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Nine House Members Pushing for Gubernatorial Promotion

But for many, the road to the governor’s mansion won’t be easy

Of all the House members running for governor this year, Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa may have the best shot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Of all the House members running for governor this year, Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa may have the best shot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Just seven of the 50 current governors have previously served in the House, and only five of those were elected directly from the House without holding a statewide office or another job in the interim period. But a handful of lawmakers are hoping to buck the trend and push that total number closer to double digits.

Many of them have to navigate competitive primaries first, and the precedent for members getting elected governor isn’t great. But while most of them are leaving behind safe seats, there’s an upside: becoming their state’s top elected official and departing from an unpopular Congress.

Voters in New Mexico are virtually certain to elect a member of Congress as governor this year, considering Rep. Steve Pearce will be the Republican nominee and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the front-runner in the Democratic primary. The general election race leans Democratic in a state Hillary Clinton won by 8 points in 2016 and where an unpopular GOP governor is leaving office because of term limits.

In Hawaii, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has to face Gov. David Ige in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary. But she has one of the best chances of getting elected governor compared to her colleagues.

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It’s only been four years since Hawaiians threw out the last incumbent when Ige defeated Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a former congressman, 66 percent to 31 percent in the primary. This year, Ige is unpopular, in part because of his delayed response to the false-alarm missile alert. And Hanabusa would be a heavy favorite in the general election in a state where President Donald Trump received 30 percent of the vote.

In Minnesota, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Tim Walz is the front-runner in a crowded Aug. 14 primary race to replace term-limited DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Waltz would then need to get past former two-term GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the general election. But in spite of Trump’s narrow loss here, the state has leaned Democratic, as does this race.

South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem is in a competitive Republican primary with state Attorney General Marty Jackley that will be decided on June 5. The nomination is critical, considering Clinton took short of 32 percent of the vote here, and Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial race in the Mount Rushmore State since Gerald R. Ford was president.

In Tennessee, Rep. Diane Black is also involved in a competitive primary in a Republican-leaning state. She faces wealthy former state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd, among others, in the Aug. 2 primary and would likely face former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in a potentially serious general election contest. But Trump won the Volunteer State by 26 points, which should boost the GOP nominee.

Clinton failed to reach 28 percent in Idaho, but Rep. Raúl R. Labrador might not make it out of the May 15 primary, where he faces Lt. Gov. Brad Little and wealthy real estate developer Tommy Ahlquist. The first step is important considering Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Idaho in over a quarter-century.

The Democratic nomination is similarly important in Colorado, a state Clinton won by 5 points in 2016. Wealthy Rep. Jared Polis is a top contender but faces a formidable June 26 primary field that includes former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis has a dual challenge. He must win the Aug. 28 primary against state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who served in the House from 2001 to 2011, then pivot and win a competitive general election in a swing state in a poor environment for the president’s party.

If all the races fall toward members, eight of them will be governors next year. But it’s not impossible to see all but a couple falling short. 

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