/Why Are Governors Doing So Poorly in the 2020 Race?

Why Are Governors Doing So Poorly in the 2020 Race?

Are governors like Steve Bullock handicapped by being so far away from Trump-centric Washington?
Photo: Matt Volz/AP/Shutterstock

Once upon a time, a big part of the conventional wisdom about U.S. presidential races was that governors (or former governors) had a big leg up on other candidates — and there was plenty of empirical data to back that up. Of the 50 major-party presidential nominations awarded in the 20th century (from 1904 through 2000), 24 went to current or former governors, while only 13 went to current or former U.S. senators (and eight of those involved candidates who had served as vice-president). Famously, no sitting senator was elected president between Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy, and after JFK, it was another 48 years before Barack Obama broke the senatorial slump.

So at Politico, Natasha Korecki and Charlie Mahtesian wonder why the two sitting governors (Steve Bullock and Jay Inslee) and one former governor (John Hickenlooper) are not doing well in the vast 2020 Democratic field, and they have a hypothesis:

While the steady stream of scandal and controversy surrounding the president is proving to be a boon to members of Congress running for the White House — giving some of them almost limitless opportunities for media exposure — it’s turning out to be a problem for the statehouse-based candidates.

Lacking a nexus to the nation’s capital and the Trump administration story of the day, the governors are left standing on the outside looking in, news cycle after news cycle.

And so we have a bumper crop of members of Congress — seven senators and four representatives, plus a former senator and two former representatives — running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, benefiting, the hypothesis suggests, from their proximity to the center ring of the Trump-driven circus in Washington:

“You have a [Attorney General William] Barr hearing or a [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh hearing or impeachment-related hearings — you’re in front of millions and millions of people. The exposure that members of Congress get is tremendous and governors don’t get that,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who considered running in 2020. “I did not have a lot of people asking me to go on national television to explain which roads I was building to ease congestion in Virginia. It was not a sexy topic.”

It’s interesting to hear T-Mac of all people — a longtime national political money-hustler and former DNC chairman, who as governor was a short drive from Washington — complain that he was too distant from The Show in D.C. to get any attention. But beyond that, the It’s All About Trump hypothesis has some notable holes once you examine it.

Being a senator is a limited factor in the candidacies of those doing well so far in the 2020 competition. Yes, Joe Biden became a senator before half the electorate was born, but it’s his tenure as Barack Obama’s veep that is his main — arguably his only significant — political asset. Bernie Sanders made his bones as a surprisingly successful factional candidate for president in 2016. He’d probably be just as strong today had he resigned from the Senate then. Elizabeth Warren was a national progressive celebrity as an anti-corporate crusader before her election to the Senate. And Kamala Harris is a multiracial woman who served as attorney general in the country’s largest state.

All of these candidates would probably be getting more or less the same amount of media attention had they left the Senate before running for president. That may also be true of Cory Booker, who to this day is better known as a “reform” mayor of Newark than as a legislator. And in any event, Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, and Kirsten Gillibrand — not to mention all of the current and former House members — aren’t doing much better in the polls than the three governors. If being in the shadow of the Big Man in Washington is really crucial, moreover, how can one account for the relative success of Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a small city in Indiana, hardly a media epicenter?

Truth is the meme about governorships representing the high road to the White House had become a bit shopworn before Trump became president. On the Democratic side, the only current or former governor to launch a viable presidential campaign since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 was Howard Dean, whose temporarily successful 2004 campaign had little or nothing to do with his record in Montpelier (there was a war going on, as you might remember, and all of HoDean’s rivals supported it). Clinton was a bit of a factional candidate himself, running as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and “a different kind of Democrat.”

And even among Republicans, who have had a deeper gubernatorial bench in recent years, governors with White House aspirations have had a mixed record and/or complicated backgrounds. Yes, in 2000 George W. Bush ran in part on his gubernatorial record in Texas, but he was also the scion of a national political dynasty. And yes, in 2012 Mitt Romney’s big credential was his one-term as governor of Massachusetts, but he spent the entire cycle running away from his record there. In 2016, nine current or former governors ran for the GOP nomination. Four of them, including two considered extremely viable initially (Scott Walker and Rick Perry) dropped out before voters started voting. Four others quit in February, including Jeb Bush, who executed one of the most spectacularly bad campaigns in political history.

So maybe it’s time to retire the governors-do-best theory for the time being. The current batch has problems other than distance from the Sun King’s glare of publicity. Inslee has chosen to run as a “movement” candidate whose distinction is the heaviest emphasis on an issue — climate change — that all the others are talking about as well. Hickenlooper has probably marginalized himself by attacking the current leftward drift in his party. And Bullock waited until very late — most would say too late — in the game to launch his candidacy. Perhaps down the road governors in both parties will make a comeback when it comes to national politics, particularly if chronic gridlock continues to paralyze the legislative process in Congress. But for now, it’s just another interesting gig that is subordinate to having the right identity, message, or ability to spin fundraising gold out of straw.