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House Members Who Run for Governor: A Good Career Move?

At least eight House Members are expected to seek their state’s governorship this cycle, a large number by recent historical standards. Is it a good career move? It depends on how far back you look. [IMGCAP(1)]

For most of the 1990s, running for governor as a House Member was a bad bet. Between 1990 and 2001, just four of 29 House Members who ran for governor succeeded, according to Congressional Quarterly.

The current crop of contenders, however, is undoubtedly hoping for a climate more like the 2002-2003 campaign cycle. That’s when five of eight sitting House Members who tried to win the governorship succeeded — John Baldacci (D-Maine), Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.), Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) and Bob Riley (R-Ala.).

Conversations with politicos, including several former House Members who mounted unsuccessful bids for governor, cite a litany of obstacles.

The most obvious is that House Members represent just a district, not the entire state.

To be sure, the problem is reduced in smaller states. For Baldacci, having a seat in the House was a good launching pad for the governorship, said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine. The seat enabled Baldacci to represent half the state, and he faced little competition from other statewide officials, since Maine has only three — its governor and two Senators.

In bigger states, candidates such as Reps. Jim Davis (D-Fla.) and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) have much more to worry about.

If Strickland makes it to the general election, he will likely face either the state attorney general, the secretary of state or the state auditor. Davis, too, would likely face the lieutenant governor, the state attorney general or the state chief financial officer.

“State politicians generally have statewide resources, influence, and contacts that you never had, or left behind years ago,” said former Rep. Glen Browder (D-Ala.), who gave up his House seat to run for the Senate, unsuccessfully.

And it’s not only statewide officials who have an advantage against House Members. When Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) runs for governor next year, he’ll face Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker in the GOP primary. Despite being a local officeholder, Walker will actually have a constituency that’s almost 40 percent bigger than Green’s.

Another obstacle is having to show up for votes in Washington, D.C. — or explaining why you’re skipping them, to hit the campaign trail.

If you’re stuck in Washington, “you have no time to go out to 120 counties, or even the 60 counties” that are in play for your party, said Al Cross, a political columnist in Kentucky. “You’ve got to parachute in and do a quick hit and then go on to the next.”

Then there’s the matter of defending your voting record. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) had the lead role this year in writing a federal budget that includes cuts that are unpopular back home.

At the same time, candidates have to avoid being tarred by public dissatisfaction with Congress as an institution, especially its partisan polarization, which is much more fierce in Washington than it is in many state capitals.

“Your record is more amenable to attack, so you have to think more about highlighting how you’ve gotten things done,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

Member-candidates can also expect charges that they lack the management experience to run a state government, since many have never managed more than a dozen or so employees at a time.

Then-Rep. Ehrlich played this issue masterfully during his successful 2002 campaign for governor of Maryland, said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and an occasional adviser to Democrats.

In Ehrlich’s lone debate against his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), he said: “Lieutenant governor, with all due respect, ma’am, you’ve never been elected to anything at any time on your own. This is serious business. You’ve never voted on war or abortion or tort reform or the budget or anything.”

“It was a brilliant ploy,” Schaller said. Even though Townsend had been the state’s No. 2 official for eight years, “he made it seem like she was less experienced than he was.”

In all likelihood, though, the most important obstacle facing House Members running for governor is having to learn a different set of issues — issues on which statewide officials and state legislators are already well-versed.

“When you come to Congress, you submerge yourself in federal issues, but when you run for state office, voters don’t want to talk about that — it’s irrelevant,” said former Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), who ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Each of these obstacles, of course, can be overcome with smart planning. Although he ultimately lost, former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), a football Hall of Famer who ran a failed bid for governor in 2002, made a point of visiting all 77 counties in Oklahoma, a schedule made possible by his decision to resign his House seat nine months early.

“I didn’t feel like it was fair to be working to win the voters’ approval for one job while holding another,” he said. “I couldn’t do a very good job at either one.”

Illinois offers a good case of compare and contrast. In 1998, then-Rep. Glenn Poshard (D) ran for governor but lost. Most observers place much of the blame for the downstater’s loss on insufficient outreach into the populous Chicago metro area.

But four years later, then-Rep. Blagojevich (D) of Chicago won the governorship, aided by effective outreach to downstate voters. Among other things, Blagojevich targeted voters who were unfamiliar with him by running a series of commercials that gently mocked his hard-to-pronounce surname.

Both Blagojevich and Poshard “had similar amounts of money, but Rod’s field operation was more developed,” said Margaret Blackshere, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO. “He was able to look at Glenn’s experience and see that he needed a broad statewide operation in the field.”

One factor that can make an enormous difference is the mood of a state’s electorate. If voters are relatively happy with the status quo, they may prefer sticking with state “insiders” — statewide officials or state legislators — for governor.

But what if voters are eager to throw the bums out? In that case, a House Member, someone who hasn’t been part of the “mess” in the state Capitol, may be just the ticket.

“In a ‘change’ environment, being a House Member is a big plus,” said Robert Autry, a Republican pollster.

In fact, there’s a silver lining to being a blank slate for a large swath of the electorate. If they possess natural political skills, a solid record and good advisers, House Members can craft a much more attractive profile for themselves than a candidate whose pluses, and minuses, are already well known by most voters.

For Ehrlich, Autry said, low name recognition in vote-rich and heavily Democratic Montgomery County may have helped him win the governorship in 2002. On Election Day, Ehrlich polled better in the county than most Republicans do, benefiting from voter fatigue over the prior Democratic administration without scaring too many Democrats by his party affiliation.

Being a little-known House Member “might have been a blessing in disguise” for Ehrlich, Autry said.

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