A History of Accidental Governors
When governors resign because of scandals or promotions, do their replacements run for a term of their own? And if they do, are they successful? A larger-than-normal number of replacement governors is on the campaign trail this year.
This fall, four governors who were elevated to the office from lieutenant governor will be running for terms of their own. They are Republicans Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Jeff Colyer of Kansas and Henry McMaster of South Carolina.
That's a large number of "replacement" or "elevated" governors seeking a full term. Only in one other election since 2000 has there been as many running at the same time.
It got us thinking: How often do replacement governors decide to run for their own terms? When they do, how frequently are they successful? And on the campaign trail, how do they position themselves in relation to their predecessor?
We looked at every instance since 2000 in which a governor initially achieved the top office as a result of their predecessor's death or resignation due to scandal or nomination to a higher office. Jeff Colyer became Kansas' governor, for instance, because President Trump tapped Sam Brownback to be the nation's religious ambassador.
We found 23 cases, including the four candidates currently running and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson who recently replaced Eric Greitens after his resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct. He'll soon need to decide whether he'll run for a full term in 2020.
In looking at the 18 previous cases, elevated governors are slightly more likely to run for their own term: 10 ran, eight did not.
More strikingly, the 10 elevated governors who did run did remarkably well at the ballot box. Eight ended up winning.
Here's the full list.
|STATE||DEPARTING GOVERNOR||ELEVATED GOVERNOR||YEAR||DID THEY RUN?|
|Texas||George W. Bush||Rick Perry||2001||Yes and won|
|New Jersey||Christine Todd Whitman||Donald DiFrancesco||2001||No|
|Wisconsin||Tommy Thompson||Scott McCallum||2001||Yes and lost|
|Massachusetts||Paul Cellucci||Jane Swift||2001||No|
|Pennsylvania||Tom Ridge||Mark Schweiker||2001||No|
|Utah||Mike Leavitt||Olene Walker||2003||Yes: Sought and lost party nomination|
|Indiana||Frank O'Bannon||Joe Kernan||2003||Yes and lost|
|Connecticut||John Rowland||Jodi Rell||2004||Yes and won|
|New Jersey||Jim McGreevey||Richard Codey||2004||No|
|Nebraska||Mike Johanns||Dave Heineman||2005||Yes and won|
|Idaho||Dirk Kempthorne||Jim Risch||2006||No|
|New York||Eliot Spitzer||David Paterson||2008||No|
|Arizona||Janet Napolitano||Jan Brewer||2009||Yes and won|
|Kansas||Kathleen Sebelius||Mark Parkinson||2009||No|
|Illinois||Rod Blagojevich||Pat Quinn||2009||Yes and won|
|Alaska||Sarah Palin||Sean Parnell||2009||Yes and won|
|Utah||Jon Huntsman||Gary Herbert||2009||Yes and won|
|Oregon||John Kitzhaber||Kate Brown||2015||Yes and won|
|South Carolina||Nikki Haley||Henry McMaster||2017||Running now|
|Alabama||Robert Bentley||Kay Ivey||2017||Running now|
|Iowa||Terry Branstad||Kim Reynolds||2017||Running now|
|Kansas||Sam Brownback||Jim Colyer||2017||Running now|
|Missouri||Eric Greitens||Mark Parson||2018||Not yet decided|
Why Some Elevated Governors Didn't Run
Admittedly, the reasons are multiple and varied. But an obvious one is because an elevated governor knew they didn't have the support.
That was the case with New York Democrat David Paterson, who became governor when Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a sex scandal. Paterson was beleaguered during his term in office, largely due to the state's fiscal challenges and the onset of the Great Recession. His approval ratings were in the tank, and it was clear that he would lose if he ran, says Lawrence Levy, who studies New York politics at Hofstra University. "In addition to low voter approval, he also had virtually no organizational or institutional support," he says.
Pennsylvania Republican Mark Schweiker, who succeeded Tom Ridge when George W. Bush tapped him for a homeland security post after 9/11, received scattered entreaties to run, but he had decided early on not to run for a full term. "He knew he did not have the support and that he was not in a position to defeat either Ed Rendell or Bob Casey, the Democrats who were in the primary," says veteran Democratic strategist Larry Ceisler.
Another reason why some elevated governors chose not to run is that they were effectively elbowed out of the race.
