Former New York Gov. George Pataki on Thursday became the eighth Republican to formally declare a bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, and the first sitting or ex-Northeastern governor to officially jump in. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to become the second sometime next month.
But having “Republican governor of a Democratic state” on your resume isn’t exactly a boon for GOP presidential contenders. As GOP primary and caucus voters in states like Iowa, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada tack further and further to the right, many view Northeastern governors as far too moderate – if not outright RINOs, or “Republicans in name only.” The attributes these candidates might be able to extol in a general election – Bipartisanship! Winning Democratic voters! – become enormous liabilities in the primary campaign.
In fact, not since Massachusetts’ Calvin Coolidge has a Northeastern Republican governor gone on to become president. Before that, it was a former governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1901.
“To really get your candidacies started at the national level, you have to appeal to party insiders and party regulars. Longtime Northeasterners haven’t been able to do that,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University. “They haven’t been able to make the case that their brand of Republicanism is attractive or worthy” – even if it may resonate with GOP voters in the general election, Zaino added.
Take, for example, Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice former New York City mayor who sought the GOP nomination in 2008. Hailed as “America’s mayor” in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Giuliani at one time was seen a great candidate – but he crashed and burned with GOP base voters.
In fact, in his 2008 concession speech, Giuliani acknowledged that he seemed out of step with other conservative Republicans, saying, “We’re a big party and we’re getting bigger. I’m even in this party.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney managed to overcome his Northeastern roots to snag the party’s nomination in 2012 – but in the process, he basically had to disavow any moderate legacy he had in Massachusetts. He distanced himself from his signature health care reform bill as governor, after it was said to set precedent for Obamacare. Even as he tried to reframe himself as a “severely conservative” governor, Romney never generated much passion among party activists.
Of course, the ultra-conservative, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 and announced Wednesday that he’s making another White House bid – is also from the Northeast. But as a senator, he isn’t held to the same standard as a governor, who must run the entire state and hammer out deals with a sometimes divided state legislature. Lawmakers, like Santorum, are part of a partisan caucus in Washington and he doesn’t have to deal with Democrats in the same way if he doesn’t want to.
This year, Christie has sought to distance himself from his moderate label, insisting he’s a conservative in every sense of the word. But there’s still some residual anger over his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy shortly before the 2012 election. And some in the conservative base believe Christie in the past has been too moderate on several issues, including immigration (he once called for a “commonsense path to citizenship”), gun control (he reportedly backed the 1994 federal assault weapons ban), LGBT issues (he signed legislation banning gay conversion therapy in 2013) and climate change (he has said he believes man-made climate change is undeniable). To them, Christie represents the cautious establishment—not the ideological purity the grassroots desire. Perhaps in order to beef up his conservative credentials, Christie has taken action in the past year—vetoing gun control legislation, declaring the gay marriage debate isn’t over, taking a more hardline stance on Israel, and on immigration he is insisting his views have changed and that a “commonsense pathway to citizenship” is now an “extreme place to go.”
Meanwhile, Pataki, who served three terms as New York governor from 1995 to 2006, kicked off his campaign Thursday in the early voting state of New Hampshire – a key state for any Northeasterner hoping to claim the GOP nomination. “My vision was not a partisan vision. It was a vision about people, about what we could accomplish together,” he said in a video announcing his candidacy on Thursday morning. Pataki—who has supported abortion rights and advanced gay rights measures – also said decisions on marriage and gun rights should be left up to the states.
How did Northeastern Republicans fall so hard, so fast? Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, blames the “southernization of the Republican Party since the 1970s”—when voters in that region became the party base, leaving Northeasterners on the outside. And as a matter of logistics, as a Republican Northeastern governor, Zelizer said, they must naturally deal with more Democrats and more diverse constituencies—and that in practice can mean not getting 100% what you want.
“You can’t do well as a governor in a way that won’t anger what national Republicans are looking for. All that culminates in the primaries when candidates are struggling to remake themselves and sound like the type of Republican they aren’t,” said Zelizer. He added, those who extol “bipartisanship” have different meanings depending on where you’re from. For example, if you’re from the south it comes across as “generic, moving beyond partisan tension and gridlock,” he said. While if you’re from the Northeast, “they hear compromise and moving away from the ideological core of the Republican Party. That scares a lot of them.”