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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 23: Mythbusting: No, Governors Aren’t Always Better Presidential Candidates

We’re far enough into the 2016 election cycle to hear the sound of a few myths exploding. A notable one is the idea that governors are inherently better presidential candidates. I took a jaundiced look at that one at TPMCafe this week:

This ancient trope is based partly on statistics, notes Five Thirty Eight‘s Nate Silver:

Throughout American history, about twice as many governors as senators have been chosen to be standard bearers by the major parties, even though at any given moment there are only half as many sitting governors as sitting senators.

Statistics aside, it’s plausible that executives are a more natural fit for Chief Executive than career legislators. And in an era of raging anti-Washington sentiment, it makes sense that a record free of complicity with the federal government’s deeds and misdeeds could be an advantage.
All these factors were supposed to make the rich bumper crop of GOP governors and former governors in the field this year the collective frontrunners. But in case after case, their records back home are undermining their credibility or even threatening their freedom.
Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal are both suffering from calamitously bad approval ratings in the states they govern. Christie’s is at 38/56 according to a new Quinnipiac poll. Jindal was at 27/63 in a March poll, and with a frightful state budget situation, it looks as though he hasn’t hit bottom. And the otherwise high-flying Scott Walker’s popularity in Wisconsin has recently hit a very bad patch, with the famously objective Marquette Law School poll just last week showing him at 41/56, and worse yet, trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits. Walker’s most recent budget is also getting panned by big majorities of Wisconsin voters. This is a particularly unfortunate development for a candidate whose entire “electability” argument is based on his popularity in Wisconsin, a state that Obama has carried twice but Walker has won three times (in lower-turnout nonpresidential elections, to be sure).
Rick Perry has left office, but is under indictment for alleged abuses of power as governor. Christie and Walker also have to worry about prosecutorial footsteps, though experts differ on the risk of the hoosegow either faces.
Jeb Bush, for whom the statute of limitations has probably tolled on any violations of law he might have committed, is suffering from some gubernatorial blowback. His Florida rival Marco Rubio is reportedly setting up a superPAC to be lavishly funded by a billionaire who is still angry about a 2004 Bush veto of an appropriation to benefit a cancer research project set up in his sister-in-law’s name.
We already know from what they did to him in 2008 that Mike Huckabee’s nemesis, the Club for Growth (or as he has called it, the “Club for Greed”) is undoubtedly waiting in the weeds with another recitation of his tax-raising behavior as Arkansas governor.
And then there’s Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a might-have-been presidential candidate whose national viability was atomized almost overnight by his clumsy handling of a “religious liberty” bill, which wound up offending just about everybody while making him look like a deer in the culture-war headlights.
The exception to the rule that gubernatorial service has been at least a mixed blessing in the GOP field is the barely-visible John Kasich of Ohio, but even in his case gubernatorial duties have caused him to mosey up to the starting gate of a potential presidential candidacy with an unimpressive lack of dispatch or focus.
(Perhaps the gubernatorial sins of Jim Gilmore and George Pataki will come back to haunt them if anyone notices their presence on the campaign trail. For now they are operating safely under the radar screen.)
Even on the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley’s two terms as governor of Maryland have become an unexpected millstone in a possible presidential run, as his tax policies have drawn some blame for the shocking November 2014 loss by his intended successor, Anthony Brown.

All in all, it’s not that bad to be one of those despised Washingtonians in 2016. I’m reasonably sure Bobby Jindal wishes he had never returned to Louisiana to run for governor.

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