Time for a bailout of GOP governors?

Republicans at the state level need the economy fixed, and fast -- that could make them the Democrats' best allies on the stimulus.

Published February 2, 2009 7:30PM (EST)

As he spoke out in favor of Democratic stimulus proposals Monday, President Obama had a strange bedfellow by his side -- Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican. Douglas may not be alone. Though congressional Republicans may not be flocking to support the stimulus, the GOP's governors have good reason to side with the Democrats over their own party, and they could ultimately prove to be the constituency that can convince Republicans in the House and Senate to acquiesce.

The states don't get to do what the federal government does: They can't run up a huge deficit and go to China for loans. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said of Douglas on Monday, unlike Congress, "he doesn't have the luxury of running up a $1.2 trillion deficit every year and going home."

An economic crisis like this one means that the states have to tighten their belts, and cut back on services at the same time demand for those services rises. That can mean further economic difficulty, as well as, for example, a decline in the quality of public education, crumbling roads and bridges and an increase in the crime rate as the amount of resources devoted to law enforcement gets trimmed. Fairly or not, it's governors who take the heat for that, no matter what the national situation is. So you can't blame the governors for wanting to see a stimulus package that, like the one currently under consideration, shores up the states' bottom lines. And that might make Republican governors into effective lobbyists for the proposals coming from the other side of the aisle.

It comes down to this: Congressional Republicans have an interest in the political fortunes of their governors. Ironically, that's especially true in the House, where not a single Republican voted with Democrats to pass the stimulus bill. There are, by my count, nine governors' chairs currently in GOP hands that could be vulnerable in 2010. All of them are especially valuable in this next election, as the latest round of redistricting is coming up shortly thereafter. The party in power will have the upper hand during that process, which generally means a more favorable congressional map for that party.

Senators have a less direct interest, but they still have plenty of reason to want to keep their respective governors safe and happy. First of all, if veteran members of the House have their districts redrawn out from under them, they could contemplate making a run for the Senate instead. Moreover, if the House has even fewer Republicans, then GOP Senators will have less cover for voting against the administration. Plus, an unpopular governor tends to drag down their party statewide. For an example of how this works on a national level, of course, you need look no farther than George W. Bush.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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