States Left Behind

When, or if, the Republican Party and the conservative movement make their comeback, it will not be under the banner of Washington leaders such as House Minority Leader John Boehner or hapless party Chair Michael Steele. Rather, the comeback is most likely to begin in the states, where governors and other state-level leaders will rise out of the ashes of financial crisis with the appearance of success, free of the baggage of the Bush administration, congressional Republicans, Rush Limbaugh, and the other deeply unpopular symbols of failed conservatism. Governors like Jon Huntsman of Utah and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota have already begun to emerge in this role.

President Barack Obama may have facilitated the comeback, unwittingly, by lifting some of the most popular and politically dominant Democrats out of their states and bringing them to Washington as part of his Cabinet. This has left the governorships in some states to Republicans; in other cases it has removed prominent Democrats who could challenge Republicans in the future. By bringing such a large number of experienced, successful politicians into the executive branch with him, Obama has at least loosened up the politics of several swing states, putting the Democratic Party on shakier footing and creating the space where the next Republican opposition could take root.

Obama's selection of certain Cabinet members has affected not only the politics in their home states but also the policy. In his effort to choose politicians who have a history of working in concert with Republicans, many of his nominees are from conservative-leaning states where they played a large role in negotiating more progressive policies on everything from taxes to reproductive health to education. In their absence, not just more conservative politicians but more conservative legislation is likely to result. Here, we look at just a few of the states Obama's Cabinet members have left behind -- and consider just how complicated the fallout could be.

-- The Editors

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COLORADO: After Obama appointed Ken Salazar to head the Department of the Interior, Colorado's Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, surprised many with his choice for Salazar's Senate replacement. In tapping the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Michael Bennet, Ritter passed over Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver, a jovial, ubiquitous presence during the Democratic Party's August convention in the city. Adding to the slight, Bennet, a former investment banker, had gotten his start as Hickenlooper's chief of staff. But insofar as the Obama administration has signaled an early commitment to education reform, Bennet is a good fit; he has been hailed by reformers nationwide for his willingness to shut down failing schools and his success in renegotiating Denver's trailblazing performance-pay plan for teachers, ProComp.

The Denver schools' new superintendent, Tom Boasberg, served as the system's chief operating officer under Bennet and is expected to continue his legacy. What's next for Mayor Hickenlooper? He continues to focus on environmental sustainability with his five-year Greenprint Denver plan, but observers believe he still has larger ambitions, directed either toward Congress or the governor's mansion.

-- Dana Goldstein

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ARIZONA: The state's two-term governor, Janet Napolitano, made no secret of her ambition to join President Obama's Cabinet. Napolitano faced a bleak legislative climate at home as 2008 drew to a close: The GOP retained control of the state House and Senate, and Arizona faced a $3 billion budget deficit. Napolitano knew her ambitious plans for education and health care would be overshadowed by the economic crisis. And her signature ballot initiative, which entailed increasing the sales tax to fund new transportation infrastructure, was rejected for the ballot by Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican.

When Napolitano became head of the Department of Homeland Security, her replacement was Jan Brewer herself, to the consternation of Arizona progressives. But so far at least, Brewer has governed as a Western pragmatist, ignoring the anti-immigrant elements that rule Arizona's right. Unlike some Republican governors, Brewer has been happy to accept federal stimulus funds and has even suggested raising taxes while limiting cuts to the education budget. Meanwhile, high-profile Arizona Democrats are queuing up for various runs in 2010; a likely gubernatorial candidate is Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix, known as a progressive on public transit and immigration. Also at stake could be John McCain's Senate seat, though the four-term incumbent has vowed to run again.

-- Dana Goldstein

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IOWA: Former Gov. Tom Vilsack's appointment as secretary of agriculture has darkened the Iowa Democratic Party's prospects for picking up Sen. Chuck Grassley's seat in 2010 -- Vilsack was widely considered the only viable challenger. Despite Grassley's penchant for colorful language (he suggested American International Group executives were "sucking on the tit of the taxpayer" and should "resign or go commit suicide" because of their failure), he is beloved in the state, and Vilsack was the only potential challenger whose approval ratings even came close. Grassley is 75 years old and might have been convinced to retire if he were facing a strong challenger in the up-coming election. Now he's likely to stick around.

-- Adam Serwer

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KANSAS: As Gov. Kathleen Sebelius transitions into her position as secretary of health and human services, she leaves behind a power vacuum that could endanger pro-choice policies in Kansas. "She's the top pro-choice Democrat in the state," says Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and mid-Missouri.

"She has a lot of political capital, and someone like [Lt. Gov. Mark] Parkinson doesn't have as much," Brownlie says. "We've had a consistent pattern in this decade certainly, of anti-choice legislation being passed and being vetoed by Kathleen Sebelius." That veto power will still be there when Parkinson takes over for Sebelius. But with vigorously anti-choice Sen. Sam Brownback considering a gubernatorial run, a woman's right to choose might be in serious danger in Kansas. Democratic insiders in the state still insist, however, that they have a strong slate of candidates to challenge Brownback, although they declined to name names. It seems Sebelius has already moved on. She recently signed one last bill, which requires physicians providing an abortion to offer to show an ultrasound to their patient, mandates that women considering abortion be informed of the locations of all the anti-abortion "pregnancy crisis centers" in the state, and forces abortion providers to place signs on the premises stating that it is illegal for significant others, spouses, or family members to force a woman to get an abortion. The bill is similar to one Sebelius vetoed last year.

-- Adam Serwer

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ILLINOIS: Obama's home state lost two politicians to the White House -- the president and his chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with appointing Obama's replacement, couldn't quite rise up to his public-spirited best -- he attempted, so it seems, to sell the vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Before his impeachment, Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris, a former state attorney general, to the Senate. But Burris soon managed to dredge up the scandal by offering differing accounts of his relationship with Blagojevich prior to his appointment, leading to resignations by his senior staff and investigations in Illinois and D.C.

Burris remains in his seat, but it's hard to imagine him keeping his post in 2010, which could create an opportunity for Republicans to snatch it. Blagojevich's replacement, former Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn, may also face a tough re-election in 2010.

Meanwhile, the special election to replace Emanuel was likely settled in March's crowded Democratic primary. County Commissioner Mike Quigley took a plurality in the contest and is expected to win the seat handily in the general election on April 7 thanks to the D after his name. In Chicago, some things never change.

-- Tim Fernholz

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NEW YORK: When President Obama picked his primary rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to be secretary of state, he left New York, and particularly Gov. David Paterson, in the dreaded pickle of appointing a new senator. Paterson tried to play his cards close to his chest, but a messy public debate ensued after political scion Caroline Kennedy began an all-but-official campaign for the appointment, ending with her withdrawal and accusations that Paterson and his staff leaked false information about her. Trying to move past the fight, Paterson picked second-term Rep. Kirstin Gillibrand, an upstate politician and Clinton protégée, for the seat. Gillibrand, who represented a conservative district, was criticized for quick moves to the left after her sudden elevation to state-level office and could still face a primary challenge from a more liberal rival.

What of Gillibrand's old seat? The special election to replace her quickly became a referendum on the early days of the new administration, with Democrat Scott Murphy attacking Republican Jim Tedisco for failing to support the stimulus. Though early predictions favored Tedisco, the election ended in a virtual tie. Absentee ballots will decide the race. Meanwhile, Paterson's political stock has fallen -- he is likely to face a primary challenge -- and the Gillibrand appointment has opened something of a rift between liberal and moderate members of the normally clubby state Democratic Party.

-- Tim Fernholz

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