Govs Find Their Popularity Might Not Transfer

By: - July 10, 2008 12:00 am

How hard is it to change the political complexion of a state? Not even a strong legislative record and high popularity may be enough for four Republican governors in predominantly Democratic states and four Democratic governors in heavily Republican states.

Two of these eight fish-out-of-water governors – Democrats Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Brad Henry of Oklahoma – seem to have the best shot at seeing a fellow party member succeed them in 2010. A same-party successor is less likely – but possible – for Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calif.), M. Jodi Rell (Conn.), Linda Lingle (Hawaii) and Don Carcieri (R.I.) and Democrats Phil Bredesen (Tenn.) and Dave Freudenthal (Wyo.).

All of these governors are term-limited except Rell, but while Rell is allowed to run again, she hasn’t signaled that she will.

Besides dealing with the obvious obstacles of building a party infrastructure in what is often hostile political territory, many of these governors have not placed a high priority on boosting their party or on grooming a protege. In fact, roughly half of the eight have treated their own party with either benign neglect or outright hostility, according to 25 national and state political observers interviewed.

Here’s Out There‘s analysis, with Republican incumbents first:

CALIFORNIA: By far, the Golden State is the biggest gubernatorial prize of all. The GOP does have a shot at holding the governorship if the state party doesn’t demand a candidate who is a strict conservative.

In recent years, the state GOP has been unhappy with Schwarzenegger, despite his generally high popularity, because of his moderate agenda, especially his big-spending health care proposals. The “Gubernator,” in turn, has publicly scolded the party for its ideological purity.

“Arnold is about Arnold – it’s not about building a party to the future,” Republican consultant Patrick Dorinson said.

Two moderate Republicans – Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman – have deep pockets and would be competitive in 2010, especially against a too-liberal Democrat. Moderate former Rep. Tom Campbell is another possibility, without the deep pockets. Still, the Democrats have more prospects, as well as the wind at their backs in a blue state.

They include Jerry Brown (D), the attorney general and ex-governor (1975-1983), Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, state schools chief Jack O’Connell, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. A strong prospect would be moderate former state Controller Steve Westly, who lost the 2006 primary and could self-fund a 2010 run.

CONNECTICUT: Like Schwarzenegger, Rell has operated at arm’s length from the state party. Last month, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) visited Connecticut for the annual Prescott Bush dinner, she was a no-show. And some saw her endorsement of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain as late and halfhearted, despite his help in her 2006 campaign.

The Democrats may have their best chance to win since they relinquished the governorship in January 1991. The frontrunners are Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, who impressed many in his losing 2006 gubernatorial primary bid. A tier below are House Speaker James Amann, state Senate president Donald Williams and Secretary of State Susan Bysewicz.

If Rell doesn’t run, Republicans will look to U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, ex-U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Lt. Gov. Mike Fedele.

HAWAII: Republican Lingle has remained popular in a solidly Democratic state thanks to a moderate approach and a focus on non-partisan issues such as boosting technological research. But political observers are not convinced that her aura will transfer to Lt. Gov. James (Duke) Aiona, the top GOP candidate, in 2010.

While Republican officials say Lingle has tried to aid the state party, observers are skeptical, noting that the GOP has lost ground in the legislature during her term. Observers say Aiona, who is more conservative than Lingle, can be beaten by Colleen Hanabusa, the state Senate president, and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, among others.

RHODE ISLAND: After two mixed terms for Carcieri, even Republicans acknowledge that the GOP’s bench is thinning. The top GOP prospect, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, is thought likelier to run for Congress or lieutenant governor. Another – Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey – is a strong conservative who’s seen as unlikely to fare well statewide.

By contrast, the Democrats are flush with plausible candidates: Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, former Lt. Gov. Charlie Fogarty, Providence mayor David Cicilline, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, General Treasurer Frank Caprio and former U.S. Rep. Robert Weygand.

The most promising candidate might run as an independent: former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican who lost his reelection bid in 2006 despite remaining personally popular.

Looking at the Democratic governors:

TENNESSEE: Bredesen hasn’t actively distanced himself from the state Democratic party, yet observers say that his popularity, which remains high despite a revenue slowdown that has forced cuts, stems from his image as a businessman.

The Republicans have most of the big-name contenders for 2010, especially former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, both of whom would be early favorites in the general election. Other potential Republicans include Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and former state Sen. Jim Bryson. Potential Democrats include U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan.

WYOMING: Democrats have grumbled for years that Freudenthal, a popular centrist governor, has done little to build up his party. If he doesn’t seek to overturn gubernatorial term limits – the subject of some speculation – then the Democrats will have to look to lesser-known state Reps. Deb Hammons and Marty Martin or former Casper Mayor Larry Clapp.

Potential GOP contenders include State House Majority Leader Colin Simpson – son of popular former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson – as well as state Auditor Rita Meyer and former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis.

KANSAS: Even national Republicans acknowledge that the Kansas GOP is imploding from a battle between moderates and conservatives, and Sebelius has taken advantage, helping boost the party and luring disaffected moderate Republicans to switch parties.

The most stunning switch involved former state GOP chairman Mark Parkinson, who joined her second-term ticket as lieutenant governor. Parkinson has his eyes on the governorship, and if Sebelius leaves to join an Obama administration and Parkinson runs as the incumbent, he’d get an extra boost.

The GOP’s gubernatorial picture is muddier. Conservative U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback could probably win the primary but may have a harder time statewide. U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are possible contenders, as is state Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt.

Sebelius’ efforts to boost the Democratic infrastructure and fundraising capacity may well be her “great legacy,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who spent a sabbatical working for Sebelius – though he added that “the ,000 question is whether it will prosper without Sebelius at the helm.”

OKLAHOMA: Henry has been popular in this Republican-trending state, but the Democrats’ key to winning in 2010 will depend on three strong statewide officials: Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, state Treasurer Scott Meacham and Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

On the GOP side, a rising star, state Rep. Lance Cargill, was hurt when he lost his post as Speaker amid ethical questions. U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and Mary Fallin, the latter a former lieutenant governor, are mentioned as possible candidates, along with U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the “Out There” column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.

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