Governors Once Ruled The Presidential Landscape. Now They’re Absent.
With less than a month before the first voters cast their ballots, not a single governor or former governor is seriously contending for the Democratic presidential nomination ― the first time in decades such state executives have been relegated to afterthought status so early in the primary process.
Between 1960 and 2008, every elected president had served as either vice president or as a governor before ascending to the nation’s highest office. But over the past decade, governors in both parties have struggled to match the popularity of senators and business executives as presidential candidates.
In this year’s Democratic primary, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper all entered and exited the race without making a serious impact. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who entered the race late, is barely registering. No current or former governor qualified for Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Iowa ― indeed, none has appeared on one of the debate stages since July.
The absence of a prominent candidate with experience as a state executive governors from this year’s crop of Democratic presidential contenders has a multitude of causes. Changes in the media landscape have made it harder for politicians outside of Washington to attract substantial followings. The “outsider” positioning and rhetoric that was once governors’ bread-and-butter has been adopted by others. And according to operatives who worked on this year’s presidential campaigns, the Democratic National Committee’s rule-making made it harder for governors to qualify for the debate stage.
“A lot of these candidates, including senators and even mayors, have stolen a bit of that gubernatorial thunder by not having a long track record when running,” said Saladin Ambar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of “How Governors Built The Modern Presidency.” “There’s a desire for outsiders, but if everybody can be an outsider, it dilutes the role governors have traditionally played.”
Some Democrats see governors’ decreased standing in the party as a distressing long-term trend, one that could hurt the party by placing less emphasis on candidates with a history of crafting policy and running an administration.
“It makes me really sad to say this, but the less of a record you have, the better off you are in national politics,” Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democratic Party in Iowa, said not long after Bullock dropped out of the race in early December. “Candidates with shorter records are doing better, because there’s less to pick over.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an unsuccessful contender in the 2016 Democratic race, was blunter: “We’d rather be well-entertained than well-governed. We’d rather emote than think. We’d rather be lied to than led,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Both former Govs. Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976 and Ronald Reagan of California in 1980 were able to cast themselves as reformers who could clean up a broken, corrupt Washington. But in the 2020 campaign, a host of non-governor candidates ― including Pete Buttigieg (who just left office as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana), Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have successfully managed to claim outsider status in one way or another ― as Donald Trump did in 2016.
Instead, Bullock and Hickenlooper tried to portray themselves as competent managers who had won and made real but incremental progressive gains in their states. Inslee, meanwhile, ran a campaign focused almost solely on combatting global warming, making him a darling of progressives ― but not enough of one to lift him past Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But all the governors faced a similar challenge. They began with essentially no national name identification, and they struggled to catch the attention of a national press corps and cable bookers intimately familiar with the Warren, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. While this trap isn’t impossible to break out of ― see Buttigieg, Pete ― Bullock, Hickenlooper and Inslee essentially became part of a mass of indistinguishable white men seeking the nomination.
“The race for name identification was largely determined by newsrooms located in the 202 or 212 area codes” (the ones for Washington and New York), said Jared Leopold, a former communications director for the Democratic Governors’ Association who worked for Inslee’s bid for president.
O’Malley explicitly blamed the media’s preference for ideological conflict as a reason more the pragmatic-oriented governors struggled.
“There are two things a candidate needs to even offer a viable candidacy for president: Great personal wealth or the ability to alienate as many viewers as she/he excites,” he said. “Good governors — by which I mean those with a track record of accomplishing important things in difficult times — would not have been successful in office if they alienated as many people as they excited.”
The DNC rules for debate qualification, meanwhile, required every White House candidate to accumulate 65,000 unique donors, which forced the governors ― who have smaller national followings ― to dedicate extensive resources to digital ads designed to solicit small donations. (Leopold estimated that the email list for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who ended her presidential bid in August, was 15 times larger than Inslee’s at the start of the campaign.)
An additional problem for Democratic governors as the 2020 campaign geared up: their small numbers across the nation. Until a rebound in the 2018 election gave a majority of states a Democratic state executive, that number had dipped to all-time lows.
Democrats have not effectively cultivated the party “at the state and local level for decades now. It’s a pretty weak bench of candidates,” Ambar said. “They’ve been asleep at the wheel.”
Indicating how little importance Democratic Party regulars often place on governor’s races, the Democratic Governors’ Association’s recent online fundraising letters have not stressed how winning in a red state could lead to Medicaid expansion or how giving Democrats total control over a blue state could lead to a minimum wage hike. Instead, the appeals have focused on a series of “Democratic Straw Polls,” asking recipients who they would back in the presidential election.
In a statement, association spokesperson David Turner noted a number of recent successes by newly elected Democratic governors: In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has restored voting rights to 150,000 people; in Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly just struck a deal to expand Medicaid in her state.
“Democratic governors deliver results, and that was true of the candidates who were running for president,” Turner said. “It’s unfortunate their unique perspective on how to get things done is no longer a part of the conversation.”
The struggle among those with a gubernatorial background at the presidential level has been a bipartisan phenomenon. In the 2016 race for the GOP presidential nomination, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were expected to be major contenders. Instead, they were nonfactors as Trump romped to the nomination. (Then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich did manage to win 161 out of more than 2,400 available delegates.)
In a telling sign, the pitch from the one remaining former governor in the Democratic race ― Patrick ― is as much about his life experiences outside the governorship as it is about the eight years he spent running the Bay State. A minute-long ad from Reason To Believe, a super PAC backing his candidacy, opens with a focus on how Patrick’s family struggled economically when he was young and on his time working for the Justice Department before focusing on his governorship.
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