PORTLAND, Maine — The Supreme Court has thrust America’s governors to the frontlines of the culture wars, an uncomfortable position for many that is upending their election races this year and challenging the above-the-fray pragmatism many have long cultivated.
Far from Washington and its partisan gridlock, governors have remained relatively popular and insulated from the polarization in national politics, able to win states that would typically never vote for their party and to leave divisive issues to their congressional delegation while they focus on more practical problems like fixing roads.
“Not anymore,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat and the new chairman of the National Governors Association, a bipartisan group of governors that concluded its first in-person summer meeting since the pandemic here Friday. “You’ve got no choice. If you’re a governor right now, you’re picking sides.”
Recent court decisions on abortion, guns and the environment are making it harder for governors to escape the nationalization of politics, as much as they might try to resist it, according to interviews with nearly a dozen governors who attended the meeting, which is intended to be a bipartisan sharing of policy solutions on issues like education and infrastructure.
Governors now wield unprecedented — and in some cases sole — control over the future of abortion access in their state, putting the issue front-and-center in this fall’s elections.
“Governors have the ability to veto odious legislation that violates those rights, so governors races are especially important,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who is facing term limits, said of abortion rights. “So it’s a call for people to come out and vote.”
While cross-party voting has almost disappeared from Senate, House and presidential races, that's not true for governors. Deep red states like Louisiana and Kansas currently have Democratic governors, while famously liberal states like Massachusetts and Vermont have Republican ones.
“Typically, the people that you’re voting for in Washington are much more partisan. Washington is completely dysfunctional because of the divisiveness,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican maverick who broke with his party over former President Donald Trump. and has been able to remain popular in his deep blue state.
“Usually, governors are not quite as partisan — the governors aren’t and the races aren’t. Voters usually just want somebody who can run the state,” Hogan continued. “But now, it has the potential to be much more divisive.”
Hogan, like Wolf in Pennsylvania, faces term limits, and Maryland voters will head to the polls Tuesday to pick each party’s nominees to replace him. Hogan is supporting a moderate former member of his Cabinet in the Republican primary, hoping to repeat a winning playbook that has led to a succession of popular moderate Republican governors in blue states across the Northeast.
But his party, with a little help from Democrats looking to pick their opponent, may instead nominate a far-right state senator with Trump's support who wants to outlaw abortion on his first day in office.
“That will keep firing up the base on both sides, so it’s going to be harder to bring people together,” Hogan said.
Governors usually gather twice a year for meetings where they heap praise on one another and talk up their ability to work together, unlike their peers in Washington. And last week’s meeting, the first where many saw one another for the first time since before the pandemic in 2019, was no exception; governors dined on lobster under tents by the sea and sat side-by-side with colleagues and their spouses, irrespective of party.
“Collectively, elected officials have a pretty low approval rating. I think governors are an exception to that,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican and the outgoing chair of the National Governors Association, whose chairmanship rotates every year, switching between members of each party.
“Everyone knows the level of disagreement that we naturally have in our society today, but we showcase that we can negotiate, we can find common ground, we can move Washington in a better direction,” he said.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, earned vigorous applause at a public meeting when he told other governors, “We fight about some really stupid shit sometimes.” He later said governors “sometimes feel like some of the last adults left in the room in politics.
“There’s an exhausted majority out there who are pining, longing, for people in our position to work together,” said Cox, who during his 2020 campaign cut a joint TV ad with his Democratic opponent that called for more civility in politics.
Still, several governors acknowledge that they get along at these meetings by strategically ignoring the thorny and sticking to common ground — even if that ground feels to some as if it's shrinking every year.
“We cut right through all the politics stuff — we don’t even deal with it,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a moderate Republican who has said abortion rights will not change in his purple state after the fall of Roe v. Wade.
Abortion did not come up at all in the governors' public events. And several governors said the same was true for their private meetings, with one acknowledging privately that even bringing up the issue would probably be counterproductive and risk derailing the bipartisan discussions.
Instead, the governors focused on safer issues like computer science education for K-12 students, expanding broadband internet access, and, every governor’s perennial favorite, infrastructure.
They heard from singer Dolly Parton — a rare cultural figure who retains broad appeal — who touted her “wonderful, innocent” Imagination Library program, which has sent millions of free books to children.
Appearing live via video feed, Parton headed off any potential heated questions about book selection, in a moment of "indoctrination" and "book banning" accusations, by saying she doesn't select the books because “I wouldn’t even begin to know what’s age appropriate for other peoples’ kids.”
And notably absent from the meeting were some of the nation's most prominent — and partisan — governors, representing some of its largest states, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who gave a fiery speech Thursday about book bans and “assault on freedom” in education to a group of bipartisan state education officials in Washington.
And in Maine, which was set to host the NGA meeting in 2020 before Covid delayed it for two years, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage said he stopped paying dues to the association in 2012, saying he got “no value out of those meetings.”
“They are too politically correct, and everybody is lovey-dovey, and no decisions are ever made,” he told the Lewiston Sun Journal at the time. He's now running to reclaim the governor's mansion in November.
Like the last day of summer camp, the meeting and its lobster-fueled bipartisan bonhomie had to come to an end.
As soon as the governors said their goodbyes and left the Holiday Inn on Friday under a perfect blue Maine sky, they were confronted by the reality that many will face on the campaign trail this year.
“F--- you. We don’t want you here,” yelled a woman with a bullhorn, standing among a small group of abortion rights protesters across the street. “Go the f--- home.”