In Massachusetts, Republican Jane Swift -- who took over for newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci -- wanted to run for election in her own right, even going so far as to name a running mate. "But the Republican establishment knew that Mitt Romney wanted to run and that he was a much stronger candidate," says Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. "They were not subtle about it, and realistically, Swift didn't have a path forward."
When Democrat Richard Codey became New Jersey governor following James McGreevey's resignation amid a sexual harassment scandal, his biggest problem was fellow Democrat Jon Corzine's deep pockets.
Codey "would have been a very formidable gubernatorial candidate," says Lee, who worked for both McGreevey and Codey. "He brought a sense of stability to the state after the McGreevey resignation and had strong favorability numbers. He was generally well-liked and knew how to get things done in Trenton. What he didn't have was Jon Corzine's money. Corzine was able to get the backing of most of the county chairs before it even became a contest."
Sometimes, it's simply a case of circumstance intervening.
In the case of Mark Parkinson, a Republican-turned-Democrat who succeeded Obama administration cabinet appointee Kathleen Sebelius as Kansas governor, it was the economy -- specifically, the Great Recession. Parkinson realized that tackling the state's fiscal situation would require unpopular budget cuts and tax hikes. That, he figured, would hobble his chances of running for a full term. So early on, he decided not to run.
In Utah, the circumstances that intervened were political. Republican Olene Walker sought the nomination after she became governor following a Bush cabinet appointment for Mike Leavitt. But in Utah's nomination system -- which has since been modified -- Walker came in third at the activist-dominated state Republican convention.
As governor, Walker "went head-to-head with conservatives by vetoing a school voucher bill," says Morgan Lyon Cotti, a University of Utah political scientist. "This put her at a disadvantage because, first, she didn't gear up her campaign early enough, and second, she angered the conservative Republican delegates that were powerful within Utah's caucus-convention system. This vulnerability opened the door to a number of intraparty challengers, many of who had decent name recognition and good funding."
Different political circumstances kept Idado's Jim Risch from running. Risch replaced Republican Dirk Kempthorne, who was tapped for Bush's cabinet. At the time, the governor's race was already underway and another Republican, then-U.S. Rep. Butch Otter, had been running for the governorship for months and had consolidated enough support in the state to preclude a run by Risch.
"The timing was such that he could just barely have managed to get on the ballot for the top job [when Kempthorne left], and I have to imagine there was some temptation to try," says Randy Stapilus, a longtime author and observer of Idaho politics. "But Otter was all but a lock for the nomination by then. So Risch did the politically disciplined thing and kept his promise to run for lieutenant governor."
Having already "taken one for the team" in this fashion, however, Risch was perfectly positioned to run instead for the U.S. Senate seat that opened up not long after, following Republican Larry Craig's resignation after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom.
And a final reason why a governor might not choose to run: His heart just isn't into it.
That appears to have been the case for Donald DiFrancesco, a New Jersey Republican who took over after Christine Tood Whitman joined Bush's cabinet. He initially ran but quit after some unfavorable stories about his legal and business dealings, says Richard Lee, a former aide to two New Jersey Democratic governors who now teaches at St. Bonaventure University. "My sense is he had always been a legislator from a safe district and never was subjected to that level of scrutiny."
Those Who Ran But Lost
The only two replacement governors who sought their own terms but lost are Wisconsin's Scott McCallum and Indiana's Joe Kernan.
In Wisconsin, Republican McCallum took over for Tommy Thompson after Thompson was named to Bush's cabinet. (If it seems like Bush relied heavily on the ranks of governors for senior posts, that's because he did; he had gotten to know many of them as governor of Texas.)
"It might seem surprising that a Republican incumbent would lose in 2002, a year that was so good to the GOP nationally," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden. But while McCallum had been in state politics for years, "he was overshadowed by the exceptional 14 years that Thompson had served as governor."
Not only that, but the libertarian candidate on the ballot that year was Ed Thompson, the former governor's brother and a small-government advocate who appealed to many conservatives who might otherwise have supported McCallum. Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle, who was already well-known, ended up winning the three-way contest with 45 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Indiana's Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan had already ruled out a run to succeed term-limited Gov. Frank O'Bannon. A Vietnam War POW with a distinguished public-service career, Kernan was ready to shift into the private sector when O'Bannon suddently died in office.
Ultimately, Kernan decided to run, but he faced two challenges: a late start to his campaign and a formidable opponent, Republican Mitch Daniels. Daniels, a former top official in the Bush administration, found his voice as a grassroots campaigner and was able to successfully leverage the theme of "16 years of Democratic neglect." Voters were willing to take a chance on Daniels, and he ended up winning.
