Why Has 2018 Been Such a Bad Election Year for Lieutenant Governors?

Almost all those running for promotion to governor lost their party's primaries.
by | September 12, 2018
Georgia's Casey Cagle is one of the many lieutenant governors who failed to capture their party's nomination for governor this year. (AP/John Amis)

Gavin Newsom hasn't accomplished much as lieutenant governor of California. Perversely, that might help him win a promotion.

Newsom has complained that his office has "no real authority and no real portfolio." Early in his tenure, he told reporters he didn't bother spending more than one day per week in Sacramento because he had so little to do. When asked by a young boy what a lieutenant governor does, Newsom said, "I ask myself that every day."

Newsom is now the overwhelming frontrunner to succeed term-limited Democrat Jerry Brown as governor. He has been able to use his copious free time to raise tens of millions of dollars for the race and make frequent appearances on national television.

The office has traditionally been a springboard for gubernatorial candidates in states across the country. But at least this year, Newsom is exceptional. He and Republican Brad Little of Idaho are the only lieutenant governors who won their party's nominations for governor. In several other states -- Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma -- the sitting lieutenant governors all lost their bids for governor.

It can be tough for No. 2 officials seeking the top spot. They bear all of the baggage of the outgoing administration but have few of the accomplishments and far less of the name recognition associated with being the incumbent. Given Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's unpopularity, perhaps it was inevitable that one of Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb's rivals for her job dubbed him "Mary's little Lamb."

"He needed his own identity and agenda, but it didn't emerge," University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie says of Lamb, who finished third in the state's GOP gubernatorial primary.

When George H.W. Bush won the presidency in 1988, he was the first sitting vice president to do so since Martin Van Buren back in 1836. None have managed it since. Things are not nearly so dire for lieutenant governors.

Eight of the nation's current governors came to the job directly after serving as lieutenant governors, including Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Kim Reynolds of Iowa, who replaced governors appointed to federal positions by President Trump. Both won their party's nominations this year, as did Kay Ivey of Alabama, who succeeded Robert Bentley after he resigned last year amid a sex scandal.

In Kansas, Jeff Colyer wasn't so lucky.

He lost the GOP gubernatorial primary last month to Secretary of State Kris Kobach by just a few hundred votes. Colyer had been serving as lieutenant governor for seven years until he replaced Sam Brownback earlier this year after Trump appointed him to be the nation's religious ambassador. But due to Brownback's slow confirmation process, Colyer took office in January, which didn't give him much time to raise his own profile.

"Colyer spent the last seven years in a political witness protection program, invisible to the electorate," says Burdett Loomis, a retired University of Kansas political scientist. "Colyer, as a seven-year lieutenant governor, was joined at the hip with Brownback, who left office with a low-20s job approval rating."

In a year when many voters are looking for outsiders to shake things up, being lieutenant governor has proven to be no advantage. And, with the increasing nationalization of politics, support from the president has sometimes mattered more than in-state reputations.

In Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley's association with Rick Snyder's unpopular administration cost him support in his primary against state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who ran as a strong Trump supporter.

In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor was endorsed by Gov. John Kasich but distanced herself from the incumbent, claiming she hadn't talked to him for a year. She ended up losing the GOP gubernatorial primary to state Attorney General Mike DeWine by 20 points.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the early frontrunner in Georgia, had the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, who is still popular, but Trump's endorsement of Secretary of State Brian Kemp proved far more potent.

"Kemp certainly billed himself as an outsider and Cagle as a career insider," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

But while Trump's support gave Kemp momentum, he says Cagle blew his own chances by telling a former rival, who secretly recorded the conversation, that he had backed legislation he considered "bad" for political reasons. He also called the primary a contest to see who could act the "craziest."

"What really undid Cagle was that secret tape," Bullock says. "He never really could get his feet after that. "

In Idaho, Little proved to be an exception, prevailing against two candidates who fashioned themselves as outsiders -- businessman Tommy Ahlquist and Congressman Raúl Labrador.

"Brad represented the more mainstream channel of a pretty fractured party," says Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief. "In a period when the state is doing pretty well economically, it seemed a 'stay the course' decision for a lot of voters."

Little ran a traditional campaign for a lieutenant governor, spending years appearing at countless events to win over donors and the party's grassroots supporters.

"If you look at editorials in local newspapers in the month before the primary election, Republican Party elites began writing short pieces in support of Little," says Matthew Miles, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, Idaho. "This signaled to other elites in the party that Little was their guy."

In a split field, that was enough.

Some lieutenant governors are able to do a lot more than cultivate donors or cut ribbons. Whether through statute or support from the governor, contemporary lieutenant governors have led efforts to promote economic development, oversee transportation or cut regulatory red tape.

But having real authority was no benefit for Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who finished a distant fourth in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in June, taking just 7 percent of the vote.

"Donna Lynne suffered by actually having a substantial day job, that of being COO of state government, in addition to the more ceremonial role of lieutenant governor," says Eric Sondermann, an independent analyst of Colorado politics. "This put her at a disadvantage relative to opponents who could campaign full-time. The qualities that led Gov. [John] Hickenlooper to select her for the lieutenant governor post -- her managerial and operational competence -- were not all that well-suited to this political environment in which Democratic voters were looking for passion, motivation and even outrage."

Gavin Newsom didn't have that problem.

He positioned himself as the most progressive candidate in California's Democratic field, notably by touting a single-payer health plan. He also offered ardent defenses of sanctuary policies for immigrants and the state's gas-tax increase, as well as support for environmental measures.

With little to distract him in his day job, Newsom has delighted in going on Fox News frequently to defend the state's liberal politics and its opposition to the Trump agenda. California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon says that his parents voted for Newsom in the primary in part because they liked his appearances on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."

"Lieutenant governor is an easy job to get lost on the golf course for four to eight years," Rendon says. "He did a great job of not doing that."

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