They've raised eyebrows, created national controversies, settled national controversies, won elections, lost elections, stuck it to their political enemies and signed truces with their political enemies.
These governors know how to make news. And in a year in which a divided Congress wasn't doing much, these governors were framing the conversation around some of our nation's biggest controversies of 2016 (Donald Trump, race and ethnicity, gay rights vs. religious freedom, etc.). As such, their stories were among the most interesting of any politicians in 2016. Here are the most interesting governors, ranked in order of least to most:
5. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)
Before Teflon Trump, there was Bulletproof Paul LePage. The combative Maine governor has been elected twice despite his penchant for saying controversial things about, well, anything. In 2016, the term-limited LePage turned his controversy dial up to 11: He started out the year by saying drug dealers named D-Money, Smoothie and Shifty were coming up to Maine to impregnate “young white girl[s].”
He ended the year in much the same manner, facing backlash over his declaration that "90 percent” of drug dealers are “black and Hispanic,” leaving a profanity-laced voicemail rant to a state lawmaker, swearing off the news media and making unfounded accusations that the state's election was rigged. In the thick of the drama, LePage was uncharacteristically introspective when he suggested in August that it might be time to move on. To the U.S. Senate, perhaps?
4. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)
Call these governors the anti-Trump trio.
The three are among the only U.S. governors who explicitly said that they wouldn't be supporting Trump — and stuck with it. Crucially, they staked out their anti-Trump territory before the October release of his vulgar “Access Hollywood” hot-mic tape, which spurred Republicans everywhere, including a number of governors, to drop Trump like a hot potato.
These three were way ahead of the trend. Baker said in March that he wouldn't support Trump, after Republican primary voters in his state backed Trump by a margin of 31 points. As Republicans nationwide began to coalesce around Trump in June, Kasich dropped out of the presidential race and said of endorsing Trump that he “just can't do it.” Also in June, Hogan said he didn't plan to vote for Trump, either. (Side note: Hogan made our list of the most interesting governors last year, too, after battling an aggressive form of cancer.)
Trump obviously won. But — coincidence? All three are now among the most popular governors in the nation.
3. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)
Bullock could also be the nation's most underrated governor of 2016. The first-term Democratic governor defied the red trend in November. He won reelection against a self-funded billionaire even though his state went for Trump by nearly 21 points. He outperformed Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 14 points, a virtually unheard of margin.
All other statewide Democrats lost in Montana, which means Bullock is the only Democratic bulwark in a state controlled by Republicans and increasingly coloring itself red. His win put him on The Fix's Chris Cillizza's B List for potential 2020 presidential candidates: “If Democrats want to try to further their gains in the West, Bullock could be an appealing choice.”
2. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)
Haley's breakout moment actually came in 2015, in the wake of tragedy. After the racially motivated church shooting in Charleston in June 2015 that killed nine people, she called for the Confederate flag to be removed on statehouse grounds. And it was.
The nation's youngest current governor (she's 44) parlayed her political capital into 2016 by giving the GOP's response to President Obama's final State of the Union address, a speech widely viewed as a dig at Trump. She kept up the digs throughout the year, once describing Trump as “everything a governor doesn't want in a president.”
Then Trump won, and Haley promptly accepted a job in his administration. Although she has no foreign policy experience, Trump plans to nominate her as his ambassador to the United Nations, one of the most senior and high-profile foreign policy positions in the United States.
The truce was arguably a win-win for both: Haley is the first woman and the first minority Trump chose for his administration, and she would have been term-limited out of a job in 2018 anyway. But she managed to both start and end 2016 in the headlines.
1. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)
North Carolina's outgoing governor was in the national spotlight last year for all the wrong reasons. In March, the GOP legislature called a special session over his objection and rushed through a bill that limited what restrooms transgender people can use and cut off municipalities' ability to pass their own anti-LGBT-discrimination laws.
McCrory signed it and seemed unprepared for the backlash that followed. It came from all sides of the nation: Bruce Springsteen, PayPal and other businesses, NCAA, the NBA, Hollywood and gay rights groups all boycotted the state in some form.
McCrory's approval rating dropped as his opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), used the law to seize on a narrative that McCrory was bad for North Carolina's economy. Cut to election night, and Cooper declared victory with a less-than-1-percent margin. McCrory refused to concede. He spent the next few weeks scouring in vain for evidence of widespread voter fraud.
In the end, he was felled, becoming the first North Carolina governor to lose reelection and the only governor in 2016 to be knocked off. But on his way out the door, McCrory stirred up one last controversy by signing laws designed to limit his successor's power. Then, on the eve of his last day in office, a mysterious petition appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to stop special elections in 2017 that could help Democrats.