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Cursed or Blessed? A History of Third-Term Governors

Most states limit governors to two terms, but not New York and Wisconsin, where Andrew Cuomo and Scott Walker are both seeking reelection this year.

Will Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker be able to win a third term?
For a governor, winning a third consecutive term is a rarity.

That's in large part because most states have two-term limits; only a dozen allow for a third consecutive four-year term.

But with New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker seeking No. 3 this year, we thought it would be a good time to look at how often governors win and whether they're successful.

To start, we found that 12 governors have won a third consecutive term since 1990. We didn't count governors who won their third term after a break from the governorship, such as Jerry Brown of California, and we excluded three-term governors of New Hampshire and Vermont, who only run for two-year terms.

The Republicans with three or more consecutive terms are John Rowland of Connecticut, Butch Otter of Idaho, Terry Branstad of Iowa, John Engler of Michigan, George Pataki of New York, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Rick Perry of Texas, Mike Leavitt of Utah and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. We've also counted current Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who has been elected three times, the first time in a special election to replace Jon Huntsman, who resigned to become ambassador to China.

The only two Democrats who have managed the feat since 1990 are Mario Cuomo of New York (Andrew Cuomo's father) and Roy Romer of Colorado.

As it turns out, the third time is a charm for many governors. According to calculations by Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota, 20 of the 24 governors who have sought a third term since 1970 were victorious.

And instead of experiencing voter fatigue and political sclerosis, many have remained quite popular.

Of the 12 governors who have won a third term since 1990, we found -- based on interviews with experts who watched these governors in action -- that half remained popular, five had mediocre third terms and one had a truly awful final act.


Strong Successes

In North Dakota, Hoeven's three terms were bolstered by the start of an oil boom. The state enjoyed a nearly $1 billion budget surplus and the lowest employment rate in the nation during his tenure. Hoeven is the only governor in state history to win three four-year terms.

As a result, he was able to parlay his popularity as governor into an easy victory in a U.S. Senate race in 2010. He was "very popular among voters and was seen here as a success," says Nick Bauroth, a North Dakota State University political scientist.

Two governors of another modest-sized Western state, Utah, have also had successful third terms.

Around the time Leavitt was nominated by the Bush administration to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 -- an appointment that closed out his gubernatorial career -- he had received an astronomically high 75 percent approval rating in a Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll.

Leavitt's popularity can be attributed to his moderate stances on issues from the environment to health care. He was seen as "a hands-on executive who's driven more by data than by ideology," according to The Atlantic.

Leavitt was only the second governor in Utah history to be reelected to a third term. Current Gov. Gary Herbert is the third. Much like Leavitt, Herbert is a moderate and in December 2017, secured a 70 percent approval rating.

Two Republican governors from bigger states also managed to remain effective during their third terms.

In Wisconsin, Thompson, who also won a fourth term, made good use of his third term.

"The signature achievement of his 14 years as governor came in his third term -- the 'Wisconsin Works' welfare reform law," says University of Wisconsin, Madison political scientist David Canon.

The legislation served as a blueprint for the 1996 landmark welfare reform law crafted by President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry came back from a disappointing 2012 presidential primary bid to secure approval ratings in the high 50s toward the end of his third term.

Perry also managed to navigate tricky intra-party rivalries between establishment Republicans and the GOP's Tea Party wing, says Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. "Throughout his third full term, he was viewed in a very favorable light by -- and was on good terms with -- both wings."

The only Democrat we found with a clearly successful third term was Romer in Colorado.

Romer "maintained the momentum of his first two terms into his third," says emeritus Colorado College political scientist Robert D. Loevy. "His big third-term accomplishment was the successful operation of Denver International Airport, a city project which he had strongly supported and helped along as governor."

Had a term-limits law not taken effect at the end of his third term, Loevy says, "I believe he could have had a fourth."


Mixed Degrees of Success

In Idaho, Otter has had third-term approval ratings in the 50s -- high enough that he could have conceivably fit in the category above.

However, voters seemed to tire of his leadership by the middle of his third term, judging by the weak support for him to run for a fourth term. In an April 2017 survey, a majority of respondents said he should not to run again, and he heeded their advice.

Iowa's Branstad, who is the longest tenured governor in American history, ultimately served six terms, the first four of which were consecutive. But his third term was the diciest.

"It was during his third term that he received the lowest approval rating of his entire tenure in office, including his comeback -- a rating of 39 percent in June 1992," says Christopher W. Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa political scientist. "Voters seemed to blame him for the economic crisis that year."

The clouds cleared in time for him to win a fourth term, however.

In Michigan, Gov. John Engler's approval ratings, previously in the high 40s and low 50s, took a hit during the recession of 2001, falling as low as 33.7 percent shortly before he left office in 2003.

"The economy went into a tailspin, and he and the legislature struggled with the budget," says Bill Ballenger, publisher of the The Ballenger Report, a Michigan political tipsheet. "In fact, a Republican-controlled House and Senate even overrode his veto of a revenue-sharing appropriation in 2002 -- one of only three such vetoes in the past 40 years."

And finally, there are the two New York governors on our list, Cuomo and Pataki.

A Marist poll taken in November 1993, when Cuomo was considering running for a fourth term, found him with an approval rating of only 34 percent -- the lowest in his 11 years in office.

Cuomo "piled up many antagonists in his three terms and enough people were just tired of him," says Doug Muzzio, a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College. "It was an ABC election -- Anybody But Cuomo."

Ultimately, Cuomo did run for a fourth term -- but Pataki defeated him.

In time, though, Pataki's third-term ratings would mirror Cuomo's. A WNBC/Marist poll in May 2006, found that his approval rating hit an all-time low of 30 percent. That was the lowest gubernatorial rating Marist had ever recorded in its 23 years of polling.

Pataki saw the writing on the wall -- 2006 was a banner year for Democrats -- and decided against running.


One Disaster

Still, neither Cuomo nor Pataki hit a bottom nearly as hard as Connecticut's Rowland following his third victory.

About a year into his third term, allegations surfaced that he had used state money to pay for improvements to his weekend home, that he took bribes from subordinates in state government, and that he took partial ownership in businesses immediately before they were granted state contracts.

He faced impeachment proceedings and ultimately resigned. Soon thereafter, he pled guilty to corruption-related charges and served 10 months in prison.


What Could Happen in 2018?

In this year's election cycle, New York's strongly Democratic leanings and weak Republican bench should give Cuomo a sizable advantage in his bid to win a third term.

But Cuomo has had to deal with unrest within his party's left flank, and some of the people he's been close to have faced legal troubles. These have eaten into his approval ratings, so even a victory in 2018 could leave him with tricky political currents to navigate in a third term.

Meanwhile, Walker -- who has already won three gubernatorial elections if you include his recall election victory in 2012 -- is expected to have a competitive contest this fall. He may be battle-tested and a strong fundraiser, but if there's a Democratic wave, an energized turnout by voters who dislike him could put another victory at risk.

"He is widely respected by Republican voters around the state," says Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin Elections Research Center, "but widely distrusted among Democrats, leading to strongly polarized opinions about the governor."

"Walker is no Tommy Thompson," says Canon, the University of Wisconsin political scientist. "Thompson won his third gubernatorial election by a 67-31 margin, carrying virtually every county in the state. By contrast, Walker won 52 percent, 53 percent, and 52 percent of the vote in his three elections, and a Marquette Poll from last fall had Walker's approval rating at 48 percent. And any incumbent with an approval rating under 50 percent is beatable."

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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