How Obama’s 2012 Victory Made Way For GOP State Gains

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Adrees Latif / REUTERS

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, on May 3, 2013.

Barack Obama’s decisive electoral victory over a moderate Republican in 2012 has yet to transfer into many lasting gains in statehouses around the country. In fact, the President’s success last year may be coming back to hurt him.

Republican governors lead 11 of the 26 states carried by Obama in November, including John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Scott in Florida, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. All three are up for reelection next fall, but instead of moving to the center to attract Obama voters, the three governors, along with a host of blue-state Republicans, have moved further to the right.

Kasich and Walker signed laws requiring an ultrasound before abortions this year. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kasich have undertaken tax reform plans that lowered rates for their states’ wealthiest residents, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed “right to work” legislation a month after Obama was reelected in his state with strong union support. Indeed, some Democrats are coming to believe that despite their optimistic predictions on election night, in 2012 Obama won the battle, but only prolonged the war.

Speaking on the condition they not be named, more than one Democratic governor at the recent National Governors Association meeting in Wisconsin faulted the President’s 2012 campaign for helping to create the situation, saying it was focused on dismantling Mitt Romney, rather than building support for Democrats’ ideas. And one former Obama campaign policy aide admitted as much, saying it was far easier to brand Romney as out of touch and criticize his economic and social policies than communicate the president’s own. “We did what we had to do to keep Barack Obama in the White House — and we did a really good job of that,” the aide said. “But the campaign wasn’t about making governing easier.”

Indeed, Obama’s campaign had the unintended benefit of propping up the popularity of vulnerable Republican governors — like Kasich and Walker. “In Florida, the fact that the president ran a race talking up the economy, Governor Scott is going to be amplifying that message next year without question,” said Phil Cox, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. Likewise, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder benefited from Obama’s trumpeting of the recovery of the auto industry, Democrats admitted.

“The good news is our Republican governors are going to be able to run on their positive accomplishments and on their records,” said Jindal, who chairs the Republican Governors Association. “It’s not just going to be about party labels or 30-second ads. It’ll be about four years of job growth, four years of taking on the big problems like pension reform, like education reform, like tax reform.”

Last June, Obama painted a far rosier picture of how this year should have proceeded. “I believe that if we’re successful in this election…the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that,” he said in Minneapolis. Instead, it’s become a conflagration that threatens to reverse many of the same policies Obama was reelected on. In Washington, House Republicans have ground the president’s legislative agenda to a halt, and next month lawmakers and the White House will re-fight the same fiscal and budgetary battles that have repeatedly brought the nation’s finances to the brink of shutdown.

But nowhere is this more evident than in the states, where Republican governors have taken a sharp rightward turn on social issues in particular. “Republican governors, their first allegiance is to their constituency. It’s not a national constituency,” said Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. “They were elected to be conservatives, and that’s what they’re doing and I think they’re going to be successful as a result.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says the increasing polarization of the electorate on both sides may explain governor’s  moves away from the political center. “People are more frustrated with the other side, and less inclined to listen,” he told TIME. “I’m not sure it’s changing the people who get elected, but it’s certainly putting pressure on them to look back towards their base and be a bit more careful.”

The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by Democrats, who hope that the rightward shift will help them retake the seats lost in the 2010 tea party wave. “Republican governors, after promising to focus on jobs, state after state after state are more interested in ultrasounds and restricting women’s rights, going after immigrants, labor…gays and lesbians,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “They are more interested in focusing on the conservative Tea Party agenda than they are on job creation, and that’s why we believe we’re going to beat Republican governors in those states.”