These Governors Are Rich, But Are They Effective?

The wealthy are increasingly seeking their state's highest office. Winning has been the easy part.
by | August 18, 2017
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, right, is one of the nation's richest elected officials. Forbes estimated his net worth at $2 billion in 2015. (Flickr/Andrew Steele)

In politics, they say, money talks. But rarely has that been as true as it is now, at least among the nation's governorships.

Three current governors -- Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Jim Justice of West Virginia -- are believed to be billionaires. Numerous other governors are also thought to be millionaires, including Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Rick Scott of Florida, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Matt Bevin of Kentucky, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska.

In each case, personal wealth has helped smooth the path to the governor's mansion. To many voters, a candidate's success in business -- or even the wealth they've accumulated from an inheritance -- connotes distance from a political system widely seen as corrupt and out of touch. But once in office, their deep pockets have not necessarily aided successful governance.

With several wealthy candidates looking to run for their state's top office in 2017 and 2018, we thought it would be a good time to weigh the pluses and minuses of bringing a ton of money, but relatively little political experience, to the governorship.

 

Winning Is the Easy Part

Having lots of money can overcome many campaign obstacles. In fact, it is "essential" for these candidacies, according to political observers.

Let's start with Scott, a former health company CEO who had never run for office before. He began the Florida Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010 as the underdog against then-state Attorney General Bill McCollum.

"Scott's ability to self-fund was a critical component in winning the Republican primary," says Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist. "He was able to spend millions on advertising to raise his own name recognition and attack McCollum as being insufficiently conservative and a career politician. It was the decisive factor."

Scott's deep pockets eventually helped him narrowly win the general election against Democrat Alex Sink.

That same year in Minnesota, Dayton, the heir to the Target retail fortune, failed to get the Democratic Party's endorsement. Undeterred, he worked around it by spending heavily to win the primary. "It gave him a big advantage," says Blois Olson, a veteran political analyst based in the Twin Cities.

In 2014, Rauner, whose money came from private equity, used his fortune to defeat incumbent Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. In the primary, Rauner spent $16 million and won by three percentage points in a four-way race. In the general election, he spent $54 million.

"We've never had a candidate for governor in my 40 years watching politics who even came close to having Rauner's financial resources," says Bernard Schoenburg, a political columnist at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. "It enabled him to get his message across on lots of platforms."

More recently, Bevin, who became wealthy from manufacturing and finance, ran successfully for governor of Kentucky in 2015. He came into the race without much establishment support within the Republican party, since he had just come off an unsuccessful primary challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. So, he loaned his primary and general election campaign more than $3.5 million.

And last year, Republican Burgum, a computer industry executive who scored a surprise GOP primary victory in North Dakota, rolled to an easy victory in the general election.

For each of these candidates, initially framing their wealth for voters can be a challenge. Look no further than Ricketts, who was elected governor of Nebraska in 2014. The Republican comes from the family that founded the brokerage firm Ameritrade.

"There were those who were reluctant to believe a wealthy person could really understand the needs and concerns of ordinary people, particularly those in rural areas," says John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political scientist. "That may be why Ricketts' commercials stressed that he was an ordinary guy, [showing him] with his kids and making fun of him for being bald."

 

Governing Is the Hard Part

The downside of winning the governorship as a wealthy outsider is that they more often than not have to learn politics on the job. The exceptions to this rule have been Dayton, who previously served as state auditor and U.S. senator, and Haslam, who was the mayor of Knoxville first.

Indeed, Haslam's political experience has helped him avoid some of the pitfalls of his wealthy outsider peers, says John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist. Haslam has skillfully navigated tricky ideological currents in the staunchly conservative legislature, putting his more pragmatic stamp on legislation by signing or vetoing measures as he sees fit. "He will go down as one of our great governors," Geer says.

Sometimes these rookie governors are helped by circumstances.

In Bevin's case, the long-delayed shift in the state from Democratic to Republican control of the governorship and the legislature has enabled him to sign a stream of legislation that had long been on the GOP wish list. Laura Cullen Glasscock, who publishes the Kentucky Gazette, says "the Bevin-GOP agenda rolled through Frankfort." That agenda has included right-to-work legislation, a repeal of prevailing wage laws, charter school legislation and abortion limits.

More often, though, the learning curve for wealthy outsider governors has been steep. Even those who have managed to win a second term haven't necessarily thrived in office.

In Florida, Scott seems "stiff and uncomfortable making speeches, and his approval ratings have been quite low for much of this tenure," Jewett says. "The legislature has largely ignored Gov. Scott's priorities, except when those priorities coincide with their own."

In Minnesota, Dayton has been beset by difficult relations with the Republican-controlled legislature. And in Michigan, Snyder -- a self-styled "nerd" -- struggled when the Flint water crisis emerged. Flint "caused him to take a huge hit in approval ratings from which he's never recovered," says Bill Ballenger, who publishes the Ballenger Report, a newsletter on Michigan politics.

The poster child for difficult governorships, however, has been Rauner's. His ongoing budget war with the Democratic-controlled legislature has drawn threats of junk bond status from credit ratings agencies and loss of university accreditation following two years of steep cuts and unpaid bills.

"Rather than recognize that he had to deal with strong pro-labor Democratic legislative majorities in a blue state," says Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist, "he pushed a strong anti-union, right-to-work agenda from the beginning that unified all parts of labor against him."

And those weren't the only enemies Rauner made, Redfield says: The governor "tried to hold the budget hostage to leverage his 'Turnaround Agenda,' which initially included tort reform and cuts in social services spending to health facilities in addition to anti-collective bargaining, worker's comp reform and pension reform measures. This unified the major funders of the Democratic Party against him -- labor, the trial lawyers, and the hospitals and nursing homes."

 

The Trend Continues in 2017 and 2018

One thing seems clear: Wealthy candidates aren't deterred.

The Democratic nominee for the New Jersey gubernatorial race this November is Phil Murphy, who spent more than two decades at Goldman Sachs and is making his first run for elective office. Outgoing New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and President Trump are so unpopular in the state that Murphy -- who easily survived a quiet primary -- is seen as the odds-on favorite this fall.

In Illinois, at least two wealthy Democratic candidates are expected to run: J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy. Given Rauner's willingness to spend from his own pocketbook, a credible Democratic candidate who's wealthy would have a huge leg up. "People think the race could cost each side a far-unprecedented $150 million," Schoenburg says.

Then there's Colorado, where the race next year to succeed two-term Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper includes at least one deep-pocketed Democrat: multimillionaire U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.

In the Democratic field, "Polis is the front-runner and will spend all the money needed," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "He poured $5 million into a small-time Democratic primary to win his congressional seat in 2008. Beating Polis in a Democratic primary will require a very smart and tough campaign."

With a high-stakes gubernatorial cycle -- the last big cycle before the once-every-decade redistricting process -- each of these races will be closely watched by both parties. "I expect a tough, expensive race [in Colorado]," Ciruli says. "Republicans have their first chance in years to win it, and Democrats see it as important to the presidency."

*Story updated August 22, 2017