The Forgotten Governors Trailing the Presidential Pack

The increasingly large Republican field includes several governors (like Jim Gilmore) who are trying to make a comeback after being absent from politics for years.
by | June 19, 2015

*This story was updated July 30 at 8:47 a.m.

Some politicians appear to have passed their sell-by date. That doesn't mean they won't run again.

Four former Republican governors who have been out of office for roughly a decade -- Jeb Bush, George Pataki, Robert Ehrlich and James Gilmore -- have either announced or are exploring runs for the presidency. But with the exception of Jeb Bush, who remains one of the frontrunners, no one seems to think they have a chance to win or even break into the top 10 in polls.

"The goal is trying to figure out where I could fit in in this field, and if I do," Ehrlich told the Concord Monitor during a New Hampshire visit in April.

Many other governors who left office just at the start of the year, including Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Rick Perry of Texas and Martin O'Malley of Maryland, are struggling to gain any traction. 

Bobby Jindal, who is still the sitting governor of Louisiana, can't seem to break past the 1 percent mark in national polls, landing him at 15th place in recent surveys. Two other current GOP governors who considered bids -- Mike Pence of Indiana and Rick Snyder of Michigan -- decided not to run.

"Even those who seem like longshots in a large and expanding field still have incentives to run, including the chance to be selected for possible cabinet positions or even the vice presidency," said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Here's a brief look at the records of the governors who are trying to come off the sidelines:

George Pataki, New York Governor, 1995-2007

(AP/Jim Cole)

Serving as governor of New York for a dozen years, Pataki compiled a pretty strong record -- if he were running as a Democrat.

Pataki expanded health coverage for low-income children and their families, fulfilled a campaign pledge to conserve 1 million acres from development and, in 2000, signed a gun-control law that at the time was considered one of the strictest in the nation. He also signed bills that protected gay people against discrimination and restricted smoking.

"To be a successful governor in the Northeast, you have to govern as a moderate, which he did," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the left-leaning New York Public Interest Research Group.

Pataki recognized the need to build coalitions with Democrats in his state, but he was a partisan and disciplined Republican. He had unseated Mario Cuomo in 1994 and made it one of his first orders of business to sign legislation reinstating the death penalty, which Cuomo had consistently blocked. In all, Pataki signed more than 100 measures to combat crime and lengthen prison sentences.

He deregulated electricity and made tax cuts a hallmark of his administration. But with the New York economy growing, state spending consistently outpaced inflation. By the time Pataki left office, state spending had nearly doubled -- from $62 billion in 1995 to $114 billion in 2006.

The New York Times paid him a back-handed compliment as he was leaving office.

"At moments when leadership was needed, this was a governor whose performance was always adequate," the paper editorialized.

When he announced his candidacy in New Hampshire last month, Pataki noted that he had been a virtual unknown when he first ran for governor.

"I have always started at the bottom, I think it is the best way to do it," he said. "You appreciate something more when you earn it."

Robert Ehrlich, Maryland Governor, 2003-2007

(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In 2002, Ehrlich was the first elected Republican governor of Maryland in 36 years. He often struggled to work with a legislature dominated by Democrats.

Ehrlich issued about 100 vetoes, blocking Democratic initiatives that would have raised corporate income taxes to fund higher education and granted medical decision-making authority to partners in same-sex relationships. He also vetoed Democratic bills regarding medical malpractice and refunds for utility customers. Those were both products of special sessions that Ehrlich himself had called.

Democrats were able to override Ehrlich's vetoes 41 times. That was not only a record but represented 40 more successful overrides than had taken place under the previous three governors.

Ehrlich and the legislature were able to work together on issues such as building a new highway outside of Washington, D.C., expanding charter schools and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. He also won applause from Democrats for providing record levels of funding for Maryland's public historically black colleges and universities.

While in office and since, Ehrlich made pardons a priority. He offered relief to more than 200 offenders.

"I had always believed that pardons and commutations were part of the job description -- an extraordinary power that allowed the executive to even the scales of an imperfect justice system," he wrote in a Baltimore Sun column last year.

Ehrlich was twice defeated by another ex-governor now struggling to make headway in the presidential race, Democrat Martin O'Malley. O'Malley unseated him in 2006 and was also victorious in their rematch in 2010. (Ehrlich's 2010 campaign manager was convicted of voter suppression in a robocall case.)

"Got fired, got fired," Ehrlich said in a 2006 radio appearance. "It's never good, obviously, to lose."

James Gilmore, Virginia Governor, 1998-2002

(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Although he was succeeded by a Democrat, Gilmore considered building up Republican strength in the state as his main accomplishment.

"The lasting legacy of this administration will not be a single policy or a program but the new life we have breathed into our democracy," said Gilmore, who served as chair of the Republican National Committee, in a farewell address.

Gilmore rode into office on the slogan "No Car Tax." Although he was unable to eliminate the personal property tax on vehicles, Gilmore reduced it substantially. Though popular, that cut hurt the state budget. Although Virginia had enjoyed strong revenue growth during his term, he left behind a $1.3 billion budget hole.

After leaving office, Gilmore chaired a high-profile commission to address terrorism. Like other Republicans, he has been critical of President Obama's policies in the Middle East.

"America's foreign policy is in disarray," Gilmore wrote in the Washington Times in April. "By readying an agreement with Iran on the future of its nuclear weapons program, the president is pursuing a policy that could readily and comprehensively destabilize the Middle East or, worse still, give Iran a clear path to nuclear dominance of the entire region."

In 2007, Gilmore launched a short-lived bid for the presidency but withdrew in July of that year when his campaign ran out of money. In 2008, he lost a U.S. Senate race against Democrat Mark Warner, who had been his immediate successor in the governor's office.

Undaunted, Gilmore -- like Ehrlich and Pataki -- is now making the rounds in New Hampshire.