As the hubbub over the George Washington Bridge lane closures was threatening to derail newly re-elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s second term, the Newark Star-Ledger in January offered the governor some unsolicited advice: Step down as head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA).
Before the bridge controversy hit, Christie’s elevation to RGA chairman for 2014 had been widely seen as a way to boost his profile in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race. So desirable was the RGA post, in fact, that it required Christie to fend off a challenge by another ambitious Republican governor, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.
Christie is not the first leading Republican to view the RGA as an important stepping stone. Its past four chairmen -- Christie, Jindal, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’ Rick Perry -- all had visions of future presidential runs when they took the helm. McDonnell’s dream later crumbled amid ethics problems; Perry ran unsuccessfully during the 2012 Republican primary.
Meanwhile, a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls have similarly viewed the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) as a plum position for nurturing ambitions for higher office. Maryland’s Martin O’Malley spent two years as DGA chairman, while Montana’s Brian Schweitzer previously served for one year; both are considered possible presidential contenders for 2016. And in advance of his 2008 presidential run, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson served two terms as DGA chair.
Given the growing focus on the RGA and the DGA as a proving ground for future national candidates, we thought it was a good time to take a closer look at what governors’ get or don’t get out of leading a national governors’ group.
We’ll look at the DGA and RGA, as well as the National Governors Association (NGA), which, unlike the other two, is strictly bipartisan and tends to focus more on policy than on politics.
Who Leads These Groups?
To start, let’s look at the types of governors that these groups usually attract as leaders.
In the NGA and DGA particularly, and to a lesser extent in the RGA, governors of smaller states have tended to outrank those of larger ones. Over the last 30 years, only three NGA chairs have come from one of the 10 biggest states, while five have come from one of the 10 smallest -- governors like Delaware’s Jack Markell and Tom Carper, Vermont’s Jim Douglas and Howard Dean, and New Hampshire’s John Sununu.
Similarly, in the DGA, only two recent chairs have come from a top 10 population state -- California’s Gray Davis and Ohio’s Dick Celeste -- while four have come from the 10 smallest states by population (Delaware, Hawaii, Montana and Vermont).
Only in the RGA is this pattern reversed, with six governors in recent years coming from top 10 states (two from Ohio and one each from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas) compared to just two from bottom 10 states.
It also tends to be true that the NGA attracts wonkier governors, while the DGA and RGA attract political operators with more personal ambition. The NGA job, Carper says, “tends to attract centrist Democrats and Republicans who are focused on how to get things done, how to pursue best practices, and how to work with the administration and Congress.” By contrast, he says, RGA and DGA chairs tend to be “more focused on defining differences between the parties and raising money for candidates. I was never comfortable with that role, but from Day 1, I wanted to be involved with NGA.”
What Do Governors Get Out of These Groups?
To begin with, at its most basic level, a leadership post in any of the three groups provides a national spotlight.
Jindal, to just name one example, has made “connections with governors from a number of states, got a better sense of what the political environment is like in those states [and got a sense of] what issues work in different political environments, ” says Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Though Jindal was already a well-known figure due to his youth and a succession of high-profile jobs, Cross says, “he has further established his bona fides for a national view and presence.”
In all three groups -- but especially in the NGA -- the chair has a chance to delve into policy issues, which give the leader an opportunity to speak out on issues, exchange ideas and develop a policy portfolio. Maryland’s O’Malley, for instance, “used the platform very well,” says Thomas Schaller a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “It gave him reason to take positions on national issues, especially inequality and poverty.”
Vermont’s Douglas, a Republican, says he “learned a lot” from his colleagues “merely by participating in the NGA. I enjoyed sharing experiences, both successes and challenges, and occasionally stealing a good idea.”
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who headed the NGA in the mid-1980s when Bill Clinton was vice chairman, agrees. “I did not think of the NGA chairmanship as a stepping stone but as a good place to push an agenda,” Alexander says. He and Clinton “devoted NGA activities for an entire year to one subject: better schools. This put out front several governors on a project we called ‘Time for Results,’ establishing momentum for governors' leadership in education reform that has lasted for nearly 30 years.”
For Carper, the driving issue during his tenure as NGA chair in the late 1990s was welfare reform. He collaborated on the issue with then-Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican. “We worked with Democratic and Republican colleagues, as well as the Clinton administration, which was very focused on the issue,” Carper says. The NGA position gave Carper “a better sense of best practices,” and the experience gave him practice forging cross-partisan consensus that has provided skills useful in the Senate.
Being a chair provides access to senior federal officials and familiarity with federal agencies.
“It allowed me to interact with the White House and Congressional leaders more directly during my years as vice chair and chair,” says Bob Miller, the former Democratic governor of Nevada. “I was able to speak on behalf of the collective voices of the 50 states and not the isolated voice of a small state like Nevada.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that all three positions have been feeders for cabinet positions.
Five NGA chairs were later named to cabinet posts: John Ashcroft, Dirk Kempthorne, Mike Leavitt, Janet Napolitano and Tommy Thompson. Three DGA chairs later became cabinet secretaries: Gary Locke, Kathleen Sebelius and Tom Vilsack. And four RGA chairs took cabinet jobs: Ashcroft, Leavitt, Thompson and Tom Ridge.
The U.S. Senate is also a common destination for gubernatorial chairs. Six recent NGA chairs have later gone on to win Senate seats: Ashcroft, Alexander, Carper, Kempthorne, Ohio Republican George Voinovich and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner. (Ashcroft and Voinovich also served as chairs of the RGA.)
