The Rise of the Rich Governor

More than half a dozen governors are worth more than $100 million, worrying many about the influence of money on state politics.
by | March 2016
Jim Justice, the richest man in West Virginia, is running for governor. (AP)

Democrats are considered likely to lose the governorship of West Virginia this year, but Democratic candidate Jim Justice will have no trouble funding his campaign. Justice is the richest man in the state.

Justice is seeking to join the exclusive but growing club of rich-guy governors. Bill Haslam of Tennessee is the wealthiest, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $2.1 billion. But there are more than half a dozen other governors whose net worth is well north of $100 million.

It’s not a new phenomenon in a country where Rockefellers and Roosevelts have served as governor. But at a time of concern about the outsized influence of the uber-wealthy in politics, having the rich run themselves leaves some wary. “The number of billionaires and mega-millionaires is absolutely unprecedented,” says John Jackson, a Southern Illinois University political scientist.

It’s no secret why someone who’s rich might want to run. For a person who is already enormously successful, politics offers the chance to become well known and influential, and presents plenty of new mountains to climb. And if a candidate can write his or her own checks -- rather than present a drain on donors -- parties are happy to have them run for any office.

Being able to put millions into your own race is no guarantee of victory, as several would-be rich-guy governors have found out in recent years. But successful wealthy candidates have found a way to make being rich an advantage. Being rich, they say, means they can’t be bought. That’s been a persuasive argument for many voters, who like the idea that a politician won’t have to trade favors for cash.

Many voters also have been impressed by candidates’ achievements in other fields. “Voters have been choosing new ideas and new energy over the old formula of sheer time served in political office,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose estimated net worth is $150 million, wrote recently in USA Today.

Scott and other governors such as Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Bruce Rauner of Illinois have been able to spend tens of millions of their own dollars introducing themselves. That obviously lent them an enormous boost. “Logistically, that means less time spent trying to raise cash and more time available for campaigning,” says Kytja Weir of the Center for Public Integrity.

Money is also a big help once in office. In theory, it shouldn’t matter that the governor is worth 100 times as much as the state Senate president. As a practical matter, however, the reality that a governor -- and his rich friends -- can fund issue advocacy campaigns and candidates lends an already powerful figure that much more sway. “If your argument is, ‘I earned my money and can’t be bought by political contributors,’” says Thad Kousser, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist, “but then you turn around and try to buy others -- that cuts against your claim that personal riches doesn’t have undue influence.”