U.S. House Often a Poor Launching Pad for Governor

A number of former U.S. representatives have gone on to have stormy gubernatorial tenures -- often because they lack management and state political experience.
by | October 27, 2011

There are many ways to become a governor. You can move up from a statewide office, such as lieutenant governor or attorney general. You can run as an outsider, such as a businessman. Or you can make the leap from the U.S. House of Representatives.

The last option, though, hasn't always been the best launching pad for a gubernatorial career. In fact, both the promise and the peril of jumping from the House to the governor's mansion were on clear display this October.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal sailed to a second term by a record-setting margin. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie was declared the least popular governor in the nation by Public Policy Polling, with an approval rating of just 30 percent.

Understanding why two governors with congressional experience have had such divergent experiences requires looking back a couple of decades.

First, there's the challenge of becoming governor. As it turns out, the odds of winning aren't great. I once reported in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that between 1990 and 2001, just four of the 29 House members who ran for governor succeeded. Then there's the question of how former House members did once in office.

I looked at governors who won office either while serving as a House member or without filling any statewide office in the interim. I disregarded U.S. Senators who won gubernatorial elections. And I stopped looking once we got as far back as the early 1990s. I found 13 governors who fit the bill. (If I've forgotten any, please contact the me at loujaco@gmail.com.) Here's the rundown.

Six governors left office under a cloud of scandal:

John Rowland, R-Conn., governor 1995-2004: Won three straight elections, but later served 10 months in prison for accepting illegal gratuities.

Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., governor 2003-2009: Won reelection, but ran an administration dogged by various scandals, culminating in federal charges that he essentially tried to auction off President Obama's old Senate seat. After being impeached and removed from office, Blagojevich was convicted of 17 corruption-related counts. He is expected to serve prison time.

Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., governor 2004-2007: Fletcher was indicted over charges that he ignored state hiring laws by giving jobs to political supporters. Though prosecutors dropped the indictment in a deal with Fletcher, the controversy was the primary reason for his loss in a bid for a second term.

Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., governor 2007-2011: Gibbons' governorship was sunk by a series of self-inflicted wounds, including an allegation of sexual assault and an alleged affair that included hundreds of text messages on a state phone and ended with a messy divorce. He eventually became so damaged that his own party denied him renomination for a second term.

Mark Sanford, R-S.C., governor 2003-2011: Sanford, who was married, became infamous for having an affair with an Argentine woman, which came to light after he disappeared for several days without notifying his staff or other state officials. He avoided impeachment but was censured by the state House over misuse of state travel funds.

Bob Wise, D-W.Va., governor 2001-2005: Wise decided against seeking a second term after it was revealed he'd had an affair with a state employee. Of the six governors affected by scandals, Wise bounced back most quickly, almost immediately becoming president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group that seeks to improve the U.S. education system.

Three governors failed in their bid to win a second term:

Jim Florio, D-N.J., governor 1990-1994: Facing an inherited budget deficit, Florio implemented a $2.8 billion hike in income and sales taxes. New Jersey voters revolted and Florio lost his re-election bid to Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

Bob Ehrlich, R-Md., governor, 2003-2007: Ehrlich, a Republican running in a solidly Democratic state, won the governorship in 2002 over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who had run a campaign widely criticized as ineffective. But Ehrlich was unable to hold on to the office four years later when faced with a formidable Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Four years after that, Ehrlich sought to deny O'Malley a second term, but lost again.

Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, governor 2007-2011: Strickland took office shortly before a severe recession hit the industrial Midwest. Beset by job losses, Strickland narrowly lost his re-election bid to Republican John Kasich.

Two governors that served two full terms but left office with low popularity:

Don Sundquist, R-Tenn., governor 1995-2003: Sundquist had a successful first term but became anathema to many conservatives during his second term when he proposed a state income tax. The Legislature ignored his proposal, and the alienation among some conservatives continues to this day.

John Baldacci, D-Maine, governor 2003-2011: Baldacci chalked up some achievements as governor -- a statewide health-care plan, resistance to raising taxes despite a difficult economic situation, and a pair of major gay-rights initiatives. But by the end of his second term, Baldacci, hobbled by a grim economy, had an upside-down approval rating -- 34 percent approval, 55 percent disapproval.

