was “profoundly disappointed.”
Then, on May 19, legislators reached the required supermajority to pass a bill that both banned abortion at 12 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, and banned gender-affirming treatment for minors. Pillen signed the measure earlier this week.
Other priorities, including property tax relief, remain in limbo.
It’s unclear whether the challenging dynamics of the legislative session will affect Pillen’s standing among voters, but in general, he has been “following the standard conservative playbook, which is pleasing to Nebraskans statewide,” said University of Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing.
Kotek is the closest governor on this list to qualify as “unpopular,” but even she’s treading water in the Morning Consult polling. Kotek won the office in a three-way race that included Republican Christine Drazan and a conservative Democrat-turned-independent, Betsy Johnson. Johnson’s entry into the race indicated long-running dissatisfaction by a segment of Democrats and independents with the state’s Democratic establishment, but Kotek prevailed because a majority of Oregonians distrusted the national Republican Party even more.
The issues that bedeviled Kotek’s predecessor, Brown, remain on the front burner, namely homelessness and crime in Portland. As governor, Kotek — a long-serving House speaker well versed in the legislature’s ways — was successful in securing $217 million in emergency money for housing, but her relations with Portland city officials over plans to implement those funds have been more difficult.
Kotek’s other major accomplishment so far is signing a measure that allocated $210 million for state and private efforts to obtain some of the federal funding for domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
Agenda items still awaiting action in the legislature involve additional funds for housing, behavioral health and substance abuse, as well as targeted efforts to improve reading skills. A wild card is the impact of a walkout by GOP legislators to deny a quorum. A 2022 ballot measure was supposed to neuter this procedural tactic, but Republicans have been testing its limits. Under the law, several have already missed enough days to be ineligible for reelection.
Meanwhile, Kotek will be tasked with naming a new secretary of state after the resignation of Democrat Shemia Fagan following revelations that she had a side job consulting for a cannabis company. (In Oregon, the secretary of state is, among other things, next in line for the governorship.)
Kotek is forceful, effective, and benefits from a good foil in the national Republican Party, “but until people see a change on the streets, popularity will be a difficult achievement,” said David Sarasohn, a longtime political columnist based in Portland.
Rookie governors with divided partisan control
Coming into office, Hobbs offered an agenda that included investments in public education, affordable housing, immigration and water resources. While she has signed some relatively uncontroversial measures in her first few months — and while she managed after months of negotiations to reach a deal with GOP leaders on a $17.8 billion budget — Hobbs’s affirmative agenda remains in limbo.
Instead, she has made her mark with vetoes — 94 through May 22, shattering a yearly record for Arizona governors, surpassing the previous record by Democrat Janet Napolitano. No one on this list of rookie governors has assembled such a long list of vetoes.
Hobbs defeated election-denying former newscaster Kari Lake last November, and with Republicans in narrow control of both legislative chambers — many of them with views well to the right of the Arizona GOP’s historical positions — Hobbs has framed her situation as not being about Democrats vs. Republicans, but rather “sanity versus chaos.”
Hobbs’s vetoes have included several election management bills. Hobbs, who as secretary of state took on election-denying claims from leading Arizona Republicans, has expressed a willingness to work with the legislature on improving the state’s election system. However, she has vetoed measures that she argues address side issues or are counterproductive. Her vetoes include bills about chain-of-custody requirements for ballots, the use of artificial intelligence in signature-matching, eligibility for remaining on the state’s permanent mail-ballot list, opposition to ranked-choice voting, support for the Electoral College, and a requirement that ballot machines use only U.S.-made parts.
She’s also vetoed several bills that would have cracked down on opposition to guns and legalize silencers; that would have loosened requirements for vaccinations; and that would have prohibited certain race-related instruction in schools.
Some vetoes, however, were for bills with potentially wider support, such as heightening charges for assaults on pregnant women; elimination of the grocery tax; and stricter charges for fentanyl manufacturers. In vetoing these and other bills, Hobbs usually cited the specifics of how the bills were written rather than the premise.
