State Republican Officials to Watch in 2013

Using a specific set of criteria, we've come up with a list of up-and-coming state officials from multiple fields. This week, we look at the Republican field.
by | February 6, 2013

Recently, we offered a selection of more than a dozen Democratic state officials to watch. This week, we turn to the Republicans.

Just as before, we asked dozens of experts in state capitals and national organizations for the names of officials who they believe are worth keeping an eye on. Since we had already compiled similar lists of state legislators in 2011 -- and since governors are almost by definition worth watching -- we are looking instead at officials who have a statewide portfolio, either elected or appointed. Our list includes lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state, state treasurers, state education chiefs, state energy regulators and state agricultural commissioners, among others.

What criteria did we use? Ambition was a necessary factor, but given how important ambition is to politics, it was not sufficient on its own. We looked for diversity in geography and policy portfolio. We also gave significant weight to these factors:

The Republican list, which isn't nearly as diverse as our Democratic choices, consists of 14 officials -- 12 men, two women, one Hispanic, one Jewish lieutenant governor with a knack for puns, a fourth-generation Montanan and a fifth-generation Floridian, among others.

Did we miss somebody? Email me at ljacobson@tampabay.com. If we get enough worthy suggestions, we'll run another column with additional names.

Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General

Empower Texans Interview Greg Abbott on Fighting ObamaCare April 18, 2012 from Texans for Greg Abbott on Vimeo.

Rick Perry has been the governor of Texas since 2001; Abbott won his job as attorney general in 2002. Needless to say, he's been waiting a long time to move up. While Perry could seek a fourth term in 2014, there's speculation that Abbott will be the candidate instead. Abbott, like Perry, has a staunchly conservative record that's in tune with the majority of Texas voters these days. He rose from state district judge to Texas Supreme Court justice before becoming attorney general. In office, he's established a cyber-crimes unit to prosecute Internet violations against children; a unit to arrest sex offenders who violate parole; a unit to crack down on elder abuse; and increased efforts to collect unpaid child support. He argued a Supreme Court case defending the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments display on the Texas state capitol grounds, which prevailed in a 5-4 decision. Abbott has been in a wheelchair for much of his career. He was struck by a falling tree while out jogging in in 1984, according to his bio.

Tony Bennett, Florida Commissioner of Education

A stunning defeat at the hands of the voters might be the end of the line for many public officials, but not Tony Bennett. Bennett was a hero to conservative education reformers as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. He spearheaded such initiatives as the expansion of school vouchers and charter schools, as well as policies to heighten accountability. He also took a national role as a board member of the Council of Chief State School Officers and several education reform groups. But on Election Day 2012, Bennett was upset at the polls, losing by a six-point margin to Democrat Glenda Ritz, an award-winning teacher who ran a grassroots campaign challenging several of his policy changes; Ritz won despite Republican victories in the gubernatorial and presidential races. Still, Bennett landed on his feet after the election: Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott appointed him education commissioner, a move that was applauded by education reform leader Michelle Rhee and attacked by teachers' union officials, according to the Huffington Post. The reforms Bennett was pushing through in Indiana are already well established in Florida.

Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia Attorney General

Cuccinelli used his role as a conservative leader in the Virginia state Senate to run for attorney general in 2009. He's since used that position to raise his profile and run governor. Cuccinelli's efforts have included suing to stop President Obama's health-care law; supporting the Arizona immigration law, S.B. 1070; opposing anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation; and, perhaps most notably, challenging global warming by taking on scientific researchers at Virginia universities. He's also been staunchly anti-abortion. Cuccinelli's gubernatorial race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe promises to be a doozy, fueled by ideology and money.

