By the time of the first debate for the Republican presidential field, there were 17 GOP candidates, which was a historic, almost ridiculous, total. But one of qualifications most of the candidates had in common went largely overlooked: 9 of the 17 were current or former governors.
Nine candidates would be a big field under any circumstances, but in this case, just the governors alone – Bush, Christie, Gilmore, Huckabee, Kasich, Jindal, Pataki, Perry, and Walker – had enough to field a baseball team. Add Democratic governors to the mix – O’Malley and Chafee – and the number swells to 11.
And at a certain level, this is understandable. For many in both parties, it’s long been assumed that governors have the edge in the party’s nominating contests, in part thanks to history – Reagan, Carter, Clinton, W. Bush, Romney, et al – and also because of the nature of the job. Being the chief executive of a state, the theory goes, offers ideal training for being the chief executive in the White House. Governors learn how to manage and respond to crises. They learn how to oversee a massive, bureaucratic team, while working opposite a legislature. They learn how to lead.
How many sitting GOP senators have ever been elected to the White House? Only one. It was Warren Harding, who was elected nearly a century ago. This is hardly accidental – Americans tend to hate Congress, so they don’t necessarily look to Capitol Hill for national leaders.
And yet, here we are. Two of the most experienced candidates of the cycle – Rick Perry and Scott Walker, both governors – have already quit (as has Lincoln Chafee). George Pataki and Jim Gilmore were excluded from the debates altogether this week, while Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee were relegated to the kids’ table, where they joined Bobby Jindal. Jeb Bush and John Kasich made the prime-time stage, but both are struggling badly. The latter faced booing.
The Washington Post had a piece yesterday noting that this “is not the year of the governor,” and pointed to a possible reason why.
So far, this campaign has not really been about policy. It’s been all about personalities.The bigger issue is that governors are also no longer seen as outsiders. They’ve made compromises, and it is very difficult to stay ideologically pure when you’re leading a state. For example: From a conservative perspective, Walker had a very impressive record of achievements, aided by GOP majorities in both chambers of his state legislature. But many big donors, including the Koch brothers, zeroed in on his support for offering taxpayer help to build a new sports stadium, which Walker did to keep the Milwaukee Bucks from leaving town. That’s part of a governor’s job. But, in this climate, it is apostasy.
I think it’s probably fair to say Walker failed for a great number of reasons, most of which extend well beyond his policy record, but the broader point is nevertheless well taken. Governors are struggling in this cycle in ways they traditionally have not.
But a record of compromises isn’t a fully satisfying explanation. Governors like Jindal and O’Malley, for example, haven’t broken with their party orthodoxy, and both are mired in low single digits in the polls.
Even if the Republican Party en masse is more hostile to compromise than in previous generations – I believe it is – governors have always had to make these kinds of governing decisions and it’s never had much of an effect on their presidential campaigns.
I think the explanation from Slate’s Jim Newell is even more persuasive: “It may just be that governor no longer corresponds directly with outsider.”
For all the railing against Washington, D.C., it’s now perfectly reasonable for a senator to portray him or herself as an outsider since congressional leaders have less ability to corral their members into staying in line. Candidates like Sanders and Cruz can credibly argue that they’re consummate “outsiders,” since they draw their power from funding streams independent from the party structure and don’t answer to any corrupt, pot-bellied establishment fat cats on the Hill.More obviously – on the Republican side, at least – is that certain candidates have upped the ante in terms of what constitutes an outsider. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are pure political outsiders, in that this is their first time running for office, and they seem to only get stronger by saying ludicrous things that they can spin as “outside-the-box.” Next to Trump and Carson, Walker and Perry looked less like outsiders and more like standard politicians.
Or worse, career politicians.
Of course, it may just be a coincidence – it wouldn’t be the only thing that makes this a weird cycle – and maybe the gubernatorial advantage will return in 2020. But at least for now, some of the traditional assumptions about governors’ paths to the White House clearly don’t seem to apply.