This New Year brought little in the way of the presidential cattle call—save a surprise admission from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman that he wasn’t ruling out running. Huntsman, who two years ago was cast as a new breed of pragmatic Republican, has been virtually absent from the national picture since President Obama tapped him as U.S. ambassador to China.
Huntsman’s coming-out in Newsweek to express interest in 2012 underscored two realities of GOP presidential politics this year. The first: The field is so unimposing that even an Obama appointee who broke with the party base on immigration and climate change sees a chance. The second: The best background for a future presidential candidate is through the governors’ ranks.
It’s no coincidence there are at least seven governors or former governors interested in running for the GOP nod. With Congress in such low esteem, the ability to market oneself as an executive who achieved results is a tailor-made selling point for voters, especially in a down economy.
The problem for Republicans is that the farm system of candidates from the governors’ mansions has been exceptionally thin for most of the last decade. That’s created a major void, the kind that happens when a party doesn’t have any big-state or battleground governors in the mix. If politics were football, the last decade of GOP draft classes from the governors’ ranks have been abysmal, brightened only by an outstanding cycle these past two years that ushered in numerous political talents. Unfortunately for the GOP, they aren’t ready for prime time yet.
A bumper crop of popular GOP governors in the 1990s foreshadowed the GOP’s winning the White House in 2000. But the combination of squandered opportunities, tough election cycles, and a rough economy have dwindled the ranks of viable GOP governors and, in turn, GOP presidential hopes in 2012.
For much of the last decade, Democrats ruled the roost in important electoral battlegrounds—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado. And in major states where they’ve been successful, Republican governors have turned out to be busts thanks to ideological infidelity, scandal, or political setbacks.
Republicans nominated unreliable conservatives in some of the biggest states, like Florida, California, and Ohio. Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who enjoyed presidential buzz after 2008, left his party after his Senate campaign collapsed. Running the fourth-largest state should be a national launching pad, not a graveyard. In Ohio, former Gov. Bob Taft alienated his base by raising taxes and pled guilty to ethics violations. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though not eligible to run for president, ended his term with dumpster-low approval ratings.
And then there were those afflicted by scandal. It wasn’t that long ago that Gov. Mark Sanford was mentioned as a sleeper conservative contender for 2012. Thanks to an all-too-public extramarital affair, his political career is in the tank. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, who governed a key primary and general election battleground, is leaving office disgraced both personally and politically.
That has made sitting governors from smaller states like Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour automatic contenders despite vulnerabilities that would preclude them from being top contenders in a stronger field. (In fact, the relative lack of solid candidates is what propelled Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal into the conversation, even though his wonky demeanor and speed-talking style makes it unlikely to see him running successfully for national office.)
Consider this: Pawlenty won just 44 and 47 percent of the vote, respectively, in his two successful gubernatorial bids. That’s not to dismiss his policy accomplishments dealing with a Democratic legislature, but he’s not the political force that screams top-tier candidate.
Barbour’s lobbying background should be toxic in the current anti-Washington fervor. Despite his charm, it’s difficult to imagine a Deep South Republican expanding the GOP map in a general election -- a fact highlighted when Barbour clumsily talked about his hometown's decades-old race relations in an interview with the Weekly Standard.
Daniels is the sleeper in the field, boasting a record of entitlement reforms and political success in a state Obama carried. He’s in need of charisma and an effective outreach to social conservatives, but has the profile to go from dark horse to contender.
And then there are the three former governors, each with political starpower from their experience in the 2008 spotlight, which left them with markedly different images than three years ago, when their gubernatorial record was their central qualifier.
All three have glaring weaknesses that will be tough to overcome. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin generates endless buzz, but even many of her own supporters wouldn't back her for president. Nearly 60 percent of respondents wouldn't consider voting for her, according to a December ABC News/Washington Post poll, including 40 percent of her supposed base (white evangelicals and conservatives).
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the default frontrunner, but his original appeal as a business-savvy executive from a blue state has lost its resonance thanks to a 2012 campaign that will require him to distance himself from his central policy achievement, health care reform. He will have to explain how he can support an individual mandate that was the crux of his Massachusetts health care law while also backing lawsuits that seek to overturn the new health care law’s individual mandate.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee holds strong appeal with social conservatives, but it’s hard to see him winning over the college-educated and business constituencies within the GOP—or being taken seriously by the party establishment.
The need for candidates who can run on recent accomplishments over television appearances underscores the importance of a gubernatorial farm team. Republicans have revitalized their ranks, with numerous governors looking like they have the chops to run for national office like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley. Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker will likely get some national buzz down the road.
To defeat Obama in 2012, Republicans would be best-served nominating a competent executive who can point to a record of reform and budget-balancing to contrast with the president—whose agenda struggled to find its footing in the tough economy. Daniels and Pawlenty seem best-positioned to fit this role, but they have little room for error.