Statehouses Lure Members

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:57pm

Rep. Zach Wamp’s (R-Tenn.) announcement Monday that he will run for governor in 2010 touched off what could eventually be a double-digit number of Members departing Capitol Hill in order to seek top executive jobs back home this election cycle.

Many of the Members mentioned as probable or possible 2010 gubernatorial candidates are Republicans. With the GOP relegated to the minority in both the House and Senate, party strategists say it is understandable that more Republicans might be willing to gamble on running for statewide posts.

“I think there’s a recognition out there that states and governorships are where Republicans are really going to be able to make a difference,” said Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. He added that with Democrats now in control of both the White House and Congress, many ambitious lawmakers realize the next generation of party leadership is more likely to come from the state level.

“An individual who really wants to be a leader in the Republican Party is really going to have trouble doing that in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Also, Schrimpf said that candidates running in 2010 will be among the first to be part of the effort to turn around the GOP’s fortunes after back-to-back Democratic sweeps in 2006 and 2008.

But Democrats argue that Congressional Republicans who are eyeing governorships in 2010 will continue to be tainted by their association with the GOP’s dominance of politics in Washington over the past eight years.

“It will be very difficult for Washington Republicans to run away from their record and their support of George W. Bush and John McCain’s failed policies,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Brian Namey said.

Another factor in the number of Members eyeing governorships is that a large number of incumbent governors are term-limited out of office in 2010, and open seats are always much more enticing for Members.

There are 36 governorships up for election in 2010, and of that number, 16 are expected to be open-seat contests — provided Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is confirmed as director of the Department of Homeland Security and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) finishes out his current term, which ends in 2010. Of the 16 open seats, nine are held by Democrats and seven are held by the GOP.

The names of more than a dozen Members have been mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates — ranging from those who are already raising money for bids, to those seriously considering running, to some who aren’t viewed as likely to take the plunge.

In Kansas, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) has said he is not running for re-election, and he filed paperwork this week so that he can begin raising money for a 2010 gubernatorial run.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is also raising money for a 2010 gubernatorial campaign, but since she is not up for re-election until 2012, she does not have to give up her seat to run. It’s unclear whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is going to seek another term, which would set up a bloody GOP primary.

In the House, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) announced in December he’s retiring and taking a hard look at running for governor.

Others considering seeking top executive jobs are Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) and Mary Fallin (R-Okla.).

Of the group, Barrett is widely considered likely to run, and just this week he decided to forgo seeking a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee — further evidence that he is headed for the exits.

Fallin, who served as Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor from 1994 to 2006, is also seriously looking at running for her state’s open governorship. But an announcement does not appear to be imminent.

“Congresswoman Fallin has been encouraged to run for governor by friends and supporters in Oklahoma, and it is certainly something she will consider at the appropriate time,” Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said. “Right now, however, her attention is focused on the serious business facing Congress, mainly how best to address the current economic crisis.”

Wamp’s decision to announce his gubernatorial bid so early is likely tied, in part, to Tennessee fundraising laws, which prevent him from transferring any of his federal campaign dollars to a state account. Members hailing from states where they can transfer their federal war chests have more leeway and can take more time before making their intentions known.

Among the Democrats mentioned as possible gubernatorial contenders are Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), Artur Davis (Ala.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Bart Stupak (Mich.). The governors in all five of those states will be term-limited in 2010.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) has been floated as the strongest possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) cannot seek re-election. However, she just took over the gavel of the Senate Intelligence Committee and has not given any indication she’s looking to leave Capitol Hill.

Herseth Sandlin, who gave birth to her first child in December, is likewise mentioned as the strongest potential candidate in South Dakota. She is married to former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas), who is now a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist. Her grandfather was former South Dakota Gov. Ralph Herseth. Her father, Lars Herseth, was a state legislator and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1986.

But the Democrat who may be among the most serious about a run for governor in two years could be Davis of Tennessee. Davis has said he is mulling over a bid and should make his decision known by the spring.

Current Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) cannot seek re-election because of term limits, creating a wide open playing field. Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) is among the handful of other Democrats eyeing the contest, but he said in a statement this week that it’s too early for candidates to be announcing.

Artur Davis has been talking about running for governor in 2010 for several years, and he is expected to make his decision known in February. If he runs and is elected, he would be the state’s first black governor.

Abercrombie has been encouraging speculation that he will run in Hawaii’s open governor’s race in 2010. But the 10-term Democrat can’t transfer the $1.2 million he has stockpiled in his re-election account, a factor that could influence his final decision.

Several former Members are also eyeing gubernatorial bids.

Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who lost a Senate primary in 2008, is reportedly interested in running for governor in 2010. In Ohio, there could be a bruising GOP primary on tap if former Reps. John Kasich and Rob Portman seek the nomination for governor. Both men are interested in squaring off against Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who is facing his first re-election.

Most of the governors who are term- limited in 2010 were first elected in 2002, which was the last time that a large number of House Members ran for governor.

Among those elected governor in 2002 were then-Reps. John Baldacci (D-Maine), Bob Riley (R-Ala.), Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.) and Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). Then-Reps. David Bonior (D-Mich.), Tom Barrett (D-Wis.), Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.) and ex-Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) ran unsuccessful campaigns that year.

Democrats now control 29 out of the 50 governorships, their highest number since 1994. If Napolitano enters the Obama administration, as is expected, they will be back down to 28 since she will be succeeded by the Republican secretary of state.

In 2008, 11 governorships were up for election, and Democrats saw a net gain of one after they picked up a GOP-held seat in Missouri. There were no sitting Members elected governor in 2008, but then-Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) was elected governor of Louisiana in 2007.