The Governor Gap
By David S. Broder
It is hardly news that, outside of the White House, Republicans now dominate government in the United States. Democrats are in the minority in the House, the Senate and the governorships. While Democrats hold more city halls, Republicans run the two biggest municipalities, Los Angeles and New York.
The gap is greatest in the governorships, with Republicans controlling 32 of them to the Democrats' 17, along with independent Angus King of Maine. What was brought home during the meeting of the National Governors' Association (NGA) in Washington last weekend is that the difference is not just one of numbers but of quality.
You can make the case that Democratic congressional leaders are at least a match for their Republican counterparts. But when it comes to the governors, it's a real mismatch. Watching a dozen of the Democrats participate in a group news conference during the NGA meeting, a veteran of the Clinton White House whispered to me, "It's remarkable how few of them can even speak."
That's an exaggeration, but not much. And its significance spills into national politics. It would be logical for Vice President Gore, if he heads the Democratic ticket in 2000, to look for a running mate from outside Washington, where he has spent his entire public career.
But ask yourself which Democratic governor might plausibly be his partner, and you come up empty.
The contrast on the Republican side is dramatic. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is leading many of the presidential polls. California Gov. Pete Wilson is gearing for a second White House try. And the current Republican governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and perhaps other states are plausible choices for No. 2, no matter who heads the GOP ticket.
These things go in cycles. When Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton moved from the governorships of Massachusetts and Arkansas, respectively, to the Democratic presidential nominations of 1988 and 1992, both were part of a remarkable generation of Democratic state executives. The same was true in the 1970s with Jimmy Carter of Georgia and his contemporaries.
Today, the Democrats' pool of state talent seems remarkably dry. In the last gubernatorial election cycle, Republicans won almost all the big prizes except Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Florida's Lawton Chiles and Georgia's Zell Miller are retiring this year, and their successors may well be Republicans. North Carolina's Jim Hunt, who has been governor for 14 of the last 22 years, continues to be a pace-setter, especially on education issues. But ever since he lost the Senate race to Jesse Helms in 1984, his national star has dimmed.
Democrats have able leaders in several smaller states, notably Delaware, whose Gov. Tom Carper has just become chairman of the NGA. But their strongest veteran, Roy Romer of Colorado, is term-limited out this year, and their most promising newcomer, Gary Locke of Washington, is still getting his sea legs in his second year in office.
Democrats have possibilities of gaining open big-state governorships in November in California, Illinois and Ohio, but the current leaders in all three Democratic primary polls are men who have lost major races already.
In key states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York, where Republican Govs. Bush, Tom Ridge, John Engler and George Pataki are seeking reelection, the Democratic challengers trail badly in early polls. And even in places like Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the underlying Democratic strength is great and the challengers well-known, Republican incumbents are looking strong.
The Republican bench, already deep, may be even stronger after November. Governors like Utah's Mike Leavitt and Montana's Marc Racicot, Oklahoma's Frank Keating and South Carolina's David Beasley draw less attention than their big-state colleagues but have compiled records that make them plausible choices for a future Republican Cabinet.
And then there is Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, who will be the nation's senior governor in terms of continuous service if he wins his expected reelection to a fourth four-year term in November. When the NGA goes to Milwaukee for its meeting this summer, Thompson will show off a state whose 150th birthday finds it with fewer than 40,000 of its 5 million people on welfare and virtually no unemployment. State finances are so good Thompson can offer $3,000-a-child tax deductions for college costs and test-pilot a program that will help thousands of families meet the burden of long-term care for elderly parents.
The Democrats should be so lucky.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company