Ten Governors Who Might Help Their Parties by Not Running Again

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced today that he isn't running for reelection this year, but the state's Democrats shouldn't be displeased by ...
by | January 6, 2010

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced today that he isn't running for reelection this year, but the state's Democrats shouldn't be displeased by the news. While this move isn't clear-cut addition by subtraction for the party like Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's decision not to run again, it also isn't clear-cut subtraction by subtraction like North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan's decision not to run again.

On balance, Colorado Democrats probably are better off without Ritter. Ritter was unpopular and polling showed him losing to former congressman Scott McInnis, the likely Republican nominee. Democrats have potential candidates such as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who have a better chance of winning than Ritter.

Ritter's decision (as well as Dodd's) got me thinking about which governors might help their parties by hanging it up rather than running for reelection this year. I came up with a list of ten for whom I could make a plausible case. It says something about the current political environment that, despite the built-in advantages of incumbency, this list includes more than half the governors currently running for reelection.

10. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has had a somewhat tumultuous term in office. Most recently, he's angered his fellow Republicans by supporting a gas tax increase. A different Republican might be able to avoid some of that baggage. On the other hand, Otter is a proven vote-getter and without him around Republicans might choose a flawed candidate (see Bill Sali). The stronger case is probably that Republicans are better with Otter than the unknown, which is why he ranks tenth.

9. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, was once riding high (even receiving vice-presidential consideration), but now he's in a dead-heat race with John Kasich, a former Republican congressman. Strickland has undergone a bruising budget battle with legislative Republicans, but his main problem is undoubtedly the economy. Still, I'm not sure any other Ohio Democrat would be a much stronger alternative.

8. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver is behind in the polls to former governor Terry Branstad. The Democratic incumbent suffers from the same sagging approval numbers as lots of governors right now. Democrats have a deep bench of statewide elected officials, congressman and other notables. Still, Culver's fundamental problem is Branstad's strength, not his own weakness. That's a problem that any Democratic replacement candidate would have.

7. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is in better shape politically than most of the other people of this list. Still, he did push through a tax increase and a slots measure that have generated controversy. In a very Democratic state, you can make the case that the party would be safer with an unblemished candidate. On the other hand, O'Malley is a fundraising dynamo and generally regarded as a talented politician.

6. This is where it starts to get interesting. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn generally has enjoyed pretty good approval numbers since taking over from Rod Blagojevich. But, he's started to take some whacks lately, most notably on a prisoner-release program that the governor felt compelled to cancel. He's not especially good at raising money. On the plus side, Quinn retains strong credentials on ethics issues. It's an open question how much of a problem Quinn's ties to Blagojevich will be, but I don't think it will be a massive issue. If Quinn could step aside for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Democrats would almost certainly have an electoral upgrade, but it's much more of an open question whether Comptroller Dan Hynes, Quinn's actual primary challenger, is a safer general election bet.

5. A year ago, everyone would have said that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was unquestionably a stronger general election candidate than Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Now, there's at least some reason for doubt. Hutchison's campaign for governor hasn't exactly gone smoothly and her wavering on whether to give up her Senate seat has made her look indecisive. Still, the basics dynamics aren't completely changed. Perry has been governor for almost a decade and has never really been embraced by Texans. He was the weakest candidate on the Republican ticket when he won reelection in 2006. Unless you really believe that Hutchison has a glass jaw, you'd have to say that she has the best odds in the general election.

4. Since taking over for Janet Napolitano last year, Gov. Jan Brewer has come close to tearing the Arizona Republican Party apart with her sales tax proposal. She's unpopular and especially unpopular with her own party. While Brewer might be a stronger general election candidate than primary candidate, she'd be hamstrung by an unenthusiastic base in a race against Attorney General Terry Goddard, the likely Democratic nominee. Brewer could spare Arizona Republicans a lot of angst by stepping aside.

3. In Massachusetts, every congressional seat and every statewide office except one is held by a Democrat. Of all those Democratic elected officials, the least popular one might very well be Gov. Deval Patrick. Certainly, Patrick can win -- in fact, he's probably a slight favorite to win. Still, there could be a dozen people or more who would have a better shot at keeping the governorship in Democratic hands.

2. I'm as shocked as you are that New York isn't number one, which is funny because I came up with the list. Everyone knows that New York Gov. David Paterson is broadly unpopular and that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo would be an exceedingly heavy favorite if he were the Democratic nominee instead. The only reason that New York isn't first is that, somewhat shockingly, if Paterson were the nominee he might actually get reelected. Polls show him competitive with Rick Lazio, who for now is the Republican frontrunner by default. Still, life would be far easier for Democrats with Cuomo.

1. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons has been unpopular pretty much since ever since he took office. It's hard to imagine Gibbons winning a general election, even against a (arguably) flawed Democrat such as Rory Reid. Republicans have a great alternative in former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, if only Gibbons would step aside. The only good news for Republicans here is that Gibbons is unpopular enough that Sandoval is likely to beat him in a primary anyway.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
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