Being a governor isn’t what it used to be, at least not in presidential politics.
Three Western executives are learning that the hard way in a crowded Democratic scramble dominated by former Vice President Joe Biden and a gaggle of nationally known senators.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a late entry into the field of two dozen, failed to qualify for Democrats’ first debates later this month. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will be among the 20 candidates spread across two debate nights in Miami, but both men linger at 1 percent in most national and early state polls, looking up at a leaderboard showing Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts trying to catch Biden.
“When you think of a governor, you think of a competent manager, and voters don’t want a competent manager,” said Bill Richardson, a former Democratic governor of New Mexico who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. “They want excitement and inspiration and electability.”
Indeed, Biden’s pitch leans on the notion that he’s the best shot to defeat President Donald Trump. Sanders, a democratic socialist, represents a sweeping ideological shift, as does the unabashedly liberal Warren. She and Harris also would be historic, with either being the first woman to win the presidency.
Biden’s next closest competitors are a pair of young politicians arguing for generational change: former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 47, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, of South Bend, Indiana. Neither has held statewide office, but each outpaces Bullock, Hickenlooper and Inslee in fundraising and polling.
That group’s jockeying so far swallowed the governors’ efforts: Inslee’s emphasis on combating climate change and his liberal record in Washington; Bullock’s case as a Democrat who can win over more conservative areas; and Hickenlooper’s successful terms in a battleground state.
Touting those kinds of accomplishments, Richardson said, “was a relative plus” in national campaigns not long ago. “Today,” he added, “it’s not a negative, but it’s not a big factor.”
From Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977 until George W. Bush left office in 2009, four out of five presidents were former governors: Carter in Georgia, Ronald Reagan in California, Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Bush in Texas. The lone exception was Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, who ascended from the vice president’s office under Reagan.
But the last two winners have rewritten the rules of presidential resumes. Former President Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois when he was elected in 2008. Trump hadn’t held public office at all. And through their consecutive tenures, U.S. politics has become markedly more nationalized.
Fights among White House and Capitol Hill players drive news cycles and transfix voters more than action at statehouses, where bipartisan deals are more common even in states dominated by one party. The Washington environment has helped elevate senators like Harris and Warren, building their name identification and their grassroots fundraising lists, and that feeds right into a primary season driven by the party’s more strident base.
The governors are left looking for ways to grab the spotlight as they also reveal some frustrations that their records aren’t getting more attention.
Bullock touts his ability to guide an expansion of Medicaid insurance through a Republican-dominated legislature. Getting that Medicaid reauthorization this year, he notes, was the primary reason he delayed getting into the race, a decision that ended up leaving him short in the fundraising and polling metrics required to make the first debate. In recent days, Bullock has played up his state’s legal fight with the Trump administration over campaign finance rules and, in recent days, has gone on the offensive against the Democratic National Committee for how it’s handled debate qualifications.
Inslee is hammering the DNC, as well, for not mandating that at least one of a planned dozen primary debates focuses exclusively on climate change.
Hickenlooper this week resorted to picking a fight with Sanders over the senator’s socialist views. After Sanders delivered a major address on his political and economic philosophy, Hickenlooper quickly retooled a speech he was scheduled to give about a well-regarded Colorado birth control plan he helped implement to instead attack Sanders’ democratic socialism.
He often says in campaign stops, “I am the only person running who has actually done what everyone else is just talking about.” And in response to a recent question from a reporter about his lagging poll numbers, Hickenlooper said he wins over Democratic voters when talking to them in Iowa living rooms. “That tells me that my problem is not what I’m selling, it’s how do I get this information to the buyer?” he said.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who tracks presidential races, said the governors lack a potential advantage, given a thriving national economy that gives them less of a cudgel against Trump and less oxygen for whatever success stories they’re trying to tell from home. “You can’t say ‘I’ve revived my economy’ because the economy is doing well.”
She also noted that former Presidents Carter and Clinton campaigned as governors from a key electoral region, since the South in the late 20th century still played a pivotal role in swinging the Electoral College. Now, the crucial region is the Rust Belt, particularly Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Even as Bullock touts his Trump-state success, that electoral map leaves candidates like Biden, a Pennsylvania native, or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to tout their credentials.
The barriers even extend to logistics. Bullock was recently scheduled to appear from Iowa on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” But flying from Montana required a stop in Denver, and he ultimately missed the national exposure when weather delayed one of his flights.
John Weaver, who advised then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s Republican presidential campaign in 2016, said trends are unfortunate for governors but advised against the temptation of jumping into the Washington-driven skirmish of the day.
“They’ve got to find a place early in the calendar where they can make a move … beat expectations,” he said, noting that Kasich finished second to Trump in New Hampshire.
Weaver added that such a time investment takes discipline and forgoing a dependence on “viral moments” that are as reliable as “planning to be struck by lightning.” A presidential campaign “is a grind” for any candidate, Weaver added, and for governors, the only path is “to pick your fights” and “to thine own self be true.”