By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
A wave of political cooperation is springing up in state government as Republicans and Democrats work together in places where they had fought over nearly everything for years.
The biggest shift has come in Florida and Ohio — the two key swing states in the 2004 presidential election — where new governors and veteran legislative leaders are singing each other's praises and getting things done.
"We're not quite holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but it's pretty close," says Ohio Senate President Bill Harris, a Republican. "We are getting things done for the people of Ohio."
State-level bipartisanship is partly a response to deep national divisions, especially over Iraq, says pollster Ken Blake, who conducts the Middle Tennessee State University Poll. "State politicians are staying away from abortion, the death penalty, the war and other divisive issues that they can't do anything about anyway," he says.
Ohio's Republican-controlled Senate passed Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's budget, with few changes, on a 33-0 vote last week. The Republican-controlled House had earlier passed the budget 97-0.
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Harris says it's been at least 50 years since a budget was approved unanimously in Ohio. Key compromise: Strickland did not challenge a tax cut approved before he took office and Republicans accepted the governor's key spending priorities.
The new bipartisanship is a big change from recent election cycles, pollsters say, and it's paying huge rewards for politicians practicing it. Their approval ratings are soaring, some to record levels.
"It's not unusual for a governor to have high approval ratings from his own party," says Florida pollster Peter Brown of Quinnipiac Poll, which surveys in many states. "What's extraordinary is the love fest from the opposition party."
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, has a 70% approval rating, including 63% approval from Democrats.
"We're not being bipartisan. We're being non-partisan," Crist says. "It's not that complicated if you apply common sense. We're trying to do what's right for all Floridians."
Brown says voters are applauding Crist and the Legislature for more than getting along. They are responding favorably to Florida's leaders getting things done on the state's two biggest issues: making hurricane insurance more affordable and cutting property taxes. To do so, Crist stood up to two politically powerful groups: the insurance industry and local governments, Brown says.
The insurance law passed in January. On Thursday, Crist signed the largest property tax cut in state history.
The Florida Legislature is controlled by Republicans, but Crist also has won support from key Democratic legislators.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hosted a meeting this week in Los Angeles on how to bridge the political gap. Speakers included the governors of California, Arizona and Kansas.
The era of divided state government began in 1986. Before then, most states had governors and legislatures controlled by the same party. In every year since, half or more of the states have had divided government. Today, 25 state governments are controlled by one party and 25 have divided governments.
The result often has been sharp differences between governors and legislatures of different parties, especially in large states. In states with one-party control, the minority has often been largely ignored. The partisan approach is still alive in many states, such Texas and Minnesota.
Elsewhere, the bipartisan mood has been growing:
•Alaska. Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, has earned 89% and 93% approval ratings in two recent polls. She has won nearly universal support because of her strong stand for honest government in the face of a corruption probe into other members of her party. Her support of a proposed natural gas pipeline to the continental USA has helped, too. "Her strength is her independence," says Alaska pollster David Dittman of Dittman Research in Anchorage. "She distanced herself from the old boy Republican regime and has been completely non-partisan."
Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Jake Westbrook credits Palin with working across party lines on issues where there is agreement, but he predicts her rating will tumble when she tackles tougher issues.
•Tennessee. Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat in his second term, has a 67% approval rating. "He owes his high approval ratings to an ability to make decisions in a bipartisan way," says pollster Blake.
Bredesen, a former business executive and Nashville mayor, has made unpopular decisions that temporarily hurt his popularity, but he always rebounds.
"There's never a perception that he's working for just one group," Blake says. "What's amazing is you can break his numbers down by race, gender, party, political leaning and it's all the same. He has uniform support."
•Kansas. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who works with a Republican-controlled legislature, has a 63% approval rating and gets favorable marks from voters of both parties.
In Ohio, Strickland's 68% approval rating is 7 percentage points higher than any other governor has received since the Ohio Poll, conducted by the University of Cincinnati, began 26 years ago. Sixty-four percent of Republicans give the Democratic governor a thumbs-up, and only 17% disapprove. The Ohio Legislature's approval rating has risen to 59%.
The governor has a breakfast meeting every Wednesday with the two top Republican legislative leaders — something that was rare under predecessor Gov. Robert Taft, a Republican who had the nation's lowest gubernatorial approval rating and poor relations with legislative leaders.
Crist says the bipartisan approach can work in Washington, too.
"We're all Floridians," he says. "We're not just Republicans, Democrats and independents. Dare I say: That's true at the national level, too. We're all Americans."