Their Electoral Success Defies Logic

Posted February 18, 2005 at 5:44pm

The gubernatorial class of 2002 was one of the most remarkable in recent memory, with candidates ousting the incumbent party in three of every five races contested. [IMGCAP(1)]

But even among this notable group there’s a subset of politicians who can boast an even more stunning achievement: candidates who not only ousted the party of their predecessor, but did so in states where their own party is not very popular. Including those who won off-year elections in 2001 and 2003, a total of 11 governors now serving fit this category.

They’re a strikingly bipartisan bunch. The Republicans have Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calif.), Linda Lingle (Hawaii), Bob Ehrlich (Md.), Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) and Jim Douglas (Vt.). The Democrats have Janet Napolitano (Ariz.), Kathleen Sebelius (Kan.), Brad Henry (Okla.), Phil Bredesen (Tenn.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Dave Freudenthal (Wyo.).

Just more than two years into their tenures (a bit more for Warner, a bit less for Schwarzenegger), each of these 11 governors has something in common: Like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials, voters in their states have decided that they like what they see — party label notwithstanding.

This is clearest in Vermont, where governors must run every two years. Last year, Douglas increased his winning margin from 3 points in 2002 to 21 points, even though Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) trounced President Bush by 20 points in the state.

Elsewhere, surveys show high marks for many of the others. In independent polls taken last month, Schwarzenegger had a 60 percent approval rating, Pawlenty was at 58 percent and Ehrlich was at 55 percent. In the latter third of 2004, Lingle posted a 56 percent approval rating while Napolitano pulled in 51 percent. Earlier in 2004, Bredesen chalked up an astonishing 72 percent.

Another telling sign: Few of the 10 who are running again in 2006 have attracted top-rank challengers to date (Virginia law limits Warner to one term). The exception is Ehrlich, who is expected to face either Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) or Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan (D). But for the others, the opposition is only theoretical, second-tier, or both.

For instance, in Minnesota, Pawlenty could ultimately be vulnerable; the GOP, weakened by charges of a “do-nothing” Legislature, nearly lost its state House majority in November. But Pawlenty’s strongest potential Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Mike Hatch, is uncommitted for now.

“Right now, there are storm clouds on the horizon” for Pawlenty, said Sarah Janecek, publisher of the directory Politics in Minnesota. But before he jumps in, “Hatch’s calculation is going to be whether Pawlenty looks safe enough.”

Clearly, the power of incumbency has enabled the 11 governors to post strong early fundraising returns, which has dampened the interest of challengers. For instance, with 21 months to go before the election, Bredesen already has $2.7 million in his campaign account, which “may already be more money than his opponent will be able to raise during the entire campaign,” said Ed Cromer, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter.

The fortunes of these 11 politicians have been shaped by the specific dynamics of their home states. But common themes exist, even across party lines. Here are some of their winning strategies.

Govern From the Center

Each of the 11 governors ran for office as a moderate unconstrained by traditional party labels.

In California, Schwarzenegger ran as a pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-environment Republican. In Wyoming, Freudenthal opted out of the national Democratic Party’s penchant for gun control and its opposition to many types of natural-resource extraction. In Virginia, Warner styled himself as a “NASCAR Democrat.”

“One reason why all these governors won was that they tended to be from states where the opposite party had a monopoly on the state,” said Nik Bonovich, associate editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the Golden State. “Voters feel that they need a politician not beholden to those special interests — someone who is more independent, yet keeps the liberal or conservative philosophy of the state.”

Once in office, most of the 11 have walked a tightrope, poaching issues from the opposing party while keeping their hands off popular programs that would otherwise draw opposition from many members of their own party.

In Hawaii, for instance, “Lingle has been a master of ‘triangulation,’” says Honolulu Star-Bulletin political columnist Richard Borreca. In Lingle’s recent State of the State speech, he noted, she proposed tax deductions aimed at helping low-income workers and increases in aid for pre-schools and public hospitals.

“After the speech,” Borreca said, “Democrats said she sounded more like them than they did.”

In Tennessee, Bredesen has “focused on keeping the budget reined in without raising taxes — a pretty good prescription for success in this state,” Cromer said. At the same time, Bredesen has worked with the Legislature to push for a workers’ compensation overhaul and benefit cuts for the state’s low-income medical program, two initiatives not at all popular with the Democratic base.

