The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
At first glance, the message was pretty clear: If you were a governor who cut taxes, you probably got reelected on Tuesday. If you were a governor who raised taxes (or even a candidate who worked for one) you probably lost.
It was true in deep red states like Kansas where, against all odds, Sam Brownback won a second term. It was true in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Ohio where Scott Walker and John Kasich kept their jobs. And it was even true in deep blue Maryland, where Republican Larry Hogan beat Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown by painting him as the face of a Democratic administration that never stopped raising taxes.
Of course, there were lots of other things going on in these races. In Kansas, for instance, Brownback got barely 50 percent of the vote (in a three-candidate race) in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly two-to-one, suggesting voters were not entirely thrilled with his administration.
Ohio’s Kasich had the good fortune to run against a Democrat who was found in a parked car at 4:30 AM with, as they say, “a woman who was not his wife.” Kasich may have also attracted some independent support because, while he did trim taxes, he put the brakes on even more aggressive tax-cutting efforts by the GOP-dominated legislature.
Maryland’s Brown was a remarkably poor candidate who never could rally Democrats, perhaps in part because he oversaw the miserable failure of the state’s health exchange.
And there were exceptions to the rule. California’s Jerry Brown engineered a temporary tax hike on the wealthy and a sales tax increase to help eliminate a massive state deficit. He was easily reelected Tuesday.
In Pennsylvania, GOP governor Tom Corbett was just as easily defeated after having successfully pushed more than $1 billion in mostly business tax cuts. It may just be that Pennsylvania voters are less accepting of big spending cuts and big deficits than those in Kansas. It may just be that there are more Democrats in the Keystone state.
Still, in a year where name-calling negative ads dominated and few races were ever about substance, voters did seem to be sending a clear message about taxes: They are too high and--all else equal—we will punish those politicians we hold responsible for raising them and reward those who cut them.
Maryland was especially interesting. Democrats cut taxes there by raising the personal exemption and standard deduction for most Marylanders. But they also pushed through a gas tax hike and many small fees. One was a federally-required tax on stormwater runoff—a major cause of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. In a brilliant bit of political spin, Republicans dubbed it the rain tax, as in, “Democrats like Anthony Brown will tax anything, even the rain.”
Brown never figured out how to respond. The label stuck. And very soon Brown will be unemployed. The lesson: If voters think you raised their taxes, even if you didn’t, you still lose.
Is the lesson here that governors ought to start cutting taxes to ensure their reelection? That’s much too simplistic. Is it that they at least ought to think twice about raising them? That may be closer to the truth, especially when voters still feel the burden of the Great Recession. But one thing is certain, while taxes were not a big issue in this year’s Senate campaigns, they mattered in many state houses.
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