Jay Dardenne, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor

Dardenne became lieutenant governor initially by filling an unexpired term, then winning reelection in his own right in 2011. Before that, he served four years as secretary of state and 15 as a state Senator, including a stint as chairman of the Finance Committee. Dardenne, who is Jewish in a heavily Protestant and Catholic state, was a floor leader under GOP Gov. Mike Foster at a time when the Senate was controlled by Democrats; he has evolved into an occasionally acerbic critic of GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, who he is expected to succeed. Dardenne is also known as an energetic booster of the state's culture, as well as a prolific raconteur who once finished first once and won two honorable mentions in the "vile pun" category of the Bulwer Lytton Contest, a tongue-in-cheek competition to choose the worst opening line in a novel. His winning effort from 2005: "Falcon was her name and she was quite the bird of prey, sashaying past her adolescent admirers from one anchor store to another, past the kiosks where earrings longed to lie upon her lobes and sunglasses hoped to nestle on her nose, seemingly the beginning of a beautiful friendship with whomsoever caught the eye of the mall tease, Falcon."

Jason Dilges, South Dakota Chief Financial Officer

Dilges, who grew up on a farm and is an avid outdoorsman, was tapped as CFO by GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard in 2010. He's young but has held positions under three different governors, including a stint as commissioner of the Bureau of Finance and Management from 2002 and 2006. He sits on the governor's Council of Economic Advisors, the governor's Legislative Task Force, the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, the Department of Labor Retirement Board, the South Dakota Retirement System Board of Trustees, and the state Board of Finance. Nationally, he's president of the executive committee of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Jon Husted, Ohio Secretary of State

Husted, who oversees elections in the hotly contested electoral battleground of Ohio, drove Democrats to distraction in the 2012 election, most notably appealing (unsuccessfully) a court decision providing for equal early voting procedures for military and non-military voters in the state -- a move that Democrats charged would suppress the vote. But, for the most part, other aspects of his record are harder to classify on a partisan scale. Husted has a slate of ideas for overhauling election administration in the state, and some of them might be able to garner support beyond the GOP base. An all-American defensive back on the University of Dayton's Division III national champion team, Husted is a former state Senator and House Speaker. As Speaker, he helped pass a budget with a large income tax cut and helped enact school choice.

Travis Kavulla, Montana Public Service Commissioner

Until recently, Kavulla, a fourth-generation Montanan, was the chair of the state's Public Service Commission, having won his seat in 2010 by a 28-point margin while still in his mid-twenties. He now serves as a regular member of the commission, representing a district that is geographically the state's largest. Kavulla worked as a U.S. Senate page, served as a Boys Nation delegate, spent parts of three years in Africa, earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard and a graduate degree from Cambridge, then went into writing, including a stint as associate editor of the conservative National Review. Kavulla has an outspoken and confrontational streak: At Harvard, he edited a conservative newspaper that reprinted controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and in the National Review, he called his home state Democratic senator, Max Baucus, a "babbling monstrosity ... ejaculating numbers without context." Still, despite his conservative views, Kavulla was elected commission chairman with the support of the five-member commission's two Democrats.

Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State

Kobach may have had a bigger influence on American politics and policy than anyone on our lists from either party. He's more than just a first-term secretary of state; he's the architect of national legal movements to curb illegal immigration and voter fraud. Most notably, he helped Arizona write the controversial bill S.B. 1070, which was later partly upheld and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. He has also actively sought to spread the underlying philosophy that states and localities, and not just the federal government, have the power to enforce immigration law. Kobach easily unseated a Democratic incumbent to become secretary of state not long after the passage of 1070. Once in office, he pushed a voter ID law through the legislature. Kobach is an Eagle Scout; he also has a bachelor's degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Oxford and a law degree from Yale. He held a White House fellowship under President George W. Bush and a top Justice Department position under Attorney General John Ashcroft. Kobach informally advised Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election, a relationship that critics of Romney's immigration policy used against the Republican nominee.

Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia Attorney General

It's too early to tell what Morrisey will do in his position -- he was just elected in November. What's significant is that Morrisey is the state's first Republican attorney general since 1933; he narrowly defeated a long-serving, aggressively pro-plaintiff, pro-consumer incumbent, Darrell McGraw. Morrisey campaigned on a business-friendly approach, a stance that Republicans in the state have pushed in recent years to mixed results. From 1999 to 2004, Morrisey served as deputy staff director and chief health care counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, where he helped draft the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 and the Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Act of 2002. Beginning in 2004, Morrisey returned to private practice, which is what he did before becoming a House aide. Shortly after taking office as attorney general, Morrisey announced a plan to work with county prosecutors to go after corruption.

