Chance to be governor lures members from House

Fully half of the 18 members leaving the House next year jumped in order to run for governor in their states, looking to trade in legislative gridlock for executive orders — and the chance to play a dominating role in redrawing their colleagues’ districts in four years.

One House member, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), has since dropped out of the governor’s race in his state. But even so, more representatives are already seeking governorships than the seven who ran in 2010, the last time there were as many open gubernatorial races as there will be next year. A handful of others are also mulling runs of their own.

But most of the aspiring governors are vacating the comfy confines of safe congressional districts for what, historically, has been a bad bet. The last time this many sitting representatives ran for governor, in 2006, twice as many lost as won.

Lawmakers are motivated partly by the quest for more power – being one in a village of 435, especially in the Democratic minority, only gets you so far. They are also seeking the chance to assist or resist the Trump administration, depending on their party, in implementing new policy throughout the states.

For Democrats in particular, the choice between another term in the House minority or the chance to lead their home states can be an easy one.

“It’s a good partnership to have folks who have federal experience, have relationships here but can be the governor of their states so they don’t execute some of these federal changes in a way that harms their citizens,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who announced in December that she would run for governor in 2018. “And you would be in charge of redistricting.”

On the GOP side, members have watched Republican governors make political gains and pass major policy initiatives throughout the Obama administration, and they want in on the action.

“Republican governors are taking action, making the tough decisions, and are able to point to key results for the people of their states,” said Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson. “That’s tougher to do in Washington as a member of Congress.

Rep. Diane Black, a four-term Republican from a safe GOP seat in Tennessee, became the latest lawmaker to launch her gubernatorial campaign last week. The current House Budget chairwoman joins eight other lawmakers, as well as a handful of others who are considering runs.

Another three House Democrats are in governor’s races in their states: Lujan Grisham, Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, and Colorado’s Jared Polis. (Perlmutter, also of Colorado, has since dropped out of the race but won’t seek reelection in the House.) Two former Democratic members, Gwen Graham of Florida and Betty Sutton of Ohio, are also running.

On the Republican side, Black, Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Jim Renacci of Ohio and Raul Labrador of Idaho are all running. But Rep. Bruce Poliquin could also run in Maine, especially if Sen. Susan Collins decides against a gubernatorial bid.

“It’s one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in elected office,” Pearce told the Albuquerque Journal this summer. “We could have pretty well cruised in the 2nd District, but at the end of the day, if New Mexico fails while we are getting some successes in D.C. then that’s a problem.”

Most of the members running start off at least as strong contenders, if not favorites, for their party’s nomination. Labrador will face Lt. Gov. Brad Little and self-funding businessman Tommy Ahlquist in solidly red Idaho, and Noem is set to battle Attorney General Marty Jackley in similarly crimson South Dakota.

Renacci has tied himself to Trump ahead of a Republican primary against three statewide officials in Ohio, while Freedom Caucus member Pearce is a primary frontrunner in blue-tinted New Mexico.

Graham, a moderate Democrat, is the only woman in a crowded Florida Democratic field, and Grisham’s path to the governorship got easier when New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas opted not to run. Walz, who represents a blue-collar district won by Trump, is one of at least six serious Democratic candidates in Minnesota, while Polis’ personal wealth has him as an early favorite to at least secure the Democratic nomination in Colorado.

Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association who is now a partner at 50-State Strategies, said House members bring positives (established fundraising networks, campaign experience) and negatives (ties to an unpopular Washington) to a gubernatorial campaign.

“You can put a picture of the member with Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama and say they represent everything wrong with Washington,” he said, paraphrasing a regular GOP campaign strategy over the last eight years. But he also said the number one challenge any campaign faces is gathering enough resources. “There’s nobody who’s better equipped to raise the money than a member of Congress,” O’Comartun said.
For some lawmakers, the partisanship that sells well in a district back home may not translate to a statewide race where the ability to across the aisle appeals more to voters.

“I think the folks who end up sometimes making the best governors are folks who are pragmatic, are centrists, who just want to get things done,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who successfully jumped from the House to the governorship in the 1990s — though he notes he had already been elected statewide, since Delaware has one House seat.

Both Pearce and Labrador are members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. Labrador has often sparred with the only other member of the Idaho congressional delegation, moderate GOP Rep. Mike Simpson. And Pearce’s hardline politics may not play so well in a state that trends blue.

“Sometimes the people who end up as U.S. representatives in the House are well left of center or well right of center. And those folks don’t always make the best governor or the best candidate for governor,” Carper added.

Even in some states with one party firmly in control, the House has never been a solid stepping stone to the governorship.

In New Mexico, Colorado and South Dakota, no sitting representative has ever won the governorship, according to Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who tracks political trends for Smart Politics.

A Democratic House member hasn’t won Minnesota’s governorship in more than a century. In Idaho, only one House lawmaker — outgoing Gov. Butch Otter — has ever won a gubernatorial campaign.

The aspiring governors in Ohio and Tennessee have slightly better historical records to fall back on. Both states have seen three sitting lawmakers elected governor since the turn of the 20th century. But the most recent in Ohio is Democrat Ted Strickland in 2006 and in Tennessee, and it’s been nearly a quarter-century since Republican Don Sundquist won in Tennessee, Ostermeier said.

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