How Successful Are Lieutenant Governors Seeking the Governorship?

Not as successful at moving into the governor's seat as one might think, according to an analysis of data from the past quarter century.
by | April 12, 2013
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is one three Republican lieutenant governors to have successfully run for governor without being elevated by death or resignation. (Harry Walker/MCT)
 

How effective is a stint as lieutenant governor for laying the groundwork for a successful gubernatorial run? Not as good as one might think, according to an analysis of data from the past quarter century.

Before we get into the details, here's some background on the office. Currently, Republicans have roughly a 2-to-1 edge in lieutenant governor offices, with 29 Republicans, 15 Democrats and one vacancy (in Florida, where Republican Jennifer Carroll resigned earlier this year). The remaining five states do not have an lieutenant governor, leaving the line of succession in the hands of other offices.

Part of the reason the GOP has an edge today stems from the party's current dominance of gubernatorial offices. In 25 states, lieutenant governors run on the same ticket as the governor. (In 18 states, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor.)

To see how fruitful experience as a lieutenant governor is in seeking the higher office, we looked at the electoral record of lieutenant governors who sought the governorship since the early 1990s. We excluded lieutenant governors who were elevated to governor upon the death or resignation of their predecessor. We also excluded lieutenant governors who initially sought the governorship but then withdrew from the race voluntarily before their party's primary was held.

In all, we found a rather dismal winning percentage for lieutenant governors making gubernatorial bids -- 17 wins and 38 losses, for a winning percentage of just 31 percent. (The losses included both general election and primary defeats.)

Democratic lieutenant governors were more likely to make a gubernatorial bid, with 37 taking the plunge, compared to 17 Republicans and one Independent. Still, lieutenant governors from both major parties had similar troubles winning gubernatorial races. Democrats won just 35 percent of contests and Republicans won 24 percent.

Leading up to 2010, the Republican record was even more bleak. After 2010, three Republican lieutenant governors have successfully run for governor without being elevated by death or resignation -- Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. By comparison, in the two decades prior, only a single Republican, Montana's Judy Martz, made the leap.

Some of the lieutenant governors who lost gubernatorial races have done so spectacularly, such as Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, whose famous family and eight-year tenure as lieutenant governor was not enough to salvage her candidacy despite running in a solidly blue state, and Democrat Cruz Bustamante, who lost the California gubernatorial recall election to political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile, even lieutenant governors who managed to win in the past quarter century have not necessarily enjoyed much success in the governor's office, and few managed to win high office again after serving as governor.

Among those with mediocre tenures were Democrats Don Siegelman of Alabama, Gray Davis of California, Paul Patton of Kentucky, Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Bev Perdue of North Carolina, plus Republican Martz of Montana. Just two lieutenant governors on our list later won a U.S. Senate race after their term as governor -- Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and Missouri Democrat Mel Carnahan (who was elected to the Senate after dying in a plane crash).

So, does this mean that the lieutenant governorship is worth the infamous "warm bucket of spit," as the vice presidency was once so colorfully described? Not necessarily.

In states, attorney generals run law enforcement, secretaries of state run elections and business registration, treasurers oversee finances, and insurance commissioners regulate a major industry. In other words, each position has a pretty well-defined portfolio. By contrast, the lieutenant governorship is more of a blank slate. Some lieutenant governors have an official capacity overseeing the legislature. Some states reserve other duties for the lieutenant governor by law or tradition. But what often matters more, experts say, is the personal initiative of the lieutenant governor, combined with the willingness of the governor to work with a "number two" who doesn't fade into the woodwork.

"In many states, lieutenant governors are free to pursue courses of their own," said Ed Feigenbaum, the publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight and a former staff director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association. "That's what makes it so attractive to some, and what turns off others. It's what you make of it."

In theory, Feigenbaum says, an ambitious politician may be able to use the lieutenant governor's office to raise their profile statewide and play the role of booster, without risking the ire of key interest groups by making controversial votes, vetoing legislation or issuing regulatory actions. "That's why it's an attractive office to people who want to move up the political food chain," Feigenbaum said. "You've got the ability in many states to travel around and effectively be the state's ambassador to business."