Hobbs’s most controversial veto involved an improbable topic: tamales. The bill, which passed with wide bipartisan support in both chambers, would have made it easier for home cooks to sell perishable products commercially. The measure would have effectively legalized what is now a flourishing but unregulated market for Hispanics, a generally pro-Democratic constituency. Hobbs cited risks of foodborne illness in her veto message. An override fell short when most of the House Democrats who had supported the bill decided not to override her veto. (The Democrats’ decision to switch their vote rather than override Hobbs may seem surprising, but Republicans were also loath to override vetoes by Hobbs’s Republican predecessors, Ducey and Jan Brewer, Axios reported.)
So far, Arizona voters seem to be accepting of Hobbs’s approach. Recent polling by Noble Predictive Insights found a plurality of 44% approving of her job as governor, compared to 37% disapproving. About one in five voters didn’t have an opinion.
“Hobbs’s numbers are not very dissimilar from the newly elected Republican governor of Nevada, who enjoys a plurality of positive job approval, with a decent amount of the electorate still waiting to form an opinion,” said Mike Noble, the firm’s chief of research and founder.
Lombardo, a former sheriff who ran as less of a hard-right candidate than many of the Republicans running in key races in 2022, has cited school choice and tougher criminal penalties as key agenda items. But Lombardo is largely playing defense; in a reverse of the lineup in Arizona, Nevada’s legislature is controlled by the Democrats. In fact, the Democrats have an Assembly supermajority and are just one seat shy of a supermajority in the Senate.
So far, Lombardo’s tenure rates as largely incomplete, because the legislature is scheduled to be meeting until early June and the progress of many key bills remains to be decided. Several gun control bills made it to Lombardo’s desk, which he proceeded to veto. Other bills that he might get a chance to veto if they’re passed include an expansion of gender-affirming medical care; “baby bonds” for the children of Medicaid beneficiaries; an expansion of Medicaid to undocumented children and pregnant parents; and criminalization of fake electors.
Lombardo has generally kept his cards close to his vest, though he has said he’s willing to sign a “clean” bill to codify Sisolak’s executive order to protect abortion providers and out-of-state abortion patients from criminal prosecution. (During the campaign, Lombardo shifted his stance on the executive order.)
Noble’s most recent poll, conducted for the Nevada Independent in April, found Lombardo’s approval rating at 51% and his disapproval at 28%, with about one in five respondents having no opinion.
It’s “too early to tell” how popular Lombardo is, given the flux in the legislature, said Jon Ralston, CEO of the Nevada Independent, “His numbers are still good, but nothing much has happened yet,” Ralston said.
Unlike Hobbs and Lombardo, Pennsylvania’s Shapiro won the governorship by a wide margin — by almost 15 points over the far-right GOP nominee, Doug Mastriano. In addition, unlike Hobbs and Lombardo, Shapiro benefits from his party controlling one chamber of the legislature (the House, narrowly). Democrats protected their slim 102-101 majority in a special election on May 16.
This complicated power arrangement has made for slow progress on legislation, though Shapiro did sign one bill that passed both chambers unanimously; it mandates full insurance coverage for preventive screenings for women at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Shapiro, who previously served as attorney general, has made efforts to implement what he can on his own. He’s signed several executive orders, including orders to end college degree requirements for certain state jobs, a gift ban policy, and reorderings of state government services.
Shapiro has also taken a visible role in several disasters, notably a major train derailment in East Palestine, OH, located just across Pennsylvania’s western border.
In general, Shapiro’s governorship has won plaudits from both Democrats and Republicans, observers say. Even a poll sponsored by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation found Shapiro with 54% approval and just 31% disapproval.
“Shapiro’s focus on improving the business environment in the commonwealth through more efficient and supportive regulations and administration has won bipartisan praise,” said Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg College political scientist. “His budget proposal, while receiving some blowback from Republicans, was more well received than what was seen” during the tenure of his predecessor, Democrat Tom Wolf.
|Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2024. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.
Author: Louis Jacobson