Can Governors Balance National Ambitions with Concerns Back Home?

Governors like Mitt Romney have typically lost popularity at home when they made a run for the presidency. Will the current governors being talked about as potential 2016 candidates suffer the same fate?

As the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way, there’s an interesting dynamic emerging: Several of the governors who are being talked about as potential candidates haven’t even completed their first term yet.

Take Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor. After serving five terms in the U.S. House, including a stint in the Republican leadership, Pence was elected governor in 2012. Now, after just a year and a half in office, his name is being floated as a possible contender for the White House -- someone who might be able to unify the party’s establishment and Tea Party wings.

But Pence isn’t the only one. While the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal has since dimmed the presidential hopes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he was considered a leading Republican presidential candidate -- if not the frontrunner -- even before he decisively won a second term last November. There’s also a trio of Republican governors elected in 2010 included on the list of possible 2016 candidates: New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

Each potential candidate easily passes the “freshness” test for presidential candidates first outlined by journalist Jonathan Rauch. He discovered that, with one exception since Theodore Roosevelt, every elected president took less than 14 years to climb from his first major elective office to the presidency or vice presidency. So if years of service isn’t a big issue, then perhaps the larger barrier for governors with presidential ambitions is remaining focused on their No. 1 responsibility -- governing their state.

Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sarah Palin of Alaska, Rick Perry of Texas and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty are just four of the many governors in recent years who have seen their popularity at home tumble once their presidential desires became evident. For them, it proved impossible to keep most voters on board when they were spending time away from the state capital and adjusting their ideological positioning for a national race.

Pence isn’t up for re-election this year, but he has chalked up approval ratings of 60 percent or more in recent polls. And there’s no sign that his growing national attention is rubbing Indiana voters the wrong way, says Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Daily Insight. Indiana voters, he adds, “feel proud when they hear Hoosier success stories being touted from coast to coast and contrasted with the gridlock and lack of positive accomplishments in Washington.”

Similarly, Republicans in New Mexico are thrilled at talk about Martinez, says Doug Turner, a Republican strategist. And while Wisconsin’s Walker, who presides over a deeply divided state, may have something to worry about, says Jeff Mayers, president of the news website, he hasn’t suffered yet. But the dual focus “is definitely a mixed bag. The unknown is how this will affect the state’s sliver of Independent voters.”

The key to this tightrope walk may be repeated reassurances to the voters that their priority remains at home. Each of these governors has, to one degree or another, publicly splashed cold water on the idea of a presidential run. Pence has the explanation down to a science. “Anytime I’m mentioned or talked to about the highest office in the land is deeply humbling, deeply humbling to me and my family,” he told the Associated Press in May. “But my focus is Indiana.” 

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.