Fewer incumbent governors are seeking reelection

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; A01

It's a grim time to be a governor.

With state budgets in their worst shape since the Great Depression, nearly every one of them has had to spend the past few years slashing popular programs, laying off workers, draining rainy-day funds and, in some cases, raising taxes. Those bright campaign promises made in flusher times are a faded memory.

So it is no surprise that almost half the nation's battered governors will be heading for the exits this year. Some are leaving by choice, some because of term limits, others because they would be shown the door in November.

Yet amid all this turnover, some familiar faces are showing up -- looking older, grayer and balder than the last time we saw them.

This year, no fewer than five former governors are seeking to win back their old jobs.

"My wife's first reaction was, 'Are you crazy?' " Republican Terry Branstad said of his decision to leave his post as president of Des Moines University.

Branstad -- who became the youngest governor in Iowa history after he was elected in 1982 and was the longest-serving by the time he left in 1999 -- is leading in polls against Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, whose approval ratings are stuck in the 30s.

The other past and possibly future governors: Democrat Jerry Brown of California, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland, Democrat Roy Barnes of Georgia and Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon.

Gubernatorial elections will be held in 37 states this year. But only 13 incumbents are running -- and six of them are in races that are considered tossups, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. That means the incoming crop of new state executives is expected to be the biggest in half a century.

For all the challenges that governors face in today's treacherous environment, it remains, in many ways, the best job in politics. "You don't have to carry all the burdens of the presidency, and you're an executive with the power to impose an agenda," said Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor at Rutgers University who is writing a book about governors.

(PostPolitics: 2nd Quarter Fundraising totals)

"If you have a certain personality type, it makes sense" to want the office, Ehrlich agreed. "Governors have real impact in a more immediate way, as opposed to Congress, where I was for eight years."

These ex-governors offer a kind of comfort food for a stressed-out electorate: a familiar flavor that evokes a less troubled time. And in this anti-incumbent climate, they can also say that they are not part of the current problem. Barnes, for instance, is trying to capture the best-of-both vibe by running as an "outsider with experience."

Among them, only Brown, now California's attorney general, currently holds office. His political career -- through two terms as governor, three failed bids for the presidency and one for the Senate, along with stints as state Democratic Party chairman and mayor of Oakland -- has been quirky enough to defy any association with the establishment. Many people in California today weren't alive in 1974, when Brown was elected to his first term as governor.

Things have changed

Those who have been out of the game for a while are learning that some things about politics have changed. Branstad acknowledges that he lets his staff handle his Twitter feed. And his reference to Medicaid as "the Pac-Man of the state budget" could stand a little updating.

Other rituals are eternal. A recent morning found Branstad at the Iowa State Fair, flipping chops at the pork producers' tent and showing a steer.

Nostalgia, however, can get former governors only so far. They also have records to defend -- even if they are dusty ones.

Barnes, for instance, had been considered a rising Democratic star with national prospects. But he alienated so many Georgia constituencies -- teachers, suburbanites, rural voters, supporters of the old state flag with its Confederate symbol -- that Republicans nicknamed him "King Roy," and voters turned him out of office in a surprising 2002 upset.

His first television ad, which aired in May, showed him sitting in the pew of an empty church. It might just as well have been in a confessional. "As governor, my heart was in the right place," Barnes said. "But I didn't listen or slow down to explain why I had to make some difficult decisions. For that, I apologize."

Voters in Barnes's increasingly GOP state are undecided about whether they are ready to forgive; handicappers are calling his race, against former congressman Nathan Deal, a tossup.

But former state senator Bobby Rowan (D), a longtime Georgia politician, said: "The things he tried to do, as we look back on them, people are saying, 'Maybe Barnes was right -- education and jobs for Georgia.' He is the only Democrat who would have a chance of winning in November."

Kitzhaber -- whose Republican opponent is former Portland Trail Blazers center Chris Dudley -- is having to live down his declaration, as he left office in 2003, that Oregon had become ungovernable. He said the state suffered "a failure in governance -- apparent inability of our public institutions to deal in a timely and effective manner with the problems confronting us as a nation and as a society."

Since then, he said, he has seen the arrival of "a lot of young people in the legislature who are really hungry for [progress]. There's great jeopardy in this moment in time, but there's also great opportunity."

Back in the game

Of the five, only Ehrlich -- who is running against Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) -- faces a rematch with the man who beat him. "After 2008, I thought it would probably be an impossible race to win," he said. "The country and the state moved so far left." But unlike Branstad's wife, Ehrlich's was "more for it than me."

And as he made the rounds of Republican club meetings, Ehrlich said, he began seeing crowds of 300 and 400 where only a few dozen had been before. He recalled that he began to think: "My ideas are more in vogue. Who knows?"

Given what governors will face in the next few years -- a continued deterioration of state finances, the implementation of a big new health-care system and the loss of stimulus funding -- it may be Brown who has the best understanding of what a new governor will be up against.

That preparation came not from his time in Sacramento, but from his 3 1/2 years training to be a Jesuit priest. As Brown once put it: "The 12th rule is to let him in all things seek his greater mortification and continuing abnegation."

Staff writer Michael W. Savage contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company