Obama: Major Player in Gubernatorial Politics?

President Obama made the first gubernatorial campaign stop of his tenure last week, visiting New Jersey to support Jon Corzine. Expect many, many more in ...
by | July 20, 2009

President Obama made the first gubernatorial campaign stop of his tenure last week, visiting New Jersey to support Jon Corzine. Expect many, many more in the next 17 months.

The coming election cycle seems as though it was almost designed to get Washington more focused on state politics than federal politics. Thirty-nine states, including the nation's nine most populous, will hold gubernatorial elections over the next two years. These governors, as well as the thousands of state legislators elected next year, will play a key role in redrawing congressional and legislative districts in 2011.

In contrast, congressional politics looks as though it will be unusually inconsequential. The Republicans would need a minor miracle to have a chance at retaking the U.S. House of Representatives. They'd need a major miracle to have a chance at the Senate.

So, how much time can a president actually dedicate to gubernatorial politics?

To get a handle on that question, I decided to look back at President Bush's activities in 2002 -- the last time we had a popular president in the White House for a major gubernatorial election year. We, of course, don't know whether President Obama still will be well-liked next year. However, what the Bush record suggests is that Obama may be a major player in gubernatorial elections even in places where he's only modestly popular.

In 2002, there were 36 governor's races. So far as I can tell, during the 2002 calendar year Bush showed up in 27 of those 36 states to campaign for the Republican nominee for governor (I'm counting both campaign rallies and fundraisers). Here's the list of those 27 states:

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Illinois

Iowa

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

New Hampshire

New Mexico

New York

Ohio

Oklahoma

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Wisconsin

Here's the list of states of the other nine states:

Hawaii

Idaho

Kansas

Nebraska

Nevada

Oregon

Rhode Island

Vermont

Wyoming

Bush came fairly close to campaigning everywhere that had a competitive race for governor. Republicans won blowouts in Nevada, Idaho and Nebraska. It's only in the remaining six states -- which are mostly small and, in a few cases, very Democratic (Hawaii, Vermont and Rhode Island)  -- that Bush skipped out on participating in a close race. Plus, I've compiled this list from newspaper accounts, so it's possible (though unlikely) that he did show up in one of these states and I simply missed it.

What struck me is that Bush visited some solid blue states, like Massachusetts and Maryland. He tended to hold fundraisers in blue states instead of rallies, but, nonetheless, he played a big role in the campaign. In 2002, Bush's approval numbers were in the sixties, but he can't have been hugely popular in these states. Don't be surprised if Obama raises money for the Democratic nominee in Texas or Georgia or Alabama.

My count of states that Bush visited would be somewhat smaller if I'd only included states where he went for the primary purpose of boosting a gubernatorial candidate. Bush probably wouldn't have campaigned in South Dakota for Mike Rounds, for example, if he hadn't been there anyway for the hot Senate race between John Thune and Tim Johnson.

Still, in many cases Bush (from the press clippings) seemed heavily focused on the race for governor. And, in many cases he showed up in the same state more than once. If Obama wants to become heavily engaged in gubernatorial politics, there's a clear precedent for it.

The remarkable thing is that Bush paid so much attention to governor's races, even though the 2002 elections had almost no relevance for redistricting (the main reason federal politicians typically pay attention to state politics). In other words, if anything Obama should spend more time campaigning for candidates for governor in 2010 than his predecessor did in 2002.

On the other hand, Bush's background as Texas' chief executive seemed to give him a special interest in electing Republican governors. Perhaps, then, we'll see Obama hitting the trail for some state legislative candidates.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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