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Governors vs. senators: Hickenlooper, Inslee will test old theory

Democrats are desperate to beat Trump, but do previous measures of experience still matter?

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper entered the Democratic presidential race last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper entered the Democratic presidential race last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With the entrance of John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee into the crowded 2020 presidential contest,  Democrats are set to test once again the conventional wisdom that governors make better candidates than senators.

On the surface, it looks like the rules have changed with the odds stacked against the two. Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, and Inslee, the current governor of Washington, are up against a wealth of hopefuls from the Senate, many with national profiles and a demonstrated ability to raise serious amounts of cash. The winner will have to face off against President Donald Trump, who defied political wisdom when he won in 2016 in spite of his inexperience and unconventional campaign.

But don’t write the governors off yet. As Democrats attempt to find the formula for what kind of candidate can defeat Trump — and avoid the pitfalls that felled Hillary Clinton — the type of experience that has favored governors in the past can still be a particularly strong asset, political observers said.

“In 2016, the Democrats had one of the most experienced candidates ever. That failed,” said Barry  Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who has written about the advantages governors hold in presidential races. “That might cause the party to rethink the value of experience, and especially Washington experience.”

Watch: Jay Inslee is running for president, here are some congressional basics

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Executive advantage

Governors can say they bring a fresh perspective to Washington politics. They can drive their own policy agendas. And they can point to experience making decisions about things like roads and schools that affect voters’ everyday lives, Burden said.

Hickenlooper exemplified that in his campaign launch video, in which he touted the need “to get things done.”

“I’ve proven again and again I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver,” he says.

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Senators, on the other hand, are used to giving speeches to empty chambers and might not be as primed to think on their feet during a high-stakes debate. They are forced to regularly cast votes that can be used against them. And while their six-year terms give them the luxury of wading into a presidential contest without giving up their day jobs, they also might not have to commit as seriously to the presidential race, Burden said. 

Inslee, for example, is a whole continent away from the swamp and is basing his entire campaign around combating climate change. 

That’s a type of message discipline that would be tough for someone like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has made a point of regularly tussling with Trump but has already stumbled in her decision to seek genetic testing in response to his taunts about her claims of Native American heritage.

Apart from Trump, no one without senatorial or gubernatorial experience has made it to the Oval Office since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not that many have even tried — Burden pointed out in a 2002 study that nearly two-thirds of presidential candidates in the previous 30 years came from Senate or gubernatorial offices.

But governors have consistently outperformed their counterparts from the Senate. Only three presidents in history — Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama — have come directly from the Senate.

So far, the candidates this cycle come from a fairly traditional set of professional backgrounds.

In addition to Hickenlooper and Inslee, five senators (Warren, Bernie SandersAmy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris), a former mayor/Cabinet member (Julián Castro), a current and former House member (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. John Delaney), a tech entrepreneur (Andrew Yang) and a self-help author (Marianne Williamson) are formally in race. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have formed exploratory committees. And a few big name politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, are also considering runs.

Some things are atypical this time around, Burden pointed out, including the sheer number of candidates and the diversity of the hopefuls. But neither would diminish the advantages that have favored governors in the past.

The fact that only two with gubernatorial experience have entered so far can be explained by the low number of Democratic governors in office nationally, Burden said. There are 23 Democrats currently serving as governor compared to 27 Republicans, but seven of the Democrats are new to their seats this year, making presidential runs improbable.

Also watch: Bernie Sanders is running for president, here are some congressional basics

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Will it still matter?

It’s unclear if Democratic voters, desperate to defeat Trump, will still value the kind of experience governors bring. The party, after all, hasn’t picked a governor as a presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1992. 

Ross Baker, a Rutgers political scientist professor who has served as a consultant and a resident scholar for Democrats in the House and Senate, predicts primary voters will be looking less at experience and more for eloquence, fortitude and the ability to counterattack.

“People will be seeing how these people think on their feet and fight on their feet, whether they can go 15 rounds and not suffer a knockout,” Baker said. “Democratic voters are going to look at them and say, ‘Do these people have the skills to counterpunch effectively?’”

Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said Democrats still seem to be struggling with what skills to prioritize. 

“It’s probably an open question whether they go for someone who is a fire breather who will really rile up the troops, versus someone who is calm and can get this disruptive period behind them,” he said. “That’s what Hickenlooper is trying to be. And Inslee would be in that lane.”

Rauch suggested a different way of predicting a candidate’s success, which he has dubbed the 14-year rule.

Voters want a candidate who is experienced, but not too stale, he said. So instead of looking at the most recent office a candidate has held, the formula, which he credits to presidential speechwriter John McConnell, considers the length of time since a candidate was first elected governor or senator — the experience that has mattered in most recent campaigns. The clock stops when they are elected president or become vice president. If it’s more than 14 years, don’t expect that candidate to do so well, Rauch said. 

“It’s a remarkably consistent pattern,” he said. By that measure, Biden, who was in the Senate for 36 years before he became vice president, would face long odds. 

Sanders, who won his first House race in 1990, would just make the cut. He’ll complete 14 years as a senator by the end of next year. (House experience does not count under the rule.)

Inslee and Hickenlooper fare better. Inslee is currently in his seventh year as Washington governor — he previously served 16 years in the House. Hickenlooper had a career as a geologist and entrepreneur and was mayor of Denver before his election as governor in 2010.