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West Virginia’s Jim Justice is South’s most popular governor; Georgia’s Brian Kemp the least

Morning Consult poll shows Democratic governors with aggressive COVID-19 strategies with higher approval than GOP governors who have resisted mandates

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) – West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is the South’s most popular chief executive, with Alabama’s Kay Ivey close behind in new polls on gubernatorial approval from the polling firm Morning Consult.

The polls, taken over the course of the last four months and released November 11, also show that Georgia Republican Brian Kemp’s approval rating among registered voters was just 42%, making him the region’s least popular chief executive as he heads into what is expected to be a tough re-election battle next year against furious opposition from Donald Trump.

The poll in Kentucky had better news for Democrat Andy Beshear, whose approval rating stood at 54%, despite taking considerable fire from Republicans over his COVID-19 policies.

Beshear will face voters again in 2023, as will Mississippi Republican Tate Reeves. However, the approval rating for Reeves, who may face a primary challenge from House Speaker Philip Gunn, stood at just 49%, making him and Kemp the only two Southern governors with approval ratings below 50% ahead of a run for his third term.

Morning Consult did not report disapproval numbers, so it was unclear if Reeves and Kemp were actually under water in their approval numbers, with more people disapproving than approving.

The approval rating for Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who has taken the leading in fighting mask and vaccine mandates, stood at 52% ahead of a Democratic challenge in 2022. Texas’s Greg Abbott, who has taken a similar line of resistance against mandates, had an approval rating of 50%.

Three of the region’s Democratic governors who have been more aggressive with COVID-19 mitigation measures – Beshear, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards – had higher approval ratings than DeSantis and Abbott, although within the poll’s margin of error.

Justice’s approval rating stood at 65%, despite a string of headlines about financial and regulatory problems for companies owned by his family and an odd dispute about whether he should be hired to coach a boy’s high school basketball team.

Ivey, who became governor in 2017 when her predecessor resigned in a sex scandal, had an approval rating at 62%, as she heads into a re-election race in which she will be heavily favored.

However, she, too, has run afoul of Trump over cancellation of a June rally in Mobile, and he is reportedly trying to find a primary challenger to run against her.

Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt also appear to be in strong shape for 2022, with Lee’s approval at 55% and Stitt’s at 54%.

The other Southern governor up next year, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, stood at 52%.

Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson has a 57% approval rating as he heads toward the exit due to term limits – despite being one of the very few elected Republicans willing to offer criticism of Trump.

Hutchinson has said he will not back Trump if he runs for the White House again in 2024 and that relitigating the 2020 election would be a “recipe for disaster.” He has raised his national profile in recent months, with numerous appearances on Sunday talk shows, prompting speculation that he might make his own presidential run in 2024.

Kemp has drawn Trump’s active wrath for refusing to go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State. Former Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue is considering a primary challenge, and the GOP nominee will likely be facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp narrowly beat in 2018.

Two Southern Democratic governors who are in the middle of their second and final term – Edwards and Cooper – had positive approval ratings, at 53% and 52%, respectively.

Morning Consult gathered the responses from July 21 to October 20 among registered voters in each state. The margin of error was +/-4%.

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North Carolina environmental official Michael Regan picked to head EPA

Regan is the first Southern official named to President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Michael Regan, North Carolina’s chief environmental regulator, to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency in his new administration.

Regan, 44, is currently the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. He is the first Southern official to be named to the Biden Cabinet and, if confirmed, will be the first black man to run the EPA, overseeing nearly 14,000 employees and a $9 billion budget.

Prior to being appointed as head of the Tar Heel State’s environmental department in 2017 by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, Regan had been an official with the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group, working on clean energy issues.

EPA nominee Michael Regan

He has previously worked as a regulator for the EPA from 1998 to 2008 during both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Earlier this year, Regan reached an agreement with Duke Energy to clean up coal ash contamination in North Carolina and ordered a subsidiary of chemical giant DuPont to clean up toxic chemicals from the Cape Fear River.

However, he was criticized by a number of environmental groups for approving permits for a natural gas pipeline across the state, a project that was later canceled.

The Biden transition rolled out Regan’s appointment as part of a slate of “climate nominees” expected to focus on climate change issues that will be emphasized in the new administration.

