Where Have All the Governors Gone?

Why don't more governors seek federal office?
March 4, 2013

With the sequester now under way, and with the nation grappling with the inability of all sides in Washington to agree to a fiscal path forward, it seems as good a time as any to spotlight the chasm between Washington and the states.

I was recently thinking about all the governors in recent years who left office with high popularity and a generally successful tenure, yet who decided against taking the next step -- bringing their skills to Washington, either by running for president or the Senate, or by taking a cabinet position or a vice presidential nomination.

I’m thinking of such former Republican governors as James Thompson and Jim Edgar of Illinois; John Engler of Michigan; Arne Carlson of Minnesota; Bob Riley of Alabama; Steve Merrill of New Hampshire; Frank Keating of Oklahoma; Bill Graves of Kansas; Marc Racicot of Montana; and Jim Douglas of Vermont.

Or such Democratic ex-governors as Jim Hunt of North Carolina; James Blanchard of Michigan; Ned McWherter and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee; Bob Miller of Nevada; Brad Henry of Oklahoma; John Lynch of New Hampshire; Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming; and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, some governors still serving have shown little if any appetite for running for federal office or seeking a high-level appointment in Washington, including Democrats Mike Beebe of Arkansas and John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Republican Terry Branstad of Iowa. Notably, both Kitzhaber and Branstad ended a hiatus from politics in 2010 not by running for federal office but by winning back the governor’s mansion they previously held.

All of the former governors listed above completed their tenure with the policy and political chops -- and the popular appeal -- to play a constructive role in the nation’s capital. Yet aside from some temporary appointments, such as Thompson’s tenure on the 9/11 Commission, none took a major public-service role in Washington.

Why not? 

In some cases, their decision to steer clear of the nation’s capital was driven by factors unrelated to a desire to serve the nation. Some of these former governors failed to find a good opening to run for office; others (including Engler, Keating and Graves) followed long careers in public service by turning to more lucrative jobs in D.C.’s private sector; still others turned their attention to family rather than work.

Still, when I reached out to some of these governors and ex-governors, I found one theme in common: a general disgust with the direction of Washington politics. The poisonous atmosphere in Washington, these ex-governors suggested, is helping turn off some of the smartest and most talented figures in American politics.

To be sure, the governors I interviewed are savvy enough to know that the states are not always paragons of level-headed, productive, bipartisan leadership. Still, to them, the states beat Washington any day.

“The current environment in Washington has scared off many good people, including governors, in seeking national service,” said Edgar, who now teaches at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “The partisanship, the never-ending scrutiny and the financial burden I think does discourage some of the best and brightest.”

Edgar was courted for a U.S. Senate contest in 1998 that he likely would have won, but he declined to seek the GOP nomination. “It seemed that Washington was very partisan, and I was at the point that I was tired of partisan bickering and more interested in getting things done. You can imagine what I think about it now.” He added that he has “no regrets” about declining to pursue a career on the national stage.

Douglas, a Republican who managed to win four two-year terms in deep blue Vermont, said he “gently” takes issue with the notion that serving in Washington is a step up from working in state government. “Given the low repute in which Congress is now held, and its propensity to accomplish nothing or next to nothing, going to Washington is not a particularly appealing opportunity,” said Douglas, who became an executive in residence at Middlebury College after leaving office.

Merrill -- the former New Hampshire Republican governor who currently serves as chairman of Bingham Consulting -- said he has become “discouraged by the unnecessary personal attacks that have become all too commonplace in Washington. They are the reason more talented men and women do not run, and they certainly contribute to the gridlock for those who survive to serve in Congress. I am saddened to conclude that I was right not to serve in Washington, and my friends who did so after governing report that the experience fell short of their expectations.”

For Branstad, whose five terms make him one of the longest-serving governors in American history, the disaffection with Washington, D.C., is almost visceral.

“Over the years, I have been encouraged to run for the Senate a number of times, and I’ve always said, ‘I’d love to run, but I don’t want to serve,’” he said. “I don’t want to go to Washington, D.C. I don’t want to spend time there. I don’t mind visiting the place, but I love this state, and I don’t want to spend six years in Washington.”

Many of the governors referenced above share either a pragmatic streak, a moderate ideology, or both. These are politicians whose practical-minded centrism put them in good stead with a broad swath of voters in their state, but often at odds with their own party base, which dominates the political currents at the national level. Think of Democrats Henry (in Oklahoma) and Freudenthal (in Wyoming), or Republicans Douglas (in Vermont) or Carlson (in Minnesota).

Needless to say, tension with your own party’s core supporters and leadership poses a significant obstacle to success on the national political scene.

The disconnect between the party bases and voters at large “rewards extremes and punishes moderation,” said Carlson, whose standing as the incumbent governor in 1994 was so weak among Minnesota Republicans that his own party denied him its endorsement. It didn’t matter: Carlson won reelection by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. (By 2008, he went so far as to endorse Barack Obama for president, though he hasn’t officially become a Democrat.)

Carlson said he “loved patching together coalitions to pass major legislation, including light rail, wetland protection, expansion of civil rights for gays, school choice and competition in K-12, major welfare reform, health care reform, wiping out a deficit and gaining a AAA bond rating. It was all bipartisan teamwork, and the goal for everyone involved was to produce worthy results.”

Now, however, “we are ceasing to be a pragmatic and prudent society,” Carlson said. “In this type of environment, excellence and true public service is pushed aside.”

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell politiely disagreed with the premise when I contacted him, noting – correctly – that four Republican governors (Rick Perry of Texas, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman of Utah and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts) ran for president in 2012, and at least two more are considered serious Democratic contenders for the 2016 presidential race (Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland).

As for himself, Rendell -- a happy warrior who these days enjoys frequent political jousting on MSNBC -- said that if Hillary Clinton "asks me to run with her for veep, I would jump at it. I am certain I have the energy and stamina to do it well." He added, though, that a Clinton-Rendell pairing "would be the AARP ticket" and that "she probably would need someone younger."

Still, other ex-governors who flirted with a federal-level run came away disappointed with the prospect.

When I reached Bob Miller, a Democrat who finished two terms as governor of Nevada in 1998, he pointed me to the memoir he’s releasing this month, "Son of a Gambling Man." The book recounts how Miller was heavily recruited by national Democrats in 2000 to run for the Senate seat being vacated by fellow Democrat Richard Bryan, even receiving calls from the likes of Al and Tipper Gore, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the actor Michael Douglas.

“One of the pitches I was getting to persuade me to run was that I’d shown in my dealings with the Nevada Legislature and as chairman of the National Governors Association that I worked well with Republicans, and that it would be an invaluable skill in Congress,” Miller wrote. “I thought about the contentious environment on Capitol Hill. Yeah, right, there was an incentive to run!”

The gap between state and federal politics is certainly fodder for sarcasm, but a number of the governors I contacted also view it as deadly serious. “You are raising a series of very valid questions that we, as a society, should consider,” Carlson said.

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