At least 10 current and former governors, from both parties, are in some stage of preparation for a run for president. Without exception, their records give them something to run on — and their opponents something to run against. Opposition researchers are salivating at the opportunity to highlight the inevitable flubs, foibles and failings that any governor faces.
“They’re much more closely associated with state stats” during their tenure, Ed Mullen, a Republican opposition research expert, said of governors who run for higher office. “If your record is good, then you’re fine. But there’s always going to be bad stuff.”
Governors’ records have helped both parties define their opponents in recent election cycles. Mitt Romney weathered Democratic accusations that Massachusetts, under his watch, ranked 47th in the nation in job creation. The devastating Willie Horton ad that accused another former Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, of allowing a convicted murderer out on furlough was one of a series of television spots run by George H.W. Bush’s campaign that targeted Dukakis’s record as governor. Other spots highlighted Massachusetts’s jobs record and pollution in Boston Harbor.
The blemishes fall broadly into three categories: decisions the governors have made that will hurt them with a party’s base, decisions that will hurt with the general electorate, and outside factors over which governors have little control.
“Some things a governor can control and some things they can’t, but they are all part of the record for which they will be held accountable,” said Jeff Berkowitz, a former research director at the Republican National Committee.
No one has felt the sting of going against his own party’s base more than former Texas governor Rick Perry (R), whose 2012 presidential campaign unraveled after he stood up for a bill he signed to allow in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who came to Texas as children. His defense of that measure, during a debate, began his precipitous fall from the front-runner’s perch even before his “oops” moment.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) has campaigned across the country for Common Core, the education standards that have become a lightening rod for conservatives. Bush also encouraged Republicans to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, another third rail for conservative activists.
Though all Republican governors profess to despise the Affordable Care Act, several who are considering runs for president have opted to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in their states, which their rivals will use to paint them as sympathetic to the law. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) approved a temporary expansion in 2013. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) unilaterally expanded Medicaid in 2014. And Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) approved an alternative to Medicaid expansion last month.
Christie has long faced conservative skepticism by virtue of his home state’s blue tint. He has defended New Jersey’s gun-control laws over the objections of pro-gun organizations, and the conservative Judicial Crisis Network spent $75,000 in online ads critical of his judge nominees when he made his first trip to Iowa last year.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has gotten on the right side of conservative activists in the Common Core debate after flirting with the program in its infancy. But his record falls into the second category as his state’s budget slips into the red, even as most states project budget surpluses. Louisiana is projected to face a $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year, which observers say is largely a product of his policies. Jindal became governor in a year in which Louisiana experienced a $1 billion surplus.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) would have to defend the 40 tax increases he signed into law, covering everything from the sales tax to the gas tax and the income tax. That record, observers say, is part of the reason Gov. Larry Hogan (R), beat O’Malley’s lieutenant governor in a surprise upset in 2014.
Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) both face legal battles that could weigh on the minds of general-election voters. Prosecutors have been conducting a John Doe investigation of Walker’s 2012 recall election win for more than two years, though recent rulings put the investigation in jeopardy. Perry is under indictment for alleged abuse of office, though even some Democrats question whether he is a victim of an overly zealous prosecutor.
The global economic recession and preexisting budget and pension constraints will give almost any governor’s opponents an opening. Agencies such as Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating seven times while Christie has been in office.
In Wisconsin, Walker faces a $1.8 billion budget shortfall as tax revenue has struggled to recover. He also pledged to create 250,000 new jobs during his first term, a promise on which he fell far short. In Maryland, Hogan has already ordered cuts to deal with a $1.2 billion shortfall handed to him.
Strategists helping some of those governors plot their approach to 2016 say that, on balance, a governing record is a positive — but those governors have to use their record to look ahead, rather than behind.
“They’re all going to want to make the case that while Washington, D.C., is broken, real conservative reform is taking place at the state level,” Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association who is now helping Christie’s campaign, said of governors running for president. “But at the end of the day, elections are about the future. The most successful candidates are those who connect their record with a clear vision for where they want to lead the country.”