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Failing up: Losing a race for lieutenant governor as a launchpad to Congress

Many pivoted to Congress after losing their state's No. 2 job

Former Iowa State Sen. Rita Hart lost a bid for lieutenant governor and now is running for Congress. If she wins, she’ll have company.
Former Iowa State Sen. Rita Hart lost a bid for lieutenant governor and now is running for Congress. If she wins, she’ll have company. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected, 4:05 p.m. | Lieutenant governor can seem like a thankless, nameless job with little power, so it’s hard to believe that losing a race for a state’s No. 2 position would come with any benefits. But right now, there are more failed LG candidates than former lieutenant governors on Capitol Hill, and a handful of similar candidates are running this year to join them.

Unsuccessful candidates for lieutenant governor got off to a rough start recently with Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico’s loss in the Georgia Senate primary. Amico was part of the ticket with former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams that lost a close race in 2018. This year, Amico received just 12 percent in the Senate primary won by former 6th District hopeful Jon Ossoff.

Democrats better hope that doesn’t portend losses for their other unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidates running for Congress around the country this cycle.

In Iowa’s 2nd District, Democrats nominated Rita Hart. The former state senator ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018 on a ticket that lost by less than 3 points. This year, she’s trying to keep the open House seat in Democratic hands now that Rep. Dave Loebsack is retiring. Inside Elections rates the race Tilt Democratic.

In Indiana’s 5th District, Democrats nominated Christina Hale. The former state representative lost a bid for lieutenant governor in 2016 on a ticket that fell short by 6 points. The ticket also lost the central Indiana district she’s running in now, although her chances improved when Republicans nominated conservative state Sen. Victoria Spartz. The race is rated Likely Republican.

Having an unsuccessful statewide run on your resume might look attractive when you’re subsequently running for an office with a smaller electorate. But LG candidates can be overshadowed by the gubernatorial nominee, and it can be hard to carve out a unique identity and build a network. Many voters might have a hard time naming their current lieutenant governor, let alone naming the person who lost a bid for the office at least a couple of years ago.

Victories by Hart and Hale, however, would not be unprecedented. And failed LG candidates have not only gone on to Capitol Hill, but they’ve risen to party leadership.

In all, 13 current members lost a race for lieutenant governor before getting elected to Congress, including five who made the jump directly from a loss to the House.

Two of those five lost bids for the California lieutenant governorship in the same year, 2006, with Democrat Jackie Speier losing the primary and Republican Tom McClintock losing the general election. They both won House seats in 2008. The Democrat who beat them in 2006, John Garamendi, would leave the LG office to join them in Washington after a 2009 special election.

In 1994, Democrat Debbie Stabenow lost a race for lieutenant governor in Michigan on a ticket before getting elected to the House in 1996. Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers was an unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 1979 before getting elected to the House the next year and eventually becoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. And current House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer lost in the 1978 primary for lieutenant governor of Maryland before getting elected to the House in a 1981 special election.

Rogers and Hoyer aren’t the only unsuccessful LG candidates to hold powerful positions on the Hill. Senate Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1978 and was elected to the House in 1982.

From left, Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland both lost bids for lieutenant governor before being elected to Congress and ascending to party leadership. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Other unsuccessful LG nominees in Congress include GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, and GOP Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.

Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of New Mexico on a ticket in 2014 and was elected to the House four years later. In November, Haaland faces retired police officer Michelle Garcia Holmes, who was the GOP’s nominee for LG in 2018. The race is rated Solid Democratic.

Republican Earl Lackie is also in a long-shot race against Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee in Michigan’s 5th District. Lackie was the lieutenant governor nominee for a U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket that received less than 1 percent in 2018.

Oklahoma businesswoman Terry Neese has a much better chance of winning, if she can get past the June 30 GOP primary or Aug. 25 runoff in the 5th District. The general election against freshman Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn is rated a Toss-up. Neese ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor back in 1990 and 1994. Even that long gap wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Pennsylvania Democrat Dwight Evans finished third in the 1986 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and was elected to the House 30 years later, with runs for governor, mayor of Philadelphia and a stint in the state Legislature in between. Alabama Republican Mo Brooks also finished third in a lieutenant governor primary before being elected to Congress.

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In comparison, there are eight former lieutenant governors currently on Capitol Hill including Garamendi, Democratic Rep. Anthony G. Brown of Maryland, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Democratic Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Virginia, GOP Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, and Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota. Kaine and Risch also served as governor before Congress.

Republican Michelle Fischbach is trying to join the club. She was lieutenant governor of Minnesota for a year from January 2018 to 2019 after Smith was appointed to the Senate, and as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s running mate, she lost the 2018 primary. This year she’s facing longtime Democratic Rep. Collin C. Peterson in the 7th District. President Donald Trump carried the seat handily in 2016, but Peterson will be difficult to beat. The race is rated Tilt Democratic.

There are two members, Republican Rob Bishop of Utah and Democrat Denny Heck of Washington, trying to make the jump the other way this cycle by running for lieutenant governor.

Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

Correction: This report was revised to reflect Minnesota candidate Michelle Fischbach’s prior run for lieutenant governor and that Rep. Rob Bishop is currently running for lieutenant governor in Utah.

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