Only two governors left office with their popularity intact:

Tom Ridge, R-Pa., governor 1995-2001: Ridge, a moderate Republican, was well-liked and broadly popular in Pennsylvania before being tapped by President George W. Bush to head the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Bob Riley, R-Ala., governor 2003-2011: Shortly after winning the governorship, Riley ran into fierce opposition from fellow conservatives for proposing a tax reform plan. But after the plan failed in a referendum, Riley regained his footing and easily won a second term. He maintained his popularity until the end of his tenure.

What to Glean from This List

Before drawing too many conclusions, let's note an enormous caveat: Many of these governors' problems had little if anything to do with their service in Congress. Sexual immorality and corruption are not learned in Congress (though perhaps some would question that assumption).

Still, experts say the process of moving from the House to the governor's mansion poses a set of challenges for any new governor -- challenges that could spell the difference between a strong tenure and a weak one.

For starters, time spent in the nation's capital is time not spent working on local issues and cultivating relationships at home with political leaders and voters -- relationships that could help them survive a personal rough patch and help advance their agenda.

Another problem: Unless House members have served in other statewide elected offices or as CEOs of large companies, they may never have run an office larger than a dozen people.

That's part of what sunk Fletcher, says Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Fletcher "had never run anything larger than a congressional office, and it showed, as he mishandled a scandal that should have been put to bed" much sooner than it was.

In addition, House members tend to be specialists due to their service on committees, whereas governors by nature have to be generalists. Governors may also face a steep learning curve when presented with state issues after years working on national issues.

Put it all together, one-time Pennsylvania GOP official Kirk Holman says "there is little experience in public office that prepares you more poorly for service in the governor's office than service in the House."

Exceptions to the Rule

There are a number of exceptions. Former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, one of the few clearly successful governors on our list, entered politics as a businessman and didn't accumulate much baggage in Washington, says former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder, the Democrat who preceded Riley in the House.

"He easily shifted to Alabama with enough political experience to handle the learning curve of state governance and politics. He was smart enough to deal with state issues, he surrounded himself with competent people and he aggressively expanded his focus from east Alabama to the entire state," Browder says.

In addition, several of the five current governors who came from the House also appear to have avoided the curse -- mostly because they established strong records in state government and did not become creatures of Congress.

In Idaho, Republican Butch Otter had substantial state legislative experience to fall back on once he returned from Washington. "He is overwhelmingly liked by folks who have been voting for him for decades, including four terms as lieutenant governor," says Corey Taule, a journalist with the Post Register in Idaho Falls. "One of my colleagues once wrote that Idahoans will forgive Butch Otter anything. I'm inclined to agree with that."

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Republican Mary Fallin served both in the state House and as lieutenant governor before winning a U.S. House seat, then spent only four years in Washington. Observers say she appears to have had a successful tenure so far.

The Tale of Two Governors

For Jindal and Abercrombie, the differences between having a short career in Washington and a long one may be the biggest reason for their divergent paths so far.

Jindal was well-versed in state issues before he arrived to the House. Before his gubernatorial loss in 2003, Jindal had already served in several executive capacities in the state -- as head of the Department of Health and Hospitals and as president of the University of Louisiana System.

Political observers in Louisiana always figured that Jindal's time in Congress was no more than a placeholder as he waited to run again for governor. They were right: He served less than two terms.

By contrast, Abercrombie spent more than two decades in the House and has had "a difficult adjustment to life as a top executive," says Nancy Cook Lauer, a veteran political reporter in the state. "He's known for a firebrand style and partisan oratory that served him well in his 22 years in Congress and on the campaign trail, but Abercrombie has so far found life on the fifth floor of Hawaii's Capitol an entirely different experience."

Several staffers have left Abercrombie recently, including his chief of staff, his deputy chief of staff and his director of communications.

Richard Castberg, a University of Hawaii at Hilo political scientist, said that part of Abercrombie's struggles may stem from the state's economic challenges and from his personality, he added that the governor's long tenure in Congress has to be considered a major reason.

"The learning curve is steep," Castberg says. "It's a huge leap from being one of 435 to being the top elected official in the state. ... His life experience simply has not prepared him for the post he finds himself in. I think his intelligence will overcome his ego, but the process must start immediately."

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