Pawlenty, a fiscally conservative Minnesota Republican, has “cut social programs, but not education and transportation, which are key concerns for many suburban swing voters,” said Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier. Oklahoma’s Henry, a Democrat serving in a state that gave President Bush 66 percent of the vote in 2004, has also focused on education, in his case by successfully pushing a ballot initiative to create a state lottery to fund schools.

“I don’t think he’s made many enemies,” said Jim Davis, a politics professor at Oklahoma State University. “His centerpiece has been education, which is an issue he can use to pull both sides of the aisle.”

In Arizona, too, Democrat Napolitano has focused on improving education, while aggressively brushing off attempts by conservatives to bait her with social issues such as gay marriage.

“She has stayed focused on populist issues that are important to her overall agenda and has not allowed herself to get sidetracked into other issues that aren’t worth her spending political capital [on],” said Stuart Goodman, a lobbyist in Phoenix and one-time policy adviser to former Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R).

Divide and Conquer

Several of the 11 governors have used tactics intended to divide the majority party.

In Kansas, Sebelius has taken advantage of a persistent ideological split in the state GOP.

“She can play the divided-Republican game pretty well,” said former Republican state Sen. Mark Buhler. “As long as the Republicans stay divided on many issues, someone who sounds like a fiscally moderate Democrat has a lot of room to run.”

Warner, for his part, caused a rift in the state GOP by successfully pushing a budget through the Legislature with the support of more than a dozen Republicans.

“What he managed to do against the odds is why Warner has been discussed as a potential presidential candidate,” said George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald.

And those Republican lawmakers who sided with Warner? Most are stuck facing primaries against outraged conservatives.

Create a Likable Image

Pawlenty is “very affable and very Minnesotan, a refreshing contrast to his bizarre and combative predecessor, [third-party Gov.] Jesse Ventura,” Schier said. And Vermont’s Douglas “gives off the persona of a pretty moderate guy,” said one Vermont politico. “He’s very cautious, like the state librarian.”

In Maryland, Republican Ehrlich cruised to victory in a solidly Democratic state on the strength of his winning personality. Keith Haller, president of the polling firm Potomac Inc., said that makes him the opposite of his Democratic predecessor, Parris Glendening. Glendening was disliked, but his policies were generally popular; by contrast, Marylanders aren’t keen on a hard-line Republican agenda, but they seem to like Ehrlich personally.

“Ehrlich must … avoid any type of major issue or personal indiscretion, for fear that popularity would plummet,” Haller said. That’s why the developing controversy over Joseph Steffen, a close aide to Ehrlich who was fired after spreading malicious rumors about O’Malley and allegedly cleansing state agencies of veteran Democratic officials, poses such a danger for Ehrlich’s re-election.

“If Ehrlich gets tainted by these personal crises, then all bets are off,” Haller said.

Of course, no one has a more compelling personality than Schwarzenegger, who has leveraged his popularity as a movie star — and his personal fortune — into political gold.

“He’s capitalized on his outsider status,” said Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “He’s seen as a man of the people, representing the people against the special interests and the traditional politicians.” The Democrats, she said, have a number of big-name politicians but no one to match the Gubernator’s star power.

To be sure, Schwarzenegger’s stratospheric approval ratings have dropped a bit as he’s been forced to take up intractable problems such as the state’s budget deficit. The same is sure to happen to the other 10 governors. But the main way of staying on your constituents’ good side is well within their power, namely:

Look Out for No. 1

Don’t expect that your popularity will translate into gains for your party. If anything, governors like these 11 are better off distancing themselves from their own party.

Except for Napolitano, who picked up one state House seat (while losing one in the Senate), not one of these governors gained legislative seats in 2004, and some even saw their parties lose control of a legislative chamber.

This message is apparently being heeded. Some observers suggest that Henry acts more quickly in responding to inquiries by Republicans than Democrats, while Freudenthal has made a point of appointing Republicans to state posts — “to the dismay of Democrats,” said one.

Arguably the biggest miscalculation of the past year was Lingle’s, said the Star-Bulletin’s Borreca: She spent much of 2004 forging new alliances with the Bush White House. She campaigned across the country for Bush, had Vice President Cheney out for a visit in October and got lots of ink riding in Air Force One. After Bush lost Hawaii by 9 points, he said, “there was little political benefit for Lingle.”

Then again, she still looks strong for reelection — just like her 10 peers governing alien territory.