Watch out for the governors as the 2016 presidential race starts to sizzle.
Talk to Republicans in Iowa, traditionally the nation’s first caucus state, and they mention Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as potential White House candidates. In New Hampshire, which usually has the country’s first primaries, executive experience also comes up.
“We tend to like governors,” said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Republican. “We like the idea that they get things done.”
Already, the 2016 presidential cycle is seeing a familiar pattern. Current and former U.S. senators, vice presidents or Cabinet secretaries do well in polls and attract big crowds and big money. They’re national figures, and they’re well known.
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But lurking are the governors, the doers with management experience in tough economic times. Four of the past six presidents came from statehouses: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000. The last time a major presidential election didn’t feature a governor on someone’s ticket was in 1964.
2016 would seem like an unusually good time for a governor to run for president.
“With the deterioration of people’s feelings about Washington, they look to the states,” said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “Governors can talk about their records. Senators can talk about their support for legislation.”
A Quinnipiac University poll taken Dec. 10-15 found Christie leading former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Iowa by 45 to 40 percent. Independents preferred Christie by 44-35 percent.
That’s a better showing than Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who trailed Clinton by 1 percentage point, or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Clinton would defeat by 8.
“Governors have accomplishments they can talk about, and they can be anti-Washington,” explained Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican Magazine.
Senators have a dilemma, he said: “You may be anti-Obama, but you’re part of a system people see as dysfunctional.”
Governors also like to tout their independence from party orthodoxy. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another potential presidential candidate, shook up a national party meeting this year when he told participants to “stop being the stupid party.”
He protested, “We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”
Christie has a national platform next year as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. That might cool the ire of many Republicans that lingers from 2012, when he embraced President Barack Obama as the administration helped with the Superstorm Sandy cleanup.
Voters like such actions, though. “They like how every act of government doesn’t have to be an ideological statement,” Rath said. “The pragmatism of governing takes off some of the harder edges.”
There are risks. If a governor’s image sours or his polices get controversial, he loses his cachet. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is seen as a presidential hopeful. But he’s been dogged in recent weeks by a balky health care exchange. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a candidate in 2012 who might run again in 2016, has had to defend his support for allowing undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
The biggest unknown today is Walker, the 46-year-old Wisconsin governor. Conservatives regard him as a hero because he took on public employee unions, diluted their right to collective bargaining and last year became the first governor in American history to survive a recall election. He came into office in 2011 facing a $3.6 billion shortfall; the state is now in the black.
Walker has published a book, “Unintimidated,” and he recently met with Washington reporters. The question about his ambitions came up, and he said, “I’m not focused on the national. I’m focused on being governor.”
But he also saw an opening for a governor in 2016: “There is a real sense across America that people want an outsider.” Walker was careful not to dwell on the more incendiary social issues. “I don’t apologize for that,” he said of his anti-abortion-rights view, “but I don’t focus on that; I don’t obsess with it.”
In Iowa, his name is mentioned frequently among activists. Gov. Terry Branstad called Walker “kind of a folk hero among Republicans.”
On paper, Walker has a lot of appeal in a state that has much in common with Wisconsin. While Iowa Republicans are conservative, they’re also practical. “He would appeal to the tea party conservative without being a tea party acolyte,” said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll in Wisconsin. “He can say he’s not anti-government, he’s for smaller government.”
Walker, like other governors, faces some unique challenges. Mitt Romney learned during his 2008 and 2012 presidential runs that one’s record is closely scrutinized. Romney was forever explaining how his near-universal Massachusetts health care plan differed from Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which most Republicans hate. It was a hard sell.
Governors also find that styles that had special appeal to their states don’t always work elsewhere. Howard Dean’s energy and outspokenness worked in Vermont, but were less welcomed nationwide.
Still, the 2016-watchers warn not to forget the governors. “They bring a freshness,” Rath said, “and they’re out there doing things.”