One surprising detail in the resumes of sitting Senators is that there are only ten former Governors in the club. A Governor is one of the most prominent politicians in a state, and usually term-limited (by either law or tradition) so you might expect the Senate to be full of former state executives. I started to consider why this isn’t so.
It is worth noting that there aren’t that many Governors. The Senate’s ratio of 49 former US House Members VS 10 former Governors is much less impressive when you consider that sitting Congressmen outnumber Governors by nearly 9 to 2 to begin with. Governors in the Senate are also outnumbered by those who came to the Senate after being elected or appointed to a lesser statewide office, but that’s because there are so many of those guys. In New York, the elected positions include Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and State Comptroller.
Another factor explaining the discrepancy is age. Phil Bryant of Mississippi is the most recently elected Governor, and he was 57 years old when he began his term. Steve Beshear of Kentucky was just reelected at 67. Governors tend to be accomplished when they start their terms, and it often takes a long time to reach that level of success. In addition, a few suffered setbacks along the way, including losses in earlier bids for statewide office. As a result of all this, when they’re finished serving in the offices, many are ready for retirement rather than a career in the Senate which requires a minimum six-year commitment. Incoming Representatives don’t have to be as accomplished, so they can get start their congressional careers at a younger age.
There are a handful of exceptions. And these guys are much more likely to become Senators than typical Governors. Most of the Governors turned Senators were fifty or younger when they became state executives. And most sitting Governors were older than that when they got elected to the office.
Senators tend to stay in office for a while, a problem for ambitious politicians in states in which one party is dominant. A middle-aged Governor may just never get the opportunity in states like Alabama, Hawaii and California in which both Senators have been in office for more than 15 years. As Congressmen outnumber Governors, if bad timing prevents a state executive from taking advantage of an opening, at least one of the many Representatives will likely be available.
Governors also have more to lose. A failed bid for an equally respectable office can hurt their reputations, so they will be less prone to taking chances, entering races only when they’re confident of winning. For a Congressman, mayor, state legislator or a minor statewide office holder, election to the Senate is an unambiguous promotion, and they can benefit from a close loss, building their name recognition for a later run. Claire McKaskill of Missouri, Diane Feinstein of California, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Olympia Snowe of Maine are among the Senators elected to the office after failed gubernatorial bids.
I wondered if one problem was that Governors were especially vulnerable to national trends. Statewide office isn’t gerrymandered, so careers can often come to ignoble ends, if the national mood goes against the political party. But it’s actually rare for an incumbent Governor to lose, even if it’s a wave election for the other party.
Only two Democratic Governors (Chet Culver of Iowa, Ted Strickland of Ohio) lost reelection in 2010. None of the four Republican Governors who sought reelection in 2008 lost, and Robert Ehlrich of Maryland was the only Republican incumbent to lose a General Election in 2006. Twelve Republican incumbents were reelected, even in states like California, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut.
However, the off-year seems to be worse for incumbent Governors. There were a total of five gubernatorial elections in 2007 and 2009, three of which involved Governors seeking reelection. Two of those Governors lost, foreshadowing wave elections against their party. It could be that it’s difficult to nationalize a gubernatorial election, when members of Congress are on the ballot. That could explain the fates of two Arkansas Democrats who sought reelection in 2010: Governor Mike Beebe was reelected with 64%, while Senator Blanche Lincoln didn’t even get 37%.
Governors are more likely to lose in good years for their party, or to be forced out of office. After her much criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina, Kathleen Bianco chose not to seek reelection in 2007. That might be another problem. If you screw up as Governor, voters will be able to tell. The end result is that you’re not going to have an opportunity to be Senator.
A handful of Senators have run for Governor, although it’s understandable why there’s less interest in going from a position without term limits to an equally respectable position with term limits. In some cases, the former Senator had no choice, having lost reelection or been forced out of the office. Though sometimes the legislator decides that he would rather be an executive.