Members Looking to Gubernatorial Runs

Posted November 17, 2004 at 6:41pm

Although the potential gubernatorial candidacies of New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine (D) and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) have drawn the most media attention, more than one-third of all states selecting governors in 2006 have a Member of Congress considering a bid.

Of the 36 states that will hold gubernatorial elections in 2006, Members of Congress are mentioned as potential or likely candidates in 14, including such high-profile races as Florida, Ohio and Texas.

It should be noted that not every candidate mentioned at this early stage will make a run. Many such candidates, while ideal, are considered longshots to mount a campaign.

Several strategists who have handled prior gubernatorial bids by Members said that gubernatorial races are becoming a more attractive option for Members of Congress this cycles.

Especially in the wake of the presidential loss by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the most ambitious Members of Congress, especially those in the Senate, increasingly believe that the governorship is a superior launching pad for a presidential bid. The last sitting Senator to be elected president was Sen. John Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1960.

In addition, the increasingly partisan climate in the House and Senate appears to be alienating politicians on both sides of the aisle, making life frustrating for those who came to Washington to get things done.

“The willingness of more Members to look for higher office shows how partisan it is here,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

Another factor: Members who have run for governor in the past two cycles have done well for themselves.

In 2002, five sitting House Members and a sitting Senator ran for governor, and five of the six won. The winners were: Reps. Bob Riley (R-Ala.), Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.), Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and John Baldacci (D-Maine.). Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) also was victorious.

Only Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.) was defeated. (Former Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent (R), who resigned his seat to focus on the governor’s race, also lost.)

The following year, then-Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) won his race for the Bluegrass State’s open gubernatorial seat.

Looking beyond the past two years provides much more mixed results, however.

In 2000, Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.) ousted an incumbent Republican governor, but then-Reps. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and David McIntosh (R-Ind.) both lost their gubernatorial races.

In 1999, former Rep. Mike Parker (R-Miss.) lost what had been seen as a sure-bet gubernatorial race to then-Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D).

The 1998 cycle was even worse. That year four Members ran for governor, with only then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) emerging victorious.

Republican consultant Jon Lerner, who served as the lead consultant in the successful gubernatorial campaign of former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) in 2002, said that a Member’s chances depend heavily on the size of the state he or she chooses to run in.

“If it’s a big state, a House Member really has low name identification,” said Lerner.

Yang agreed, adding that a House Member in a large state is “no better off than a state Senator in some cases.”

An exception to that rule is if the House Member comes from a population center in a large state. Blagojevich, who was a Yang client in 2002, fits that category.

Blagojevich’s 5th district seat, which he held from 1996 to 2002, took in the north side of Chicago — a key area in both the Democratic primary and general election.

It’s a myth that Members of Congress tend to have have a fundraising edge over other would-be governors, Lerner said.

“It’s not nearly the advantage you get running for the Senate,” said Lerner. “Various interest groups that take an interest in you as a Member of Congress have a lot less concern about you on the state level.”

Any potential fundraising edge for sitting Members has been further eroded by an advisory opinion issued earlier this year by the Federal Election Commission that prohibits federal campaign committees from making unlimited money transfers to state accounts.

Still, despite the apparent historical and financial roadblocks, a number of Members in both chambers are actively considering bids.

Corzine, who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last cycle, is widely expected to run for governor next year in the Garden State.

Hutchison continues to contemplate a primary challenge to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) but is not expected to make a decision before the summer. (See related story, this page)

Other Senators mentioned as possible 2006 gubernatorial candidates include: Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R), Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) — though all are considered unlikely to make the jump.

On the House side, Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Nussle has publicly acknowledged an interest in a gubernatorial bid when the seat comes open in 2006.

“He is going to continue considering it,” said Nussle’s political director, Nick Ryan. “He does not plan on making a decision until the spring of this year.”

While Nussle is one of only a few House Members to publicly acknowledge his interest in a gubernatorial race, he joins a long list of those believed to be mulling races.

Republican Reps. Tom Osborne (Neb.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) Bob Beauprez (Colo.), Jim Gibbons (Nev.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) are all mentioned as gubernatorial candidates.

Democratic House Members mentioned as 2006 governor candidates include: Reps. Jim Davis (Fla.), Mike Ross (Ark.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ted Strickland (Ohio).

One Democrat who took his name out of consideration for a gubernatorial run this week was New York Sen. Charles Schumer. Schumer agreed to take the reins of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, effectively forestalling what seemed poised to be a bitter primary against state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.