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Why Governors Are Struggling in the 2016 Race

The conventional wisdom is that successful candidates should stay far from Washington. So why are senators doing so much better than governors this cycle?

NationalJounal  – Novemeber 18, 2015 – When the GOP pres­id­en­tial primary began, the trendy opin­ion among Wash­ing­ton in­siders was the party would nom­in­ate a gov­ernor—someone, the think­ing went, with a re­cord of con­ser­vat­ive achieve­ment far from the much-hated Belt­way.

Ac­tu­al Re­pub­lic­an voters ap­par­ently don’t share that view.

In a primary that has de­fied pro­gnost­ic­a­tion, one of the biggest sur­prises yet has been the fail­ure of any Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, former or cur­rent, to break through to the top of the field. Each of them has dropped either to the lower rungs of the polls or out of the race en­tirely—a fact un­der­scored Tues­day when Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal un­ce­re­mo­ni­ously ended his strug­gling can­did­acy.

He was the third ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate to quit the race, join­ing former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and cur­rent Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er. And they fared only mar­gin­ally worse than the three vi­able gov­ernors who re­main—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich—each of whom has run a dis­ap­point­ing cam­paign that has made them, for the time be­ing, long shots.

So why has such a tra­di­tion­al step­ping stone to the pres­id­ency proven so in­ad­equate now? The reas­on, seni­or Re­pub­lic­an strategists say, lies in a fun­da­ment­al change with­in an angry Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate and a host of can­did­ates—Don­ald Trump, Ben Car­son, Marco Ru­bio, and Ted Cruz—whose back­ground and tal­ents are bet­ter suited to take ad­vant­age. The usu­al ad­vant­ages en­joyed by gov­ernors run­ning for the White House, such as a re­cord of ac­com­plish­ments or status as a Wash­ing­ton out­sider, simply no longer rate.

“We are in­to an age where it seems like your abil­ity to get your­self on cable news and be a rock star in a real­ity-TV era mat­ters more than what you’ve ac­com­plished in a state like Texas or New Jer­sey or Flor­ida,” said Henry Bar­bour, a com­mit­tee­man for the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and an in­form­al ad­viser to Rick Perry’s cam­paign. “It’s tough, and it’s not good, but it is real­ity. And cam­paigns have to deal with what the voters are look­ing for.”

Even in the smal­ler Demo­crat­ic field, the lone re­main­ing gov­ernor—former Mary­land chief ex­ec­ut­ive Mar­tin O’Mal­ley—is a long way from second place, look­ing up at vet­er­an Sen. Bernie Sanders. Former Rhode Is­land Gov. Lin­coln Chafee dropped out of the con­test in Oc­to­ber.

Usu­ally, gov­ernors can count on a bump in sup­port from voters hungry to change both their party and Wash­ing­ton with a lead­er who hails from bey­ond the Belt­way. It helped pro­pel Ron­ald Re­agan and Bill Clin­ton to their re­spect­ive parties’ pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion and, later, the pres­id­ency.

But with Car­son’s and Trump’s pres­ence, the voter ap­pet­ite for change has passed over gov­ernors in fa­vor of can­did­ates even more re­moved from the es­tab­lish­ment.

“Those people have taken the Re­pub­lic­an grass­roots by storm,” said Greg Mueller, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist who worked on Pat Buchanan’s 1992 pres­id­en­tial bid. “I think what’s happened is these gov­ernors who were go­ing to be the out­sider can­did­ates, an end run was done around them with more real out­siders.”

Between them, Trump and Car­son have drawn the sup­port of about half of the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate since the sum­mer, ac­cord­ing to na­tion­al polls. And Cruz and Ru­bio, while draw­ing com­par­at­ively lower sup­port, are widely seen as the two can­did­ates most likely to win the nom­in­a­tion be­cause of their per­ceived abil­ity to com­bine grass­roots en­thu­si­asm with a pro­fes­sion­ally run cam­paign.

The three gov­ernors left, by com­par­is­on, barely reach double-di­gits in sup­port—com­bined. And months of talk­ing about what they ac­com­plished as gov­ernor have done little to move the needle.

It’s not as if they, or the three can­did­ates who have left the race, have noth­ing to talk about: Walk­er waged a high-pro­file fight to neu­ter uni­ons in Wis­con­sin, Perry led the loud and proud con­ser­vat­ive state in the coun­try for more than dec­ade, and Bush—of­ten de­rided by act­iv­ists as a squish—was only re­cently con­sidered the coun­try’s most con­ser­vat­ive gov­ernor. Jin­dal cut spend­ing, while Kasich and Christie have led con­ser­vat­ive re­form in states with a strong Demo­crat­ic pres­ence.

Voters just didn’t care—in part, be­cause their dis­gust with the polit­ic­al sys­tem has made them mis­trust­ful of any­thing an elec­ted of­fi­cial. Wes An­der­son, a top strategist and poll­ster for the Jin­dal cam­paign, said fo­cus groups and sur­veys con­duc­ted by the cam­paign showed that voters liked the in­di­vidu­al parts of Jin­dal’s re­cord. They just re­flex­ively didn’t be­lieve him when he talked about it.

“In this very strange and con­vo­luted elec­tion cycle, the Re­pub­lic­an primary voters have said, ‘If you’re in elec­ted of­fice, then I dis­count what you’re say­ing,’” said An­der­son.

He ad­ded: “If a politi­cian is telling them they’ve done good things, they’re not listen­ing.”

The gov­ernors have also lacked the me­dia plat­forms avail­able to sen­at­ors not just in of­fice, but while they were run­ning for of­fice in the first place. Ru­bio and Cruz, for in­stance, ran as con­ser­vat­ive in­sur­gents in 2010 and 2012, re­spect­ively, against es­tab­lish­ment-backed Re­pub­lic­ans.

Those races con­nec­ted the now-sen­at­ors with grass­roots Re­pub­lic­ans all over the coun­try.

“Be­cause of the na­tion­al­iz­a­tion of Sen­ate races, these guys have been able to build na­tion­al brands around the coun­try,” said Jordan Gehrke, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “So my grand­moth­er in Car­son City, Michigan, feels she has a bond with Ted Cruz in a way she doesn’t with Bobby Jin­dal.”

Since ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, their op­por­tun­it­ies have only in­creased. They’ve been in the cen­ter of high-pro­file fights against both the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, battles that have landed them cov­er­age both na­tion­ally and loc­ally.

“Frankly, there is just more a lot more theat­er to this,” Gehrke said, “be­cause there’s a lot more me­dia.”


Alex Roarty