For months, conventional wisdom held that Republicans would be well-served to nominate a governor as their presidential standard-bearer, given that voters would prefer someone with executive experience instead of a legislator. The GOP boasts a deep roster of accomplished governors, many of whom won tough political and legislative battles against Democratic opposition in their home states.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the nomination. Every current governor running or preparing to run for the presidency has seen his popularity crater since testing the national political waters. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who decisively won reelection two years ago, has since faced endless scandal and economic stagnation back home. As budget challenges grow in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal is having trouble finding allies among his own party for his fiscal proposals. And as he spends more time outside the state, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hit an all-time low in job approval this month, weakening his argument that he’s a principled conservative who has been able to maintain his popularity in a Democratic-friendly state.
The tales of Walker, Christie, and Jindal undermine the strongest case for the governor-to-president track—that their governing records would be unqualified advantages. The biggest problem for them is that it’s hard to run their home states while spending days far from home campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa. Jindal spent nearly half of 2014 out of Louisiana, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, and has spent more than 37 days outside of the state this year. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie spent 152 days in 2014 outside New Jersey, according to a New York Times analysis. A Wisconsin State Journal study found that Walker has been out of state for about half of this year, even as a contentious legislative battle over his budget is heating up.
Even if governors insist they can do state business on the road, the perception of being focused on politics over governing isn’t a good look. It’s why Mitt Romney stepped down after one term as governor of Massachusetts, and why his once-solid approval ratings had begun dipping when his presidential ambitions became clear. On the Democratic side, former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s job-approval rating dropped to 41 percent in a pre-midterm Washington Post survey; he failed to get his lieutenant governor elected in deep-blue Maryland. Since George W. Bush in 2000, neither party has nominated a sitting governor to run for president.
The other political challenge these governors face is proving their conservative bona fides to a national GOP audience, even if it’s not in their own political self-interest in their home states. As energy revenues have dipped, Jindal has remained steadfast in opposing any new tax increases to balance the budget. But in doing so, he’s embraced other fee increases, spending cuts, and other short-term fixes that have hurt his popularity back home, even alienating former supporters. Walker’s recent support for right-to-work legislation was a no-brainer in a Republican presidential primary, but is opposed by a majority of Wisconsinites in the latest Marquette Law survey. Christie’s entitlement-reform proposal would raise the retirement age and means-test Social Security—ideas that draw interest from fiscal conservatives, but will be a tough sell with a New Jersey electorate that disapproves of his handling of the statewide budget.
The polling from these governors’ home states paints a brutal picture of how they’re faring. Christie’s favorability rating dipped to 35 percent in an April Quinnipiac poll, with a clear 55 percent majority arguing that his presidential interest is distracting him from his gubernatorial duties. Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters in the Marquette Law poll said there is no way a governor can “run for president and still handle their duties as governor.” Walker’s overall approval rating dipped to 41 percent. In one of the most Republican states in the country, Jindal’s approval rating is underwater, according to an April 2014 Southern Media and Opinion Research poll—the most recent public, live-caller survey conducted of the governor’s favorability.
Those numbers should be a cautionary sign for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been exploring the possibility of his own presidential campaign but is behind his gubernatorial colleagues in organizing for a race. He’s been one of the most popular governors in the country, hitting an all-time high job approval this month (61 percent) after winning all but two counties in Ohio during last year’s reelection. But to win over skeptical Republican primary voters, he’ll risk losing the attributes that have made him so popular in the first place—his passionate advocacy for Ohio’s interests and willingness to break with his party on hot-button issues, from supporting Medicaid expansion to spending public money to fight poverty.
In a recent tit-for-tat with Marco Rubio over whether being senator or governor prepares one better for the presidency, Walker said that “what it’s about is leadership” in extolling the attributes a governor brings to the table. That’s true to some extent—and Walker’s successful fight with labor in his home state is a central argument for his campaign—but it also carries a great deal of downside. It’s a Catch-22: Being a governor provides those executive opportunities, but the lengthy presidential campaign prevents them from exercising that very leadership.
It raises an essential question for 2016: Can you be disliked by a majority of your constituents back home and still make the case for being president?