Adam Putnam, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture

Putnam is a young man in a hurry. He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives at age 22. After serving two terms, he was elected to the U.S. House, serving five terms and climbing the GOP leadership ranks quickly. He chaired the Republican Policy Committee during the 109th Congress, then ascended one step by chairing the House Republican Conference during the following Congress. In 2010, Putnam -- a fifth-generation Floridian with a background in the citrus and cattle industry as well as a degree in science and food resources -- shifted gears and returned to Florida, winning the position of the commissioner of agriculture. He's widely assumed to be a future candidate for governor.

Kim Reynolds, Iowa Lieutenant Governor

As No. 2 to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who's a political legend in Iowa due to his five terms as governor, Reynolds is the natural choice to succeed him whenever he hangs up his hat. If she does eventually win the governorship, Reynolds would be the first woman to be elected governor (or a member of Congress, as she is considered a leading contender for the Tom Harkin Senate seat) from Iowa. Reynolds' could become a major player in national Republican politics, given the state's longstanding role as an influential GOP caucus state. Already she's reportedly being courted by presidential hopefuls. One sign of her influence was her appointment as secretary of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. Reynolds got her start as a motor vehicle clerk in the Clarke County Treasurer's Office. She was then elected county treasurer in 1994, winning reelection three times. She won a state Senate seat in 2008 before being named Branstad's running mate in 2010.

John Sanchez, New Mexico Lieutenant Governor

Sanchez, now on his second tour as a "rising star," could benefit from the GOP's demand for politicians who can help the party make progress with Latino voters. Sanchez grew up as the youngest in a large, and poor, single-parent family. He found success in business, then broke into politics in 1997 by defeating a former mayor to win a council seat in the Village of Los Ranchos. His profile rose further when he upset a long-serving incumbent state House Speaker, but his luck ran out in 2002 when he took aim at Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson and lost by double digits. His star rose again when he and fellow Republican Susana Martinez won the governorship and lieutenant governorship in 2010. The biggest question mark for Sanchez is whether New Mexico -- a competitive presidential battleground until 2012, when it went heavily for Obama -- has moved too far to the left to promote a politician as conservative to higher office, regardless of his ethnic heritage.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission

Barry Smitherman, Public Utility Commissioner : Electric Cars from Arcos Films on Vimeo.

The Texas Railroad Commission sounds like a quaint anachronism; in reality, it's anything but. In a state that's one of the nation's most powerful economic engines, the commission regulates a huge swath of the economy -- oil, natural gas, pipelines and surface coal and uranium mining. At the moment, the commission is particularly active in rewriting the rules for fracking, the method of extracting natural gas that's controversial among environmentalists. Smitherman was appointed to the commission in July 2011 and won the chairmanship in November 2012 with three quarters of the vote. Before that, Smitherman -- who has degrees from Texas A&M, the University of Texas Law School and Harvard -- worked as a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office and as an appointee to the Public Utility Commission, which he eventually chaired. Smitherman's mix of experience in finance, energy and prosecution could be a potent combination for future electoral pursuits.

Catherine Templeton, South Carolina Director of Health & Environmental Control

South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Templeton last year to head a sprawling agency that oversees environmental protection and public health in the Palmetto State -- and an agency that has been criticized in the past for lax regulation, according to The State. Templeton came to the job with a reputation for being business-friendly -- she handled employer-side labor cases for the law firm Ogletree Deakins, then was appointed director of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She's ruffled some feathers with personnel housecleaning at her new agency, but those moves have earned her plaudits in some corners. She's also found common ground with some environmentalists, working to clean up polluted neighborhoods and winning praise for trying to reduce a backlog of expired pollution discharge permits. Templeton was on Haley's short list for appointees to succeed retiring GOP U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, and while she didn't get that nod, observers expect her to be in contention for higher office at some point in the future.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Politics