The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidelined on the national stage, U.S. governors are frustrated with Washington

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, left, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, right, listen to former Maryland congressman John Delaney speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate last week in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — The nation’s governors are frustrated.

Overshadowed by President Trump and turned off by hyper-partisanship in Washington, governors, who were once the talent pool of America’s political parties, are finding themselves increasingly sidelined in the national debate.

The bipartisan angst, playing out in the presidential contest and in state capitals across the country, is driven by a widely held belief among chief executives that their accomplishments are going unnoticed as pundits and news media seem solely focused on events in Washington. As a result, some are choosing to walk away from a national political stage that they view as too divisive, while others strategize about how to reinsert themselves in the nation’s affairs.

In the states, “the conversation, the discussion and the dialogue is healthy, and [Washington] has moved away from that,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R). “They need to do what governors do. They need to sit down at the table, and they need to talk about issues, and we need to find some common ground. . . . This inability to do that is not healthy for this country.”

For the first time in a generation, political observers say, polls show no sitting or former governor is a front-runner for either political party’s nomination battle, at least so far. Experts say national politics is losing the bipartisan influence and executive experience that governors once brought to the table.

“Governors are the most important people in the country. . . . They should be at the forefront,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and longtime Democratic strategist and fundraiser. “Nothing happens in Washington, and all the action is in the states.”

As Americans were fixated on former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony before Congress last month, governors were huddled in Salt Lake City for their annual summer meeting to tout their bipartisan work to expand health care, invest in highways and build up local economies, including the nation’s booming $412 billion outdoor recreational industry.

But as they spoke to a sparse bank of television news cameras, the governors seemed well aware that few people outside of the room would hear their message, even though one of the speakers, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, is a Democratic candidate for president.

Bullock, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper are running for the Democratic nomination but have largely been overshadowed in a crowded field where U.S. senators, a former vice president and even a mayor have attracted the most attention. On the Republican side, Maryland’s popular governor, Larry Hogan, had considered challenging Trump for the GOP nomination but concluded he was unlikely to win.

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The governors’ relative absence from the national stage, though, extends far deeper than their diminished presidential ambitions. In recent months, they have rarely appeared on Sunday morning talk shows, and political observers say few are positioned to be high-profile surrogates for their party’s nominee in the general election.

The governors’ reduced national exposure can be partially traced to the relative inexperience of the latest class of state executives. After the 2018 midterm elections, 22 governors took office for the first time, including seven Democrats who took over in states previously represented by Republican governors.

But many say their challenges have more to do with the nation’s political culture in the Trump era than with experience.

“Clearly, Trump has changed the dynamic profoundly and sucked all of the oxygen out of the middle,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). “We are in the middle, the hyperlocal where the people are, and it’s difficult for governors to break through, even though that is where the real work is being done.”

Starting in the 1970s, with the political rise of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, both of whom had been governors, the nation’s state leaders defined an American political system that valued executive experience. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president after serving five terms as governor of Arkansas. He was succeeded by George W. Bush, who had been governor of Texas.

More recently, during Barack Obama’s presidency, governors still formed a major component of the nationwide political discussion, with Republicans such as Rick Perry of Texas, Jeb Bush of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey dominating the GOP opposition.

But Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about governors for decades, said Trump’s election demonstrates that voters may no longer prioritize that experience.

“We used to call governors ‘little presidents of states,’ and it was a perfect preparation to be president, except on the foreign affairs side,” Sabato said. “Now, I don’t think most Democrats can even name any of the governors running for president, and the answer as to why is, we’ve moved on from governing being a prerequisite to being president, and there is almost an advantage to not having serious responsibility and not having a record that can be attacked.”

In the Democratic primary for president, Bullock, Inslee and Hickenlooper have struggled to gain traction, even as they point to an array of bipartisan achievements.

During Tuesday’s debate, Hickenlooper accused Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) of pushing “radical” plans for health care that, if enacted, could become the governors’ responsibility to administer.

“Us governors and mayors are the ones, we have to pick up all the pieces,” Hickenlooper said.

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Among Republicans, Sabato said, some governors are reluctant to insert themselves in the national political process because they fear offending Trump, who has been known to lash out at his critics.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) used to be a familiar face on national news programs when he was a member of Congress from 1997 to 2001. But as a governor, Hutchinson has largely shied from the national spotlight, even though he has disagreed with Trump on trade policy with China and Mexico.

“When you have a president of your own party, the president is the national spokesperson who takes the lead on issues,” said Hutchinson, who also served in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005. “The governors . . . express themselves, but we don’t have the same national profile, and that is just the nature of how politics work in America.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said residents expect governors to stay at home more than in the past. The federal government shutdown in January, as well as Trump’s chaotic approach to governing, has her constituents demanding that state leaders do more to prove the state is well-managed, she said.

“There is a renewed commitment to, ‘What are we doing here? How are we protecting ourselves?’ ” Lujan Grisham said. “People really want to see you doing the work that they believe makes a difference.”

Calling the unease among governors “palpable,” Hogan said one of his top priorities as the new chairman of the National Governors Association will be elevating the executives’ national profile.

The NGA, which represents the 55 governors of states and territories, recently hired an executive director to help lead the effort.

“The noise gets the attention, but most of America is tuning it all out,” Hogan said. “And that’s the opportunity that the governors have: To say, ‘Yeah, maybe we ought to pay attention to these guys, who are the 50 or 55 most powerful people in America.’ ”

Newsom, for example, recently huddled with several governors to discuss ways to more forcefully set a nationwide policy agenda, even if it means challenging the Trump administration.

Last week, four automakers struck a deal with California to produce fleets that are more fuel-efficient than the guidelines that had been proposed by the Trump administration. California had the backing of 23 other states, and Newsom said he wants to expand that cooperation to other hot-button issues like immigration and social policies, in hopes of forcing the federal government’s hand.

“It’s an exciting space to be in,” Newsom said, “because it’s not a Twitter war.”