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Why Being Governor Is the Best Job in Politics

Serving in the Senate or a presidential cabinet is considered a step up for governors. Except among governors themselves.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
(Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media)
Tommy Thompson was elected four times as governor of Wisconsin. He cut his last term short to join the Bush administration – a decision he came to regret.

In 2006, Thompson addressed a meeting of the National Governors Association, an organization he’d once chaired. By that time, he was serving as secretary of Health and Human Services and used the occasion to lament his career choice. “When you’re a governor, you can wake up in the morning and you can have an idea and have somebody working on it by 11 o’clock,” he said. “In Washington, I get the same idea and then have to vet it with 67,000 people who all sincerely believe they’re smarter than you.”

More recent governors have made similar calculations. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu was considered the GOP’s top recruiting pick for the Senate in 2022, but in November he announced he’d much rather stay in Concord. “I'd rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down (and) end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results," Sununu said.

His next-door neighbor, Phil Scott of Vermont, made the same call less than a week later. After Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy announced his retirement, Gov. Scott the same day emphasized that he wouldn’t switch course and seek the Senate seat.

Scott enjoys the highest approval rating of any governor, at 79 percent, per Morning Consult polling. Sununu isn’t far behind, at 67 percent. But even for less successful governors, it’s clear that their jobs beat just about anything on offer in Washington.

“Without question it’s the best job, precisely because you could get things done,” says Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor who served alongside Thompson in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet.

Bush himself told Rick Perry, his successor as Texas governor, that being governor was “the greatest job in the world.” Bush later called Perry to report that his opinion had not changed after spending 18 months in the White House.

Governors set the agenda for their states. When they propose budgets, the legislature accepts more than two-thirds of their desired changes in spending and revenue, according to The Power of American Governors, a book by political scientists Thad Kousser and Justin Phillips. When they make policy proposals in their State of the State addresses, they get what they want, either intact or in compromise versions, nearly 60 percent of the time.

“The ability to propose and enact an agenda is one of the more satisfying parts of being governor,” says former Ohio Gov. Robert Taft. “Governors, more so than a president even, can set the agenda in a way that’s lasting.”

Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
There are currently 13 former governors serving in the Senate. Blame term limits, which plague most governors but not senators. Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware said a decade ago, “My worst day as governor was better than my best day as a United States senator.”

Angus King, a former Maine governor, likes to tell a story about joining the Senate. After he’d served a while, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, came up to greet him on the Senate floor, welcoming him to the body and asking which job he preferred. King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, had to admit he liked being governor better.

He asked McConnell why he brought it up. “I ask all the former governors,” McConnell told him. “If they say they preferred being in the Senate, they’ll lie about anything.”

The Power of the Office

There was a time when being governor was an exercise in frustration in many states. In the early days of the republic, Americans were wary of investing too much power in individuals, which is why the Articles of Confederation didn’t create the presidency.

At the state level, governors were given little formal power, dividing it among separately elected individuals, boards and commissions. After his state’s constitutional convention, one North Carolina delegate said that the governor had been given just enough power “to sign the receipt for his salary.”

In recent decades, states such as Maryland and South Carolina have largely consolidated their executive branches, placing more power directly in the hands of governors. The formal powers of the job still vary considerably by state, but there aren't any where the governor is not the most potent political actor.

In part, that’s because of the perception of power. Within a state capitol, a speaker or senate president may hold roughly equivalent power, but outside the capitol practically no one has heard of them. The governor, by contrast, makes news everywhere he goes. (Currently, just nine of the sitting governors are women, which ties the all-time high.)

“If something needed selling, we’d be traveling the state,” Taft says. “For legislators, it’s hard for them to get their act together on a common front on all the issues.”

But governors also command real power. They generally have a personal staff numbering in the dozens and lead tens of thousands of state employees. Governors have a say in all the operations of a state – higher education, prisons, roads and all the rest. “You’re responsible for everything,” Whitman says.

As Tommy Thompson suggested, a governor’s priorities can quickly be converted into action, often without requiring legislative approval. “It’s not only the bully pulpit, it’s also the fear of the governor calling the state agencies and saying ‘Why aren’t you on this?’” says former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

Governors know they’re going to get credit or blame for all kinds of things that they may or may not be able to control, from the economy to the weather. When disasters strike, they are expected to respond, showing that someone is in charge and acting as consolers to those who are suffering. Even some GOP legislators who have opposed Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on just about everything have praised his handling of deadly tornadoes that pummeled western Kentucky last month.

Over the past two years, governors have been viewed by the public as the chief responders to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Dealing with taxes and spending and state employees, those are all things you sign up for," says Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican. "You also realize that crises and natural disasters are part of the job."

Why It Beats Washington

Taft, the former Ohio governor, is part of one of the great political dynasties in American history. His namesake father and grandfather were both senators. His great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, served as both president and Supreme Court chief justice. He notes that his grandfather, Robert A. Taft, left a lasting imprint on the nation’s labor laws with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

But Taft says that the growth of the federal bureaucracy and, especially, increased partisan polarization have depleted the influence of individual senators. Even the students in Taft’s course on Congress at the University of Dayton can’t role-play their way to solutions on a contentious issue such as, say, immigration.

“They tried to get me to run for the Senate,” says Edgar, the former Illinois governor. “I thought, why do I want to be part of a group of 100 people who talk a lot, but it may be years before you see anything get done?”

Whitman can still rattle off a long list of specific accomplishments two decades later – cutting taxes, changing curriculum standards and passing a billion-dollar bond issue to preserve open space. Years after she left office, she recalls, a woman approached her at Newark airport to thank her for changing the welfare system, which allowed her to get training and get a job. “That kind of satisfaction is extraordinary,” Whitman says.

Most of the work of being governor involves dealing with bread-and-butter issues, such as pensions and the budget. But governors, given the size of their megaphones, can make a difference on matters they may never have run on. Edgar and his wife Brenda, for example, championed adoption, taking Illinois from last to first in the nation in number of adoptions during his eight years in office.

As governor of Missouri during the 1970s, Christopher Bond led a campaign to keep an important collection of drawings by 19th-century artist George Caleb Bingham – so identified with the state that he was known in his day as “the Missouri Artist” – intact and in the state.

Schoolchildren across the state raised $50,000, which helped Bond shame adults into putting up the rest. “We agreed that these drawings were an important heritage and that selling them would be a scandal,” Bond said when the drawings were exhibited in St. Louis in 2015. “We didn’t want a scandal.”

No governor ever gets everything right, Whitman says. “The hardest thing for me to learn is you can’t please everybody, no matter what.” But the ability to offer and implement solutions to all the problems that might come up in a state are a large part of the satisfaction of the job.

That’s why Tommy Thompson told a later Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, he should resist any offer to join the Trump administration, not once but “a thousand times.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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