In a statement announcing their appointments, Biden said the nominees “share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”

Regan is so far the only Southern public official named to the Biden Cabinet, although two — Lloyd Austin, the pick for defense secretary, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the pick for U.N. ambassador — have Southern roots. Austin was born in Alabama and is a graduate of Auburn University; Thomas-Greenfield is from Louisiana and graduated from Louisiana State University.

Louisiana U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond will serve as a senior White House advisor, and Kate Bedingfield, the new White House communications director, grew up in the Atlanta suburbs.

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Outgoing GOP U.S. Rep. Mark Walker launches 2022 U.S. Senate run in North Carolina

Walker is first Republican candidate in race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Richard Burr

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (CFP) — With the dust still settling from November’s election, Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Walker has jumped into next campaign season by announcing he will run for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

Walker opened his campaign December 1 with a video featuring endorsements from leaders around the state and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and conservative talk show host. Walker said he was running “because serving others is my life, and I have the experience to fight and to win in Washington.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina

“Washington has lost its mind. Job killing regulations, the Green New Deal, defund the police, end our military — seriously?” Walker said. “I’m proud of my record taking on the radicals as well as the establishment.”

Watch video of Walker’s announcement below

Walker, 51, from Greesboro, was a Southern Baptist pastor before his election to Congress. He has represented the 6th U.S. House District since 2015 but did not seek re-election in November after a court-ordered redraw of the state’s congressional districts made his district more Democratic.

Earlier this year, he considered a primary challenge against U.S. Senator Thom Tillis but eventually decided against it. Tillis was re-elected in November.

The seat Walker is seeking will be open in 2022 because incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr has announced his retirement.

Given the Tar Heel State’s partisan competitiveness, the race will likely be one of the most hotly contested and expensive battles of the 2022 cycle and a top Democratic target. However, a Democrat has not won a Senate election in North Carolina since 2008.

Among the names being mentioned as possible Republican candidates are Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, who grew up in North Carolina; Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who lost in November’s governor’s race; and former Governor Pat McCrory.

Among Democrats, Governor Roy Cooper will likely face pressure from Senate Democratic leaders to make a run but has not indicated he is considering it. Erika Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Senate nomination this year, is the party’s only announced candidate so far.

Watch video of Walker’s announcement

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Decision 2020: Republicans’ red wall holds across the South

Though Joe Biden appears to have carried Georgia, Democrats failed to make gains in U.S. Senate, House

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Republican political dominance across the South largely held up in Tuesday’s election, winning 12 states in the presidential race, most of the contested U.S. Senate contests, and taking down four U.S. House Democratic freshmen who had flipped seats in 2018.

However, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holds a small lead in Georgia, pending a recount, and carried Virginia.

Republican incumbents appeared to have held on to Senate seats in Texas, Kentucky, and South Carolina and North Carolina, as well as flipping a seat in Alabama, where Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville.

Two Senate seats in Georgia will be heading to January 5 runoffs. Republican incumbent David Perdue won a plurality against Democrat Jon Ossoff but not the majority he needed to avoid a runoff. In the other race, incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Among the GOP senators who will return are two who were prime targets for Democrats — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who won a seventh term in Kentucky, and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who won in South Carolina despite more than $100 million spent to defeat him by his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison.

McConnell defeated Democrat Amy McGrath by 20 points; Graham beat Harrison by 22.

Incumbents won both of the governor’s races in the South: Democrat Roy Cooper won in North Carolina and Republican Jim Justice won in West Virginia.

Republicans also retook several U.S. House seats that Democrats had won in 2018, ousting U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala in Florida; Joe Cunningham in South Carolina; and Kendra Horn in Oklahoma.

Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala, whose districts are in based in metro Miami-Dade, were swept up in a Republican wave of Cuban-American voters, who were also key to Trump’s victory in the Sunshine State.

Republican Tony Gonzales also picked up an open GOP-held seat in West Texas, defeating Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones

The news was better in Georgia, where Democrat Lucy McBath kept her seat in the northwest Atlanta suburbs and and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux was leading in a Republican-held district in the northeast suburbs.

In the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, Democrat Elaine Luria also kept her seat, and Abigail Spanberger held a small lead in her district in the Richmond suburbs. Democrats also picked up two seats in North Carolina that had become more Democratic after a court-ordered redraw of the state’s map.

But Democrats came up bone dry in Texas, where they had targeted 10 seats and lost them all. They also failed to flip targeted seats in North Carolina, Florida and Arkansas.

Overall across the South, Democrats lost a net of two seats, which would put the balance of power at 103 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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