Alaska Governor First Woman in No. 2 GOP Slot

By: - August 29, 2008 12:00 am

In less than two years, the first woman to serve in Alaska’s top post has become the first female vice-presidential running mate in the Republican Party.

Sarah Palin – presumptive presidential nominee John McCain’s vice-presidential pick – is also among the youngest and least-experienced presidential running mates chosen by any major party candidate.

Before entering the governor’s mansion in 2006, the 44-year-old mother of five was city councilwoman and mayor of the tiny Alaskan village, Wasilla, and a star high school basketball player and beauty queen. A staunch social conservative, Palin is a lifelong National Rifle Association member, and avid hunter and fisherman.

Abortion foes, who earlier this month expressed concern that McCain might choose one of two abortion-rights supporters reportedly on his list – U.S. S en. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut, and former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge – were pleased with his choice of Palin, an outspoken abortion opponent.  

“With this bold and inspired selection, Sen. McCain has verified his stated commitment to assembling a truly pro-life administration,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of anti-abortion group AUL Action

Like McCain, Palin is considered a political maverick. In 2006, she beat Alaska’s Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in the primaries on a promise of cleaning up corruption. She is now experiencing top approval ratings.

In her short time in politics, Palin has earned a reputation as a tough negotiator on energy – a key issues in the Republican presidential platform. As governor, she has spent much of her time wrangling with oil company executives over a proposed billion pipeline that would transport much-needed natural gas to the lower 48 states. She also served on the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission under Murkowski.

McCain’s selection of a woman broke a Republican mold, but he already had veered from tradition by considering five other governors – Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former governors Mike Huckabee (Arkansas), Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) and Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania) – a rarity in presidential politics.

Not since 1972 when Richard Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his No. 2, has a sitting governor served as presidential running mate in either party.

In the history of U.S. presidential politics, only 11 former governors have served as vice president. Agnew was the last to run as a vice presidential candidate, but the most recent former governor to serve in the post was Nelson Rockefeller of New York, who became vice president to Gerald Ford after the resignations of Agnew and Nixon.

The vice presidency aside, history shows it’s a good bet at least a few governors or former governors will be heading for Washington, D.C., in 2009.

President Bush turned to four of his fellow Republican governors in his first term: Ridge, sworn in as the country’s first homeland security advisor in 2001; Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was named secretary of Health and Human Services; New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, who became administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 and who was succeeded in 2003 by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who later became secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Two more governors were tapped in Bush’s second term: Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to be secretary of the Interior Department and Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, who served as secretary of agriculture until September 2007.

The absence of a governor in the top tier of presidential contenders is rare in recent years. Four of the last five presidents were governors first, and 17 of 43 presidents were governors.

The contest between McCain and Obama will be the first general election since 1972 that neither major party candidate was a governor or former governor. The 1972 race pitted Nixon against George McGovern, a U.S. senator. Nixon had lost in a 1962 race for California governor. 

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.