The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brief recent history of Republican governors seeking the presidency

Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at Young America’s Foundation on Sept. 22, 2021, in Reston, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In the past three decades, Republicans have won the presidency three times and the popular vote once. Two of those elections (and the one popular vote victory) were claimed by a former governor, George W. Bush of Texas. In the years since Bush won the popular vote, seven other Republican governors have sought the GOP nomination, two of them twice. One of them, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, earned his party’s nomination. None won the presidency.

What’s important, though, is that most of these governors, even beyond Romney, seemed to be viable contenders for the nomination. Five of them (including Romney, obviously) led in polling averages at some point between the preceding midterm election and the Iowa caucuses. And none became president.

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We must recognize that these numbers are tainted by two factors: a small sample size and 2016. The former is obvious; there have been only eight presidential elections in the past 30 years. The latter should be obvious, too. In 2016, a massive Republican field included five high-profile governors and former governors. Also in 2016, Republican politics reorganized around Donald Trump in a way that makes comparisons with the past trickier than they otherwise might be.

Nonetheless, given that Trump’s (likely) bid for the 2024 nomination faces its strongest opposition in the (likely) candidacy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, it’s useful to review the nine prior times governors tried to become president in the past four presidential cycles.

We can start in 2008, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee ran an unexpectedly strong campaign against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Huckabee was personable in a way McCain wasn’t and an outsider in a way McCain only tried to be. But, despite a late surge, he came up short. The stronger governor in that race was Romney, who trailed McCain the entire time but had a bigger core base of support than Huckabee.

That translated into success in 2012. But Romney’s nomination that year came only after he repeatedly took and lost the lead. That included a surge from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, at one point, climbed over 30 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average of polling. Perry had long been touted as a potential contender, given that he was following explicitly in George W. Bush’s footsteps. It all came crashing down during a debate in mid-November.

Romney won the nomination. In an echo of his party’s 2022 outcome, though, Romney lost the presidency despite party confidence and some pundit predictions.

Then came 2016. At different points in the race, three different governors seemed like viable contenders.

First there was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He won his 2013 reelection bid by more than 20 points, a show of strength in a blue state that prompted a lot of chatter. Very early on, he had a slight lead in the polling average. But his reelection success ran through the traffic-choked streets of Fort Lee, N.J., and Christie’s political support collapsed.

Then there was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He’d survived a recall effort in 2010 and won reelection in 2014 more narrowly than Christie. But he led in polling average for a month in the spring of 2015 before flaming out well before the primaries after burning through an enormous amount of money.

Finally, there was former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush, of the Bush Bushes, was backed by a nine-figure outside group and led for much of the period before July 2015, when Trump jumped into the race. He stuck around long enough to lose a few primaries before dropping out.

The governor who lasted the longest in 2016 was someone never seen as particularly viable: Ohio’s John Kasich. He stuck around through the Ohio primary, earning some delegates to the convention, although he never led the field and was never a contender to win enough delegates to earn the nomination. His approach, instead, was to be positioned to replace Trump if convention delegates desired, which they didn’t.

That brings us to DeSantis.

There are three things that make DeSantis’s position different from those of the governors listed above. The first is that he is not technically a candidate at this point. The second is that he has been consistently at or above 20 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, well above where most of the recent governor candidates found themselves. The third is that, despite that strength, DeSantis has never led, specifically because he remains in Trump’s shadow in polling.

Again: Post-2016 is unique! You’ll notice that I didn’t even bother including former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld in my list of contenders for the nomination since, when he ran in 2020, the GOP effectively boxed him out. Trump’s hold on the GOP has been robust, and DeSantis’s support is to some extent a reflection less of him than of his position as Someone Else — someone who conceivably can sneak past Trump to the nomination.

The former president is expected to announce his 2024 candidacy on Tuesday evening, the first time in a very long time that a former president will try to regain his old job and the first time ever that a president launched an unsuccessful effort to overthrow election results and then tried to take another bite of the apple. If Trump’s campaign should collapse or if he should ultimately decide against running, DeSantis is currently well-positioned.

Until, of course, other candidates enter the contest. Then DeSantis would find himself in a position familiar to Christie and (Jeb) Bush and Perry and Romney: scrambling to edge out potential contenders over more than a year of campaigning.

The only certainty in Republican presidential nominating contests, it seems, is that one should not be certain about what will happen.

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