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Why It’s So Hard for Lawmakers to Win Governor’s Races

"I can count on one hand the number of top [legislative] leaders who have successfully run for major statewide office."

McWherter FBI Files
Tennessee's Ned McWherter was one of the few legislative leaders to move straight to the governor's office.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
House speakers and Senate presidents may rival or sometimes exceed the governor in wielding power and influence at the capitol. But when it comes to running for higher office, the odds aren’t in their favor.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai and Paul Thissen, a former speaker of the Minnesota House, dropped their bids for governor within a few days of each other in February. They became the latest in a long line of top legislative leaders who met with little success seeking their state’s top office. “I can count on one hand the number of top [legislative] leaders who have successfully run for major statewide office,” says Thom Little of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. “I can think of more who have tried and failed.”

Ambitious legislative leaders face a number of built-in disadvantages. For one, although they’re big kahunas in the capitol, most people outside their own districts have never heard of them. The nature of their jobs means that they’re not able to delegate lots of tasks the way that, say, a county executive can. They need to be on hand and focused, not out making a name for themselves. Turzai’s campaign manager blamed his need to concentrate on crafting the state budget for his inability to gain traction.

For another thing, states with prolonged party endorsement nominating systems hold those meetings right at the time of year when the legislature is in session. “In a lot of states you can’t fundraise during session,” says Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Your caucus wants you to fundraise for them and you’re off fundraising for yourself -- that causes problems.”

Legislators in general face the handicap of casting lots of votes, putting them on record on a number of sensitive issues. In Florida, House Speaker Richard Corcoran is hoping that his support for a ban on sanctuary city policies, limitations on local tax increases and curbs on subsidies for sports teams will help him in the GOP gubernatorial primary. But often leaders are saddled with stances that may  hurt them as they seek the top statewide office. “Sometimes as leader, you have to take unpopular positions to protect the institution, your party or your members,” Little says, “and those votes are not easy to explain in a sound bite.”

Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina made it to the U.S. Senate from their respective speakerships in a single bound, but going straight from the statehouse to the governor’s mansion remains extremely rare. Ned McWherter pulled it off in Tennessee in 1986, but he’s certainly the exception to the rule. Mostly, legislators who’ve become governor ended up taking an indirect path, running first for attorney general or secretary of state. “It’s much more of a lateral move to run from other statewide offices,” says Matt Pagano, executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party.

It’s no secret that there’s a career ladder in politics. Speakers and Senate presidents are powerful, but when it comes to elective office, they remain several rungs below the governor.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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