Those Who Ran and Won
Of the 10 who sought their own term, eight were successful. These governors fall into two groups: those who took office following a scandal and those who were elevated in absence of a scandal.
In the former circumstance, these governors often used their predecessor as a foil. One obvious example is Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn, who took over from the impeached and thoroughly unpopular Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Another example is Connecticut, where Republican Jodi Rell was elevated after Gov. John Rowland was forced out by a corruption scandal. Rell was well-insulated from Rowland's misdeeds in office, and "her cheerful, motherly personality brought her great popularity in the aftermath of the Rowland ordeal," sauys Kevin Rennie, a former Republican legislator and commentator on Connecticut politics. Somewhat counterintuitively, he says, "the absence of obvious ambition on her part may have contributed to her popularity and 2006 landslide win."
In Oregon, Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown became governor after a series of personal scandals beset Gov. John Kitzhaber. She was popular and well-known from her long career in politics, and she made ethics a legislative priority, which proved an easy sell to voters under the circumstances. It also didn't hurt that she was running in a solidly blue state.
The governors elevated in the absence of a scandal faced a choice: Should they tie themselves to their predecessor's accomplishments, or should they run as their own figure?
In Texas, Rick Perry had already carved out a separate identity by the time he succeeded Bush, who had been elected president."Not all lieutenant governors are created equal across the United States, and in Texas, the lieutenant governor is endowed by the state constitution with substantial powers that make them a near-equal to the governor," says Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
And even before Perry served as lieutenant governor, he had been the two-term state agriculture commissioner and a state legislator. This enabled Perry to run as his own man, eventually winning three elections as governor.
A similar pattern held in Nebraska, where Republican Dave Heineman succeeded Gov. Mike Johanns, who was named to the Bush cabinet. Prior to holding the governorship, Heineman had been elected statewide as treasurer, held a senior administrative position in state government, served as a city council member and was executive director of the state GOP. This long record in the public eye was enough to secure him a Republican primary win, even though he was running against U.S. representative and legendary former Nebraska Cornhusker football coach Tom Osborne.
"He was not expected to win that race, but he out-campaigned the congressman and won," says Hal Daub, a former Republican congressman himself who once employed Heineman as an aide. "The general election was a cakewalk."
One elevated governor who relied somewhat more on his predecessor's renown was Alaska's Sean Parnell, who succeeded former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin when she resigned mid-tenure. While Parnell did run on his accomplishments in the legislature and in the governor's mansion, he came across as low-key, "borrowed Palin's charisma" and promised a conservative agenda, says Gerald McBeath, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
The 2018 Candidates
So how are today's replacement governors positioning themselves to win a full term? Observers in their states say they are not leaning too heavily on their predecessors' accomplishments.
That's certainly the case in Alabama, where Republican Kay Ivey became governor after the resignation of Robert Bentley amid a sex scandal. "Kay Ivey is definitely not coasting on her predecessor's reputation," says former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder, a Democrat. "Ivey has established herself as the person to clean up the mess Bentley left and run a good-government administration. She has succeeded so far, despite a couple of bumps."
In Kansas, former Gov. Sam Brownback didn't leave due to a scandal -- he received an appointment from President Trump -- but his popularity was at a low ebb due to a fiscal crisis widely blamed on his policies. Because of this, Colyer has worked to separate himself from Brownback, despite his service as his lieutenant governor.
"Since taking over, Colyer never seems to mention Brownback's name, which makes perfect political sense," says Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. Colyer, he adds, has pitched himself as someone who can "fix the problems he inherited."
The other two replacement governors running for full terms succeeded governors who left office with their popularity intact. Republican Kim Reynolds in Iowa, who replaced long-serving Gov. Terry Branstad, a Trump appointee, and South Carolina Republican Henry McMaster, who succeeded Nikki Haley when she was named ambassador to the United Nations.
Yet despite the potential advantages of touting the records of Branstad and Haley to voters, Reynolds and McMaser have largely blazed their own course, observers say.
Iowa's Reynolds "is out doing the 'personal politics' that Iowa voters expect of their governors, and as part of this process, she is spending a lot of time talking about her own story growing up with a modest background in rural Iowa," says University of Northern Iowa political scientist Christopher Larimer. "I've rarely heard her mention her predecessor, Branstad."
Meanwhile, in a statewide televised debate of all the Republican candidates in South Carolina, McMaster focused almost entirely on his own record with little or no discussion of Haley.