More Power in the Statehouse?

By: - February 16, 2010 12:00 am


Congressman J. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina says he decided to run for governor the moment President Obama signed the massive federal stimulus package into law last year.

“It is time the states reassert their sovereignty,” says Barrett, a four-term conservative Republican. “That’s an effort I will gladly champion as governor.”

He is giving up his congressional seat even though he doesn’t exactly have a clear path to the statehouse — Barrett faces a crowded field of Republicans hoping to succeed Republican Governor Mark Sanford, who is term-limited from running again.

There are a surprising number of Gresham Barretts roaming the halls of Congress this year. Nine members hope to leave Washington and take over one of the 37 governorships up for grabs-a larger number than in many recent election years. And seven of the nine are Republicans. They have come to believe they can accomplish more of their goals moving to a statehouse than remaining in a Congress still likely to be controlled by Democrats after this fall.

Republican Congresswoman Mary Fallin of Oklahoma believes congressional experience will work in her favor. She says her two terms in Congress enabled her “to see firsthand how decisions made in Washington can affect state spending and policy decision.” The House’s health care reform bill, she argues, would have cost Oklahoma $128 million at a time when state revenues have fallen 25 percent. Fallin hopes to be the first woman elected governor of Oklahoma, replacing Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who is term-limited and cannot run again.

Democratic Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, who hopes voters elect him the first African-American governor in that state’s history, says his years in Washington will help him politically in Montgomery. “Four terms in Congress have also taught me that bitter partisanship and ideological warfare are threats to the process of getting things done. I will bring those lessons to the task of breaking up the special interest group monopoly that dominates Alabama politics.” He would replace Republican Gov. Bob Riley who is forced to retire because of term limits.

With its victories last fall in New Jersey and Virginia-the only gubernatorial contests last year-Republicans go into the 2010 elections with control of 24 governorships to the Democrats’ 26. Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, says the GOP effort to reclaim its status as the national majority party begins at the state level with Republicans taking a majority of the governorships in 2010. And he sees members of Congress as a key component of the strategy.

But are these legislators making a smart political decision? History does seem to be on the GOP side.

Research shows that in the past 60 years, the party that wins the White House loses gubernatorial berths in the following midterm elections. On the other hand, voters’ respect for Congress as an institution is reaching record lows, with nearly 8 in 10 now disapproving, according to a recent Gallup poll . That could make it a tough sell for candidates like Fallin and Barrett-no matter how loudly they protest that they are as fed up with congressional politics as the voters. The House of Representatives might turn out to be a difficult launching pad for a 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

“Wisdom used to be that if you were a member of Congress you had a real good shot of getting elected governor because the theory was that you knew how to run for office,” says Natalie Davis, a professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. “That’s not always the case.”

“The disadvantages are apparent this year,” adds independent political analyst Rhodes Cook, publisher of The Rhodes Cook Newsletter “You are going from being part of the federal government, an inside-the-Beltway-type, or at least you could be characterized that way, which implies that you are out of touch and part of the problem, rather than the solution.”

That is precisely what is happening in Texas, where veteran U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has parachuted on to the state political scene, trying to unseat Governor Rick Perry in a Republican primary.

“Perry has painted her as a Washington liberal and part of everything that is wrong in the country and that is sticking to some degree,” says James W. Riddlesperger Jr., a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “If you had asked me coming into last year who the most popular office holder in Texas was, I don’t think there is any question it was Kay Bailey Hutchison. She has won every statewide election she has ever run and won them all handily … And yet here she is running behind Rick Perry who has never been a terribly popular governor.”


Others think the Texas case is more of an aberration. Jack Holmes, a political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, gives Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra a good shot at besting a crowded field of gubernatorial contenders who all promise to jumpstart that state out of its decade-long recession. Hoekstra may be linked to Washington in the eyes of the electorate, but he can claim to be an outsider in the politics of his home state. He has never run for any state office before; he was a furniture company executive before winning a congressional seat in 2000. “There is a need to rethink a lot of what goes on in Michigan and there can be an advantage to someone from the outside,” Holmes says.

Another advantage is financial. While members of the U.S. House have to retire from their jobs to run for governor, they can keep the money they raised for congressional campaigns to use for their gubernatorial effort. Davis of Alabama has raised a reported $2.2 million, of which $1 million came from his congressional account.

Results of the last two midterm elections show no clear pattern when it comes to members of Congress running for governor. In 2006, seven House members were on the ballot for governor and lost, and only three won: Republicans C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho and Jim Gibbons of Nevada, and Democrat Ted Strickland of Ohio (D).

The 2002 campaign year, on the other hand, saw six members of Congress win governorships for the first time, with only three being defeated.Republicans Riley of Alabama and Sanford of South Carolina and Democrat John Baldacci of Maine all moved from Washington to assume gubernatorial control. (The other three members of the U.S. House or Senate who won that year have already left office: Republicans Frank Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Ehrlich of Maryland and Democrat Rod Blagojevich of Illinois).

It’s natural to wonder if the GOP members of Congress running for governor this year made the decision to do it because they thought their party was doomed to be the minority in Congress for the foreseeable future. “It would speak volumes about the tenor of the year if one or more of these Republicans switched back to a congressional reelection bid,” says Rhodes Cook. “One could surmise that they caught the scent of a House majority in the making.”

But Fallin of Oklahoma says she won’t regret running for governor even if her fellow Republicans regain control of Congress. “Being governor is a very important job at a critical time,” says the former lieutenant governor and state representative. “As one of 435, it’s hard to get things done” She points out that as a member of the minority party, she has yet to have a direct meeting with the President.

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