There was a time in American politics when being a governor counted for something in presidential campaigns, when being a state executive seemed to offer voters the combination of attributes they prized in their presidents. Today, the story is much different.
This past week, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, heading to the sidelines months before the first votes are even cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. He will now seek a third term as governor.
A week earlier, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper dropped out. He has now shifted his sights to a Senate race in 2020. The Inslee and Hickenlooper departures leave Montana Gov. Steve Bullock as the sole governor among the many Democrats seeking the nomination.
There are reasons the path is harder for governors today. There is less attention paid to the states than there once was. The political press corps is focused principally on Capitol Hill. Cable television is wedded to an Acela corridor conversation. President Trump has great power to set the national conversation.
At a time when celebrity status counts, governors must work harder to become known. The National Governors Association has atrophied; its members attract less national attention than they once did. There is less interest in whatever policy innovation is taking place in the states. Beyond that, governors don’t start their campaigns with millions of dollars transferred from a federal account.
Each of the three Democratic governors believed that he brought something valuable to the campaign. For Inslee, it was elevating the issue of climate change. For Hickenlooper, it was to warn against the party’s leftward shift and to promote his collegial style of leadership as an alternative to Trump.
Bullock argues that someone who has won in a red state and has still been able to enact progressive policies is exactly the profile Democrats will need to win where they need to in 2020. But like Hickenlooper and Inslee, Bullock has not qualified for the next debate in Houston.
His message will be missing from that stage. He thinks that’s a loss for the process but remains undaunted. “If the rules are the rules,” he said in an interview, “well, that’s not going to deter me because I don’t think that the debates ultimately are going to decide Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.”
The struggles among the governors follow a pattern that, with one exception, has marked presidential nominating contests since 2004. From that campaign forward to today, a slew of governors or former governors have sought either the Republican or Democratic presidential nomination. Only Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts and now a member of the Senate, claimed a nomination, on his second attempt. He then lost the 2012 general election to then-President Barack Obama.
While it’s obvious that only one person each cycle can win the nomination, what’s striking is the degree to which many governors performed poorly in recent competitions. In 2016, among the first to quit the GOP nomination contest were then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas governor Rick Perry, two of their party’s most prominent state executives.
Other governors who lasted longer four years ago eventually wilted against Trump and quit after poor finishes in early states. Among them were Jeb Bush of Florida, seen as the early favorite to claim the nomination; Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had once been touted as the party’s future hope; and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who had won the Iowa caucuses and several other states in 2008. All were gone by February 2016. John Kasich of Ohio won his home state primary and persevered longer but never presented a real challenge to Trump. Others were never taken seriously.
Compare that period with the three-decade span between 1976 and 2008, when four of the five presidents during those years had been governors: Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas. The only president during that time who had not served as a governor was George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president. He served one term and then lost to Clinton in 1992.
The governors offered two things that appealed to voters in that era. The first was executive experience. For the most demanding office in the world, having run a state, even a small one, counted for something. Second, at a time of growing disillusionment with Washington, governors could claim they were outsiders and not part of whatever mess needed cleaning up in the capital.
Carter was elected after Watergate and after Vietnam, two events that soured the public on Washington and its politicians. Carter’s presidency lasted only a single term, as he lost badly to Reagan in 1980, but that did not sour voters on looking to governors. But each of the subsequent governors who became president had an extra quality.
Reagan, who had previously run for president, led California at the height of its rise to status as a nation-state. He had also become the leader of an ascendant conservative movement that would change the Republican Party and the country.
Clinton had governed for a decade in a smaller, poorer state and had built a national network of political friends. He also had natural political talents and prevailed in a year in which several prominent Democrats — including then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — chose not to run because the first Bush looked unbeatable.
George W. Bush had the family name of a previous president and electoral success in the Lone Star State. Not insignificantly, early in the cycle he consolidated support among his fellow governors, who were the party’s stars when Republicans in Washington were suffering from their own missteps.
It was expected that many governors would seek the Republican nomination in 2016. Their ranks had increased dramatically in the 2010 midterms, and the group elected that year included people who were on a conservative mission and who had big national ambitions. But Trump had something they did not — a huge celebrity profile and a determination to rewrite the rules of how nominations are won.
Today’s Democratic governors have been faced with an even more challenging environment, given the declining focus on the states and a changing Democratic Party. Consider the competition.
Two white men with existing national profiles, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), began the race well known to Democratic voters. Beyond that, the Democratic field for the first time includes many female candidates, including four senators: Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). The Democratic field also includes two black candidates — Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.).
Given the makeup of the Democratic field, the three white, male governors, who began with limited resources and little national name identification, have found it harder than ever to be distinctive enough to attract a big audience.
Governors today may be no less prepared for the Oval Office than they were in the past. But they appear to have lost advantages they once had in winning their party’s nominations and the White House.