Rocky Roads Ahead for Governors With Failed Presidential Bids

Trying and failing to take the White House has historically spelled trouble for governors' future political careers. In 2016, however, there may be one exception.
by | January 4, 2016
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, center right, listens to the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre. (AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

"Come at the king, you best not miss," Omar from the TV show "The Wire" famously advised a rival in the drug trade after he shot him. That advice, in its own way, is applicable to ambitious governors as well. Namely, if you run for president, make sure you win. If history is any guide, your future gubernatorial career after losing a presidential race will be about as healthy as one of Omar's adversaries.

In recent decades, just two sitting governors have won the presidency: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But the list of sitting governors who have either lost or dropped out of a race for president is much lengthier. In most cases, these candidates' gubernatorial careers suffered after they lost their bid. It's happened to Democratic and Republican governors alike.

This pattern will be particularly relevant in 2016. Already, we've seen the most sitting governors running in at least four decades. While Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal have dropped out of the Republican contest, Republicans Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio remain in the race, although neither is polling in the top tier.

In fact, three of those four sitting governors are at or near their lows in popularity back home.

A University of New Orleans survey in November found Jindal had an overall 20 percent approval rating, with even a majority of Republicans disapproving of him. In an electoral rarity in the Deep South these days, Jindal will be succeeded by a Democrat, John Bel Edwards, in January.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, Walker isn't doing much better. Walker received 37 percent approval from voters in a Marquette University Law School poll shortly after he left the presidential race. Six of 10 voters in the state say they wished he hadn't run for president.

And in New Jersey, Christie has hit new lows with just a 33 percent approval rating despite winning his 2013 re-election in a walk, according to the Rutgers Eagleton poll. If Christie loses his presidential bid, "he will return to a New Jersey with his power substantially weakened," said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton poll. "The Democratic majority in the legislature has no interest or incentive to work with him anymore."

The one exception, in 2016 and potentially ever, is Kasich. His continued popularity -- 62 percent approval in an October Quinnipiac poll -- appears to stem from the fact that he is running as the clearest pragmatist in a primary notable for its ranks of staunch ideologues.

"In Ohio, we've seen pretty much across the board pride in John Kasich's efforts," said Douglas J. Preisse, a principal with Van Meter, Ashbrook & Associates, Inc. and a longtime Republican strategist in Ohio.

Unless things turn around for Kasich's companions in the presidential race, they'll soon be joining the following governors who limped back to the governor's mansion in defeat.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)

Initially, Perry seemed like a promising candidate, having served for more than a decade as governor of one of the nation's largest states. But he stumbled badly in the wide-open presidential contest, including the infamous debate performance in which Perry couldn't remember one of the federal departments he wanted to close.

"The collapse of Perry's 2012 presidential bid damaged his image in Texas as an invincible political juggernaut who had never lost a campaign in his political career," said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. "While I believe Perry was already leaning towards not running for re-election in 2014, his failed 2012 presidential bid certainly emboldened potential challengers and likely influenced his decision to not stand for re-election."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D)

By the time he was elected governor, Richardson had already put together a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the presidential cabinet. Therefore, it was hardly a secret to New Mexico voters that Richardson had higher political ambitions.

But after dropping out of the 2008 presidential race -- following a distant fourth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary -- things turned sour for Richardson. His "need for big-donor dollars to compete on the national stage seems to have caused him to squeeze so hard and in so many places that it all came crashing back down on him," said one political observer in the state.

This played out in two legal cases that cast a shadow over Richardson's final two years in office -- a grand jury investigation of a kickback scandal involving highway funds and a wider scandal involving state investments. Richardson was never charged with wrongdoing, but it kept him from taking a position as commerce secretary for Obama. Aspects of the cases continue to play out years later.

The investigations, combined with the budgetary fallout from the Great Recession, "resulted in the once popular governor becoming one of the most reviled politicians in the state," said Steve Terrell, a political journalist with The Santa Fe New Mexican. "He seemed almost paralyzed for his last two years in office. He remains unpopular, and Republicans still use him as a boogeyman."

Indeed, New Mexicans elected a Republican, Gov. Susana Martinez, to succeed him in 2010.

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R)

Wilson, a moderate Republican, won the governorship in 1990 in a landslide. He then easily won a second term in 1994. But then, just two years later, he ran for president. "Californians were not amused that he went off to run for president right after being re-elected, and the fact that he also ran badly didn't help," recalled Garry South, who was at the time chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. "Wilson's poll numbers never really recovered, and Gray was able to run and win in 1998 against someone who had become a very unpopular and discredited GOP governor."

A California law puts the lieutenant governor in charge when the governor leaves the state, and Wilson was often gone while campaigning for president. He sought to change the law to take the lieutenant governor out of the line of succession. But Davis' stature had grown during Wilson's frequent absences, and the move ultimately backfired with voters.

What's more, Wilson contested his party's presidential nomination by running to the right, seemingly in a bid to rebut the notion that he was too moderate to win the nomination. Most notably, he championed Proposition 187, which barred the use of most state services for undocumented immigrants. The measure passed, but, for the state GOP, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory: The state's fast-growing Latino population shifted decisively toward the Democrats and turned California into a solidly blue state, a pattern that still holds more than two decades later.

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (D)

In 1989, Wilder became the first African-American since Reconstruction to win a state governorship. He decided just two years later to run for president.

Although he dropped out early on, the presidential bid "made Wilder very unpopular and limited what he could do for half of his one four-year term," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "It probably also kept his poll numbers low when he ran for Senate in 1994, after leaving office."

In addition, voters elected Republican George Allen to succeed him in 1993.

In Son of Virginia, Wilder wrote, "In retrospect, I can see that my run for president hurt my standing with Virginia voters. The polls were evidence of their displeasure, and I accept that." Indeed, Wilder wrote that when he announced to the General Assembly that he would quit the presidential race and return to the governorship, he received "the largest, heartiest cheer I'd ever heard from that body."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D)

Unlike the others on this list, Dukakis actually won his party's nomination before losing the 1988 presidential race. But that didn't ease his return to the governorship, where he had two years remaining in his term.

"Dukakis came back to a state that was about to face some of the worst economic conditions in memory," said Maurice T. Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. "The 'Massachusetts Miracle' he had run on had passed and soon the state budget was a mess, necessitating unpopular cuts and new taxes."

It didn't help that during the budget fight, Dukakis -- nearing the end of his third nonconsecutive term -- came to be seen as a lame duck. "Dukakis became a political target even among some Democrats, such as John Silber, who took the nomination," Cunningham said. In the end, voters elected a Republican, William Weld, to the governorship in 1990.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

Several of the other governors on this list, such as Dukakis and Wilder, have gone on to productive "elder statesmen" roles in politics following their governorship. But none had quite as strong a comeback as Brown, who was elected governor in 2010 and again in 2014.

One reason for Brown's current gubernatorial success, however, is that he's no longer focused on the presidency. "His running for president a second time in 1980 as a sitting governor paved the way for his own defeat in the Senate race in '82," said South, a veteran Democratic consultant in the state. "It infuriated many Democrats that he took on a sitting Democratic president who was already having troubles and who later was beaten in the 1980 general election. He also ran badly, with his bizarre, haphazard campaign, which became the butt of many jokes. His image developed into one of a scatter-brained dilettante who was less interested in being governor than being a gadfly on the national stage."

Ultimately, Brown was succeeded by a Republican, George Deukmejian.