With a battered economy, historic budget shortfalls and a restless electorate, the current environment makes it among the worst of times to be a governor. Yet in at least a half-dozen states, former governors are running again for their old jobs in 2010, or seriously thinking about it.
In early September, former two-term Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber became the latest to announce plans to reclaim his old office, joining a list of former state executives that already includes former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
It’s a list that could soon grow: former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad are among those openly contemplating bids next year.
Even Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who resigned in disgrace last year after it was revealed he had frequented the services of a prostitute, was recently floated as a potential 2010 candidate in the New York Post.
It’s a curious turn of events at a time when cash-strapped states are proving as ungovernable as at any time in recent memory.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon given that being a governor is the hardest job in politics right now,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for The Cook Political Report.
But that hasn’t deterred pols like Kitzhaber, a Democrat who argues that his eight years in the governor’s mansion made him uniquely suited to serve Oregon again.
“The most fundamental thing that I have learned from my terms as governor and over the last six years is that what we are doing now simply is not working: It’s not working for our kids; it is not working for our families; it is not working for Oregon,” Kitzhaber said in his campaign announcement. “I am excited to have the opportunity to put my experience to work to help meet this challenge with you.”
Kitzhaber, who served from 1995 to 2003, isn’t the only former governor drawing on his prior experience to promote his ability to solve his state’s pressing problems.
“At a time of distress, voters are looking for experience and a record of success,” said Steven Glazer, a senior political adviser to Brown, a Democrat who served as California governor from 1975 to 1983. “There’s no need for on-the-job training. When you come back, you know where all the bones are buried and how the bureaucracy works. You know the power of various interests. You know how to get out of these problems to create consensus.”
“I believe we can fix it,” Ehrlich, a former one-term GOP Maryland governor, told POLITICO. “It’s not just a politician saying that. We were there, we were good caretakers of the state, and that’s part of my legacy I feel pretty good about.”
Still, as they eye comebacks, ex-governors are confronting states in far more distress than when they left them. California, where Brown is eyeing a comeback, now has an unemployment rate that is at a post-World War II high of 11.9 percent. GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, has seen his poll numbers plummet as he wrestles with a debilitating state budget crisis.
The economic outlook in other states isn’t much rosier. Oregon has an unemployment rate of 12 percent. Iowa hit a 23-year high jobless rate of 6.5 percent in August. Georgia’s unemployment rate has topped 10 percent.
“The challenges of being a governor now are greater than when the economy was in great shape,” said Craig Varoga, a Washington-based Democratic strategist who is a veteran of gubernatorial campaigns. “Anybody who served previously is going to confront a very different type of challenge.”
“A lot of these governors weren’t governor when fiscal issues were at the forefront,” noted Dave Carney, a strategist who has worked on GOP gubernatorial campaigns.
In some states, a strong sense of nostalgia is driving activists to push for a return of their former governor.
In Iowa, Republicans are clamoring for Branstad, who held the governorship from 1983 to 1999, to return to the public arena. Already, a “Draft Branstad” group has been formed with an eye toward encouraging Branstad, currently the president of Des Moines University, to pursue a fifth four-year term.
Richard Schwarm, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman whom Branstad has tapped to assess his potential candidacy, said the ex-governor had excited party activists, who credit him with solid stewardship of the state’s economy during his tenure in office.
“People think he was able to fix the problem and that he could fix the problem again,” said Schwarm.
The phenomenon of former governors seeking to reclaim their old seats isn’t a new one. In recent decades, Republicans including Fob James of Alabama, Kit Bond of Missouri, Bill Clements of Texas and Bill Janklow of South Dakota all successfully ran again after losing or sitting out terms. West Virginia’s Cecil Underwood even pulled off the remarkable feat of winning a 1996 bid for governor — 40 years after he won his first term in 1956.
On the Democratic side, the recent list of governors who had a break between terms includes Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Bruce King of New Mexico, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Rudy Perpich of Minnesota.
Then there’s former President Bill Clinton, who returned to the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1983 after losing his reelection bid to Republican Frank White in 1980.
While the prospect of former governors winning back their old jobs isn’t exactly new, the number launching or weighing bids this cycle appears unusually high.
“These governors miss the action,” said Carney. “They look at it and say, ‘I did a good job when I was there.’”
For some, like Barnes and Ehrlich, it’s a chance to finish a job that was abruptly interrupted by a defeat after one term.
Nearly all of the former governors eyeing a return would become instantly competitive, analysts say, since they enjoy a built-in fundraising network, an existing base of party support and, most important, high name recognition.
“The advantage they have is the most important advantage you can ask for in electoral politics: name ID,” said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
But running as a former state executive also has its drawbacks. Opponents have the opportunity to pick through a treasure-trove of material that sometimes includes missteps or even scandals.
“Clearly, the disadvantage is your opponent has the ability to litigate every aspect of your tenure,” said Musser.
And ex-governors are also vulnerable to charges that they are past their prime or vestiges of another era.
That’s the strategy San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Brown’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination in California, is embracing.
“The contrast is obvious. If you want new leadership and you want a fresh face, Jerry Brown is not your guy,” said Garry South, a Newsom strategist. “Will that argument be effective with every voter? Of course not. But will it be enough for us to win? Yes.”
In Georgia, where Republicans have wasted little time reminding voters of why they ousted Barnes in 2002, the former one-term Democrat tried to address his baggage right out of the gate in his June announcement speech.
“When I was governor before, I didn’t do enough listening,” Barnes said. “I realize I was impatient, and I had an aggressive agenda. I didn’t take time to explain why I thought certain issues were important or time-sensitive and critical to make a Georgia that could be instead of a Georgia that was.”