Elected last fall as part of a nationwide Republican sweep, Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida have seen their approval ratings tumble into the abysmal range — and Democrats are salivating over the prospect that they will be a drag on the GOP’s presidential and congressional candidates in both crucial battleground states in 2012.
Beyond those two big swing-state prizes, Republicans in the past two years have won the top office in just about every hotly contested state, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Nevada, and their early performances have Democratic foes convinced that the party’s brand has suffered serious damage months after the party’s landslide victories in November.
“We have buyer’s remorse on steroids here in Ohio, and Democrats are energized,” state Democratic Party spokesman Seth Bringman said. “Presumably, a year from now, the Republican presidential nominee will be traveling to every corner of this state with John Kasich. That nominee will be forced to stand next to a governor who is personally unlikable and whose policies have attacked hardworking people in our state.”
A survey by Quinnipiac University showed 38 percent of Buckeye State voters approve of the job performance of Mr. Kasich, a nine-term congressman who later hosted a Fox News show, with 49 percent disapproving. Critics chalk up the figures to the Republican’s efforts to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. He sparked a pro-union backlash in March by signing into law a measure that prevents government workers from negotiating wages, going on strike and receiving automatic pay raises.
Although such dismal numbers might be worrisome — particularly in the bellwether state of Ohio, which Mr. Obama won in 2008 by less than 5 percentage points — analysts say it’s not a sure bet that their unpopularity will tarnish GOP nominees for Congress and the White House by association. Indeed, according to University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato, statistical research shows “there’s almost no relationship there.”
“Popular governors really have had very little impact on the presidential election. They do not get their fellow party members elected,” said Mr. Sabato, also director of the school’s Center for Politics. “The same thing holds in reverse. That is not why people are going to vote for or against a candidate. That calls for a level of inference and sophistication that is wholly foreign to voters.”
As an example, Mr. Sabato noted that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was “very popular” in 2004 — scoring his highest approval ratings that year at 65 percent — but it was of little help to his GOP colleagues on the ballot that November, when President Bush lost the state by 10 points even as he won re-election.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was well-liked in the Sunshine State at the time of the 2008 presidential election, with approval ratings in the high-60s, but his endorsement of Sen. John McCain wasn’t enough to push the Republican to victory. In the reverse, polls showed Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm with an approval rating of 37 percent in August 2008, but the unpopular Democrat didn’t hurt Mr. Obama, who ended up capturing the state easily.
Republicans insist that if next year’s election will be a referendum on anyone, it will be the president, and they plan to make their own guilt-by-association play by tying Democratic incumbents to Mr. Obama’s policies.
“The only poll that matters is the one that’s taken next November. … As long as our nation’s economy and job creation remain sluggish, and as long as we’re mired in international turmoil, 2012 is going to be a referendum on President Obama,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine said, noting that the party has dubbed Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is seeking a second term next year, Mr. Obama’s “left-hand man.”
Democrats argue that their strategy is working and that evidence includes last month’s mayoral election in Jacksonville, Fla., where a Democrat won for the first time in two decades. They say that has a lot to do with Mr. Scott’s unpopularity.
A recent Quinnipiac poll showed the former businessman and political newcomer with one of the lowest gubernatorial approval ratings in the country at 29 percent — a function, critics say, of his refusal to accept more than $2 billion in federal high-speed rail funding and his unsuccessful push for a strict immigration law similar to that enacted by Arizona.
“No one’s saying that Rick Scott is going to be on the ballot or even that it’s going to be a referendum on Rick Scott,” said Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “But as the leader of this party, as the governor of Florida, the highest-profile Republican in the state, someone who is going out of his way to focus on national issues, somebody who is going out of his way to attack the president rather than focus on the state and somebody who is going out of his way to implement the national Republican tea party agenda … these Republicans will have to answer for his decisions.”
Florida Republicans accuse Democrats of targeting Mr. Scott as a means to deflect attention from a still-lagging economy, and argue that the recent victory of Democrat Alvin Brown in Jacksonville shows voters support conservative policies.
“If you take a good look at the Jacksonville race, you will find that Alvin Brown ran on a conservative platform which should indicate to the Democrats that the only way they can win is if they run as a Republican,” said Trey Stapleton, a spokesman for the Florida GOP. “No mayoral race is going to help the fact that the Democrats’ failed economic policies and tax-and-spend strategies have put our children further into debt and their parents out of work.”
While it has played out in Ohio and Florida, the backlash against Republican governors began in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker was the first to take on public unions. He and some of his legislative allies now face recall elections over that fight.
In Michigan, support for newly elected Gov. Rick Snyder fell after he unveiled a budget with deep cuts to education spending while lowering taxes on businesses.
Michigan and Wisconsin handed electoral votes to Mr. Obama in 2008, but Republicans have eyed the states for years, believing voters there could soon swing toward the GOP at the national level.
Democrats, though, said that is not likely to happen in 2012.
Margie Omero, president of Democratic polling firm Momentum Analysis, said many of the new Republican governors jumped so deeply into controversial policy fights that they never got the honeymoon period that voters usually give newly elected politicians. She said that will bleed over into next year’s elections.
“I think it’s going to really have an effect across the board from the top on down and back up again,” she said.