For Some, Winning in Hostile Territory Is a Snap

Posted June 24, 2005 at 4:08pm

For all of the talk about red and blue states, and all of the data showing strong partisan voting in recent elections, some politicians have bucked the trend. [IMGCAP(1)]

A handful of governors not only won election in a “wrong” state, but they are currently so popular that they seem poised, once again, to win, even though they are members of their states’ minority party.

The list of politically successful governors who are in the “wrong” party back home is considerable, and includes Oklahoma’s Brad Henry (D), Wyoming’s Dave Freudenthal (D), Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen (D), Don Carcieri (R) of Rhode Island, Jim Douglas (R) of Vermont and Hawaii’s Linda Lingle (R).

Each of the seven governors comes up for re-election next year, and while the ups and downs of politics and the economy could ultimately produce tough challengers (or even defeat) for any of them, right now all are favorites for re-election.

Oklahoma’s Henry was regarded as a fluke when he defeated then-Rep. Steve Largent (R) and Independent Gary Richardson in 2002 in a race that was widely seen as Largent’s to lose. He did.

A former state Senator, Henry is a Democrat in a state that in most ways has moved dramatically from the Democratic column to the Republican. But according to one savvy GOP insider, Henry has “moderated” since his days in the Legislature, and he has benefited from higher state oil revenues. In addition, the Democratic-controlled state Senate has protected him from controversial issues.

While one Republican state Senator is already in the ’06 governor’s race and Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is also mentioned as a candidate, party insiders are hoping that former Rep. J.C. Watts (R) will enter the race. Still, Henry’s poll numbers are good and state voters seem relatively content with his performance in office so far.

In Wyoming, Freudenthal served almost eight years as U.S. attorney during the Clinton White House before being elected narrowly to the state’s top job in 2002. But while the state is one of the most Republican in the nation, so far the state GOP doesn’t have a top-tier challenger ready to take on the governor.

In Kansas, Sebelius continues to benefit from divisions within the state Republican Party, even though the GOP holds the four independently elected state offices (the lieutenant governor is a Democrat but was elected on a ticket with the governor) as well as both Senate seats. While prominent Republican legislators and elected officials are looking at a challenge, insiders agree that Sebelius will begin her re-election campaign with an edge.

In Tennessee, Bredesen has cut the state’s Medicaid program, angering more of those in his own party than in the opposition. In fact, he has done an effective job cultivating support from affluent Republicans, which has made it hard for the GOP to recruit a top-tier challenger. State voters so far like his style, and polling shows they are generally content with the direction of the state. The governor is still mentioned as a possible 2008 Democratic presidential contender.

Rhode Island Republican Carcieri appears well positioned for re-election in a state dominated by Democrats. The governor, who had never run for any office other than East Greenwich’s home rule charter commission, was a successful businessman before entering politics. He defeated Myrth York (D), who was making her third run for governor, and he has continued to position himself as a reformer and outsider. That’s not a bad place to be in a state with a history of political corruption and where voters are cynical about politicians.

Carcieri’s likely opponent is Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty (D), but early polls show the governor ahead and voters generally satisfied with the direction of the state.

Douglas’ first victory in Vermont was so narrow that he had to be officially elected by the state Legislature (and after his Democratic opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, declined to lobby the Legislature to pick him instead). But he won another term easily last year over the mayor of Burlington, and Democrats aren’t talking as if 2006 is the year that they will win back the state’s top office.

Finally, in Hawaii, Lingle appears headed for a second term in a state where you need bloodhounds to find the state Republican Party. Hawaii has more than its share of Democratic officeholders, and one of them may run against Lingle. But it’s telling that party insiders mention a number of businessmen as potential challengers — a sign that the state Democratic Party isn’t what it once was.

So what do all of these apparently successful governors have in common?

All of them do a pretty good job of fitting the state while at the same time pleasing their base. Of course, Republicans will find reasons to complain about Sebelius and Henry, just as Democrats will gripe about Carcieri and Douglas. But each of the successful sitting governors has found a way to be partisan enough for his or her party’s activists but independent enough for other voters in the state.

Many of the seven come from relatively small states, where the governor can dominate the media and, at the same time, be a neighbor as much as a distant politician.

Since they are governors who reside in places like Oklahoma City, Topeka and Montpelier, these successful governors can’t get too far from the people, and voters apparently figure that they won’t stray far from the state’s dominant political culture. Successful governors in “wrong” states don’t conform to their party’s national agenda.

In a country so divided into red and blue, where partisanship is fed by talk radio, the Internet and television screamfests, it’s encouraging to note that some politicians have been successful plowing their own ground rather that blindly following the lead of others.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.