Monday, May 17, 2010

House Members Soft-Pedal Their Résumés in Gubernatorial Campaigns

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Even though having Washington, D.C., on your résumé is supposed to be like having a scarlet letter on your lapel this election cycle, more than a dozen current and former Members of Congress are running for governor — and trying to overcome voters’ ill feelings toward the nation’s capital.

Not everyone can be as lucky as Rep. Mary Fallin, the heavy favorite to win the July 27 Oklahoma GOP primary and the general election in November. Instead, Members are trying to figure out how to maximize their federal experience without taking on too much water in their campaign.

“It’s a handicap in more ways than a help. Even more so this time,” said one GOP consultant who has worked with multiple Members who ran for governor. Not only do they have to balance their calendar between official duties and the trail, Members are also casting potentially controversial votes in the middle of a campaign.

In Alabama, Rep. Artur Davis is favored to win the June 1 Democratic gubernatorial primary, but victory is not guaranteed. Davis has been running a general election campaign from the outset and voted against the health care reform bill. So even though Davis’ Democratic primary opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, is running a mediocre campaign, he appears to be drawing votes from disenchanted Democrats who are upset with Davis for voting against health care reform.

In Georgia, GOP Rep. Nathan Deal postponed his resignation from the House in order to vote against the health care bill, hoping that doing so would give him a boost in the gubernatorial primary. But his departure from office was met with headlines about a possible ethics committee investigation into whether he used his Congressional office to help a family-owned business.

It’s exactly what Deal didn’t need in the middle of his battle with Secretary of State Karen Handel for the second slot in the Aug. 10 Republican runoff in the Peach State. State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is expected to finish first in the July 20 primary.

According to one GOP strategist, Members shouldn’t quit to run for governor. The line won’t be erased from their résumé, and they shouldn’t throw away an opportunity to make news.

In South Carolina, Rep. Gresham Barrett is using his office as a platform to demonstrate his opposition to President Barack Obama and the Democratic agenda. One of Barrett’s television ads points out that the lawmaker is “more opposed to Obama than any Congressman in America, but one.”

Barrett is in the middle of a competitive four-candidate Republican primary set for June 8. He’s competing with state Rep. Nikki Haley and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer for a spot in the June 22 runoff against state Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is likely to finish first in the initial primary.

Rep. Zach Wamp, the eight-term Republican from Tennessee, talks about the Beltway from a distance, offering to meet people at the state line who want to take away guns.

Wamp doesn’t have the benefit of a runoff. He’ll have to knock off Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, the frontrunner in the GOP race, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in the Aug. 5 primary.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra appears to be the frontrunner in his race to become governor of Michigan, but there is a long way to go before the Aug. 3 GOP primary. An April 22 Rasmussen Reports survey showed him leading the primary with 28 percent. Wealthy venture capitalist Rick Snyder was second with 14 percent, state Attorney General Mike Cox had 13 percent and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard had 9 percent. The automated survey had a 4.5-point margin of error.

Hoekstra voted in favor of both the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and the Troubled Asset Relief Program last year — decisions that could haunt him in the campaign.

In all four states (Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan), the primary is critical because the GOP nominee will likely start the general election with a distinct advantage. But while Hoekstra is in a strong position in his primary, Deal, Barrett and Wamp are underdogs.

The Sept. 18 primary is critical in Hawaii, where the Democratic nominee will have the edge in November. Neil Abercrombie decided to resign his House seat earlier this year in order to focus on his gubernatorial bid. He should be able to spend more time on the campaign trail battling Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann instead of traveling the 5,000 miles one way from his district to D.C.

A number of former Members of Congress who have been out of the House for a lot longer than Abercrombie and Deal are also running for governor — with varying likelihoods of winning.

Former Rep. Scott McInnis is running in Colorado and doesn’t have much GOP primary opposition, but he faces a tough general election battle with Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D).

In Ohio, former Rep. John Kasich secured the GOP nomination in last week’s primary, but he faces an extremely competitive race against incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who also served in the House. While Democrats will try to use Kasich’s House service against him, they appear to be more excited about the Republican’s subsequent work for Lehman Brothers.

In Wisconsin, former Rep. Mark Neumann (R), who served with Kasich and Strickland in the House, is presenting himself primarily as a small-business man, but he isn’t shying away from his time in Congress.

“People look back at