Interviews with lieutenant governors confirm the heterogeneity of the office's responsibilities. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican who serves as lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, said that she thinks taxpayers "would be pretty irritated if they were paying people who weren't worth their paychecks." In Wisconsin, she said, "we assure people get a good return on investment on the lieutenant governor's office. My chief duty is as our state's 'jobs ambassador.' I get paid to facilitate job creation and workforce preparedness, among other duties. With few constitutional responsibilities, the Wisconsin lieutenant governor can be nimble enough to focus on the most pressing issues and policy priorities of our state at any given time."

In Iowa, the lieutenant governor has been given specific tasks. Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds says her duties include co-chairing the governor's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council, co-chairing the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress board, co-chairing the Military Children Education Coalition and serving as GOP Gov. Terry Branstad's representative on the board of the Iowa State Fair.

Rhode Island's current lieutenant governor, Democrat Elizabeth Roberts, combines statutory responsibilities -- such as leading the Small Business Advocacy Council, the Emergency Management Advisory Council and the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council -- with a focus on health-care issues in her gubernatorial appointment to the Rhode Island Health Care Reform Commission, which addresses such issues as medical access, digital infrastructure, medical workforce development and payment reform.

The relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor is usually crucial in determining the success of a lieutenant governor's tenure. "The partnership a lieutenant governor has with a governor will certainly impact the role of the lieutenant governor," said Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murphy, a Democrat. In Murpny's case, Gov. Deval Patrick "has asked me to lead on a wide range" of issues.

The relationship between the top two officials varies quite a bit from state to state, but nowhere is it more of an issue than when the two officials come from different parties.

The divide in Arkansas between Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr veered close to a crisis earlier this year. Under Arkansas' 1874 constitution, the lieutenant governor takes over if the governor leaves the state's borders. This authority became an issue when Beebe was in Washington to meet with the National Governors Association and with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

While Beebe was away, Darr signed a bill to alter the state's freedom of information law to make concealed-carry weapons licensees secret; Beebe had said he was going to let the bill become law without his signature. Darr also wanted to sign an anti-abortion law that Beebe ultimately vetoed. Darr backed off after the sponsor asked him not to sign it during Beebe's absence.

Upon his return, Beebe held an angry press conference. "As it played out, it was primarily political theater, but if Darr had signed the abortion bill, we really would have had a small constitutional crisis," said Jay Barth, a Hendrix College political scientist.

California, where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, has had a particularly colorful experience with partisan co-habitation in the top two slots.

During Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's second term in the 1970s, his presidential bid often took him out of state, an opportunity that Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Curb often took advantage of. Later, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson tried to throw Democrat Gray Davis' office out of the Capitol, and GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi's office budget by two-thirds as a punishment for criticizing the governor's cuts to state universities, recalled Garry South, a Democratic strategist who once worked for Davis.

But sometimes the partnership works smoothly, as in Vermont, where Gov. Peter Shumlin is a Democrat and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is a Republican. The two men "get along famously," said longtime Vermont political observer Chris Graff. "They bonded when they both served in the state Senate. Scott is an easygoing guy who is not seen as a challenger to Shumlin but someone who will run once Shumlin moves on."

Perhaps the lieutenant governor office with the most electoral juice in the nation is Virginia's, due to the state's quirky one-term limit for governors. In essence, the next Virginia gubernatorial race begins the day after a new governor is elected, and the lieutenant governor starts with an advantage because he or she occupies one of only three statewide elected positions, along with governor and attorney general.

Of Virginia's nine gubernatorial elections since 1977, four were won by the incumbent lieutenant governor, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Serving as lieutenant governor "familiarized them with every aspect of state government and the governorship itself, since they were part of the governor's cabinet or took on other major tasks for the Governor," Sabato said. "It's a part-time, poorly paid post whose occupants mainly spend their time running for governor." But given the way Virginia works, he added, "being seen as in the wings is a big plus."

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