Two additional DGA chairs went on to the Senate as well: Mel Carnahan of Missouri (posthumously) and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Another advantage of being chair is the ability to connect with other governors.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s chairmanship of both DGA and NGA helped enable his presidential runs -- a brief one in 2000 and a more substantial one in 2004. “All those contacts as DGA and NGA chair helped him,” says Chris Graff, a former political reporter in Montpelier and now vice president of corporate communications at National Life Group.
Being chair “provides additional networking opportunities that can help when governing or running for office,” says Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist.
One governor who clearly benefited from such connections was Ronald Reagan, who served as chairman of the RGA in 1968-1970, according to Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan and wrote several books about Reagan. “I don't think you can say the RGA chairmanship was crucial to Reagan, but it was useful in keeping him and his name on the national scene after his abortive run for the presidency in 1968,” Cannon says. “I saw Reagan at a couple of those RGA meetings, and though my memory of specifics is vague, I do recall he charmed a number of the governors, including the moderate ones.”
One of Reagan’s successors in the White House, Clinton, also gathered chits from fellow governors due to his chairmanships of the NGA and DGA. Particularly due to his work on education issues, “Clinton really used that platform as a way to become a national player,” says political scientist Jay Barth of Hendrix College in Arkansas. “When he began running for president, Clinton had warm relations with any number of governors.”
And finally, being chair gives governors access to major donors across the country.
“Without question, a job like the DGA or the NGA puts a governor in touch with major donors,” says one former adviser to Richardson, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. “I think he would tell you that his leadership of both of those organizations helped him raise a good chunk of the $27 million he raised for his presidential campaign. “
Observers speculate that the fundraising connections may be what was most attractive to Christie when he was zeroing in on the RGA chairmanship. “Like most things in politics, the chairmanship is about money,” says Cliff Zukin, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Heading a governors association allows the chair exposure to a wide array of donors and fundraisers. The chair will meet new people who they can turn to for campaign contributions.”
In addition, Zukin says, a chair can raise money for Republican candidates “and then call upon them when he is running for endorsements and access to their rolodexes. It allows the chair to travel to early primary states with ‘cover.’"
Of course, this only works if the chair doesn’t have a cloud over their head, as Christie currently does. “Christie's problems make it virtually impossible for him to play the role he would have liked, at least at this time,” Zukin says. “While he is radioactive, Republican candidates don't want his ‘help’ in co-appearances.”
Downsides to the Job?
Of course, not every governor manages to spin a chairmanship into career gold.
And it’s not for lack of trying either. Over the past three decades, only Clinton won the presidency after holding the chairmanship of the NGA, DGA or RGA. (Reagan’s RGA chairmanship was 46 years ago.) Four other NGA chairs in recent years have run for president but failed to win the nomination, not to mention the White House -- Alexander, Dean, Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty. Former DGA Chair Richardson and former RGA chairs Romney and Perry also ran but failed to win the White House.
A chair also runs the risk of presiding over a bad election cycle. For instance, former Chair Jindal could see some negative fallout from the failure of Republican Ken Cuccinelli to defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe for the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2013.
Another problem for chairs of such groups is that the national focus and far-flung travel could lead voters to believe the governor is focusing too much on their side job and is neglecting governance of their own state. “Polling suggests that there is a direct correlation between out-of-state travel and the governor’s popularity,” political scientist Cross says. “Jindal has alienated at least some of his constituents at home by seeming to be more interested in national politics and organizations than Louisiana.”
Increasingly, Republican governors have another problem: Their party, never a fan of big government historically, likes government even less today, with staunch conservatism in ascendance within the party. Huckabee exemplifies this shift, Barth says. “While Huckabee was certainly active in the NGA, he really couldn’t use that activism, particularly on health care, to his advantage, because of the anti-government bent of GOP voters,” he says.
It’s also worth noting that heading a governors group is not the only way to further one’s ambitions for higher office. Dean’s presidential campaign was driven by grassroots ferment, and Schweitzer’s, if it materializes, could as well. And Romney, as a wealthy business executive, already had substantial contacts in the high-dollar donor world; he didn’t really need the RGA to establish that network from scratch.
Then again, success “really depends upon what that chair does with the opportunity,” Schaller says.
Jimmy Carter was never chairman of the NGA or DGA, but he did serve as head of the Southern Governors Association, says Peter Bourne, a top lieutenant on Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Bourne recalls a meeting of the SGA group at Hilton Head, S.C. “At both meetings, he spent a great deal of time building personal relationships with his fellow governors,” he says. “Eager for national media coverage, Carter left the meeting on the second day and spent time in the impoverished local black community Beaufort-Jasper. He got exactly the coverage he wanted, especially in The New York Times, as the reporters contrasted the other governors basking in the luxury of the Hilton Head resort while Carter was out there concerned about the poor.”
Earlier, Carter had earned chits as head of the Democratic National Committee’s campaign arm in 1973-1974. “Previously it had been only a figurehead position, but he took it seriously and raised money for virtually all of the new congressional and Senate candidates, as well as some of the incumbents,” Bourne says. “It paid off handsomely for him as it was a very successful year for Democrats and he ended up with many members of Congress in both houses feeling indebted and loyal to him when he ran for president.”
The bottom line, Bourne says, is that any leadership position “can be an extremely valuable role for a candidate -- but only if they really understand how to make the most out of it."