Democrats, in Fits and Starts, Showcase Governors

Posted May 2, 2005 at 6:12pm

Given the open-seat presidential election in 2008 — and given that four of the past five presidents previously served as governors — one would think that both major parties would be focusing national attention on their gubernatorial ranks.

Think again.

For the Republicans, the paradox is easy to resolve: They already hold the White House, the Senate and the House.

“In the past year or so, we have focused on supporting President Bush’s initiatives,” said Mike Pieper, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. While many GOP governors are getting good press locally, he said, “in the national media, they’re definitely fighting for oxygen.”

For the Democrats, though, it’s a different story. Most of the party’s media coverage revolves around Congress — the filibustering of judges in the Senate, the ethics controversies in the House and the fight against Bush’s Social Security overhaul. Each of these is typically covered as national stories by Washington reporters.

Yet the intense focus on Washington carries risks for the Democrats. Congress has become increasingly bitter and ideologically polarized, making them susceptible to Republican charges that they are reactive, obstructionist and devoid of ideas. And issues such as the filibuster and internal ethics rules may be too abstract to hold the interest of outside-the-Beltway Americans.

So, for a party looking to sell itself as a capable steward of the nation beginning in 2008 (or 2006), the Democratic governors seem well placed to portray themselves as officials who tackle everyday problems like a CEO, not a member of a marginalized Congressional minority.

“People recognize that a governor has already been an executive and has had to make tough decisions, from death row cases to balancing a budget,” said David Patti, who heads Pennsylvanians for an Effective Government, a pro-business group. “And most governors, regardless of party, end up having to be pragmatic. At the state level, you have to get something done.”

Former Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), who now studies the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, argues that “the American voter has an innate trust of politicians from what I’ll call the heartland. And the interior and small-state governors best fit that bill.”

Presidential Timber

As it happens, the Democrats are blessed with a number of popular governors at the moment, many of them moderate and proven votegetters in unfriendly territory.

One, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, is being talked about as a presidential candidate. A second, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is expected to focus on the White House after his 2006 re-election.

Others, such as Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Kansas’ Kathleen Sebelius, Iowa’s Tom Vilsack and a half-dozen others, don’t appear to be gearing up for higher office, but they could still be useful spokespeople for the party. However, politicos interviewed for this story agreed that the Democrats aren’t doing enough to highlight their governors.

Bob Grossfeld, a Phoenix-based Democratic consultant, said the party should spotlight Napolitano, who is so strong at the moment that Arizona’s usually dominant GOP is having trouble finding a viable challenger for 2006.

“We have to begin letting Democrats know that there is a Janet Napolitano here in the middle of a red state who is doing wonderful things and getting incredible support,” Grossfeld said. “The national party has to begin showing people that we are more than just exquisitely equipped critics of the Republicans.”

Warner himself agreed that “you can always do more.” He urged Democrats to synthesize their successes in the states into a coherent winning national message.

To be sure, most governors are hampered by being stuck in small media markets. Congressional leaders are always much easier to book on the Sunday morning shows, so ambitious Senators tend to become the face of the party, noted Colorado state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald (D). Yet the last two Senators elected president were John F. Kennedy and Warren G. Harding.

Democratic officials say they are trying to raise the governors’ profiles. Richardson, who is chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, cited a three-pronged strategy.

The first leg, which is “working well,” Richardson said, is to fill broadcast slots with Democratic governors. When West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin gave the Democratic response to one of President Bush’s Saturday-morning radio addresses recently, he took a shot at the Republican Congress for keeping Washington “stuck in partisan gridlock” even as other issues, such as gas prices and health care, fester.

“It is not a time for rhetoric or fighting,” Manchin told radio listeners. “It is a time for leadership and action.”

Manchin’s speech also touted the problem-solving achievements of several Democratic governors — the second part of Richardson’s plan. Among Richardson’s favorites are Sebelius’ initiative for small-business tax credits for offering health coverage; Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s effort to expand alternative-fuel projects; Bredesen’s and Vilsack’s stiffened penalties for methamphetamine; and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s anti-suicide program.

Richardson’s final initiative is to get party officials in Washington to include the governors in shaping party strategy. He wants to see new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean follow through on a promise to set up a policy council of governors, mayors, Senators and House Members to discuss the party’s message and policy.

Richardson praised Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for improving coordination between Congress and the governors. But the former House Member and Energy secretary added that “sometimes you have to goose the Washington establishment a little bit.”

Been There, Done That

In theory, Dean’s ascendance to party chairman should boost the party’s governors. Though Dean is best known as a staunchly liberal presidential candidate, he’s a former governor of Vermont who compiled a moderate record.

“A lot of people don’t recall this, but he was an exceptionally good chair of the DGA,” said Thomas Oppel, a New Hampshire-based Democratic consultant. “I do think having him at the head of DNC will be a good thing” for governors.

Dean’s “50-state strategy” of reaching out even to solidly red states should increase his contact with governors. “The governors are one of our best sources for getting across our message,” said DNC spokesman Luis Miranda.

But governors still face a challenge in becoming power players within the DNC, insiders say. For starters, Dean, despite his gubernatorial pedigree, wasn’t even the first choice of the party’s governors. When the race was still fluid, Vilsack and former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen were floated as candidates. Then, several governors banded together to propose former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard. But Blanchard, who left office 14 years earlier, also failed to catch on.

One advantage the Democrats have is a ready model: the Republican governors of the 1990s. Shortly after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, the party played up its governors as problem solvers running “laboratories of democracy.”

Much attention was paid to a core of innovative governors that included Jim Edgar of Illinois, John Engler of Michigan, Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Mike Leavitt of Utah, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and George Voinovich of Ohio. Republican moderates could identify with Montana’s Marc Racicot, Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge, Massachusetts’ William Weld and New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman.

These governors helped push for unfunded-mandates legislation and welfare reform, noted Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And their policy expertise gave the GOP a foil for then-President Bill Clinton, as well as a farm team. Four of those governors became Cabinet members, one became a Senator, and most were touted as possible vice presidential picks in 2000.

And that’s without even mentioning then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who both used the governor’s office to burnish his presidential bona fides and benefited from gubernatorial backing in the 2000 GOP primary.

Keeping a Distance

But just as moderate Republican governors sometimes need to shy away from socially conservative stances taken by the Congressional wing of their party, Democratic governors sometimes have to worry about becoming too closely identified with the national party. Indeed, in such solidly Republican states as Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma, Govs. Sebelius, Freudenthal and Brad Henry owe much of their popularity to the perception that they are different from national Democrats.

During the campaign for DNC chairman in January, Tennessee’s Bredesen — a pro-business governor in a conservative state — went to Atlanta to tell assembled Democrats that the party had to get out of the “sterile environment” of Washington, D.C., and focus on the issues of average Americans.

“Bredesen has been somewhat careful about his involvement in national party affairs,” said Ed Cromer, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter. When Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ran for president last year, Bredesen “held a fundraiser for him and publicly supported him, but he didn’t go out of his way to help.”

Even a governor like Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm — whose charisma and good looks vaulted her to the top of the Democrats’ gubernatorial class of 2002 — has been less of a public face than many expected. The fact that she’s Canadian, and thus can’t run for president, is a partial explanation. But some observers suggested that Granholm has grown ambivalent about taking an out-front role.

“She’s cognizant, perhaps, of being accused of being more interested in the national limelight than she is in the nitty-gritty of governing,” said Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a political newsletter. As a pro-abortion-rights Catholic in a state with many opponents of abortion, “the idea that she could be a national face of the party, and identified with John Kerry and [Massachusetts Rep.] Barney Frank, may not be very smart.”

They’re OK With the Attention

Others have calculated differently. Warner, who faces a one-term limit as Virginia governor, needs to move in a national direction if he intends to keep his political career alive, noted George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald.

Rendell, for his part, was already DNC general chairman from 1999 to 2001, after serving as mayor of Philadelphia. While the post probably raised his national profile modestly, it did wonders for his fundraising, which enabled him to mount a decisive gubernatorial victory in 2002.

“He ended up with a big following in Hollywood and gaming, which helped him raise a ton of money,” Patti said, noting that Rendell amassed $45 million for his gubernatorial campaign — three times that of his GOP opponent.

As for Richardson, he was a national star even before running for governor, thanks to his background as ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of Energy and high-ranking Latino politician.

Early in Richardson’s gubernatorial tenure, a surplus of national television appearances to discuss North Korea and other foreign-policy topics might have hurt his approval ratings in New Mexico. But those worries seem to have evaporated.

“I think that New Mexicans are proud to have national celebrities,” said Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster in Albuquerque. “It could make him vulnerable among some groups, but those groups were going to criticize him no matter what.”

Ultimately, said Democratic strategist Oppel, the Democrats don’t have to choose between a Congressional strategy and a gubernatorial strategy.

“Yes, it’s important that we try to showcase what Democratic governors are doing around the country,” he said, but it’s also important to have “our good friends in the Senate and the House continue to fight that rearguard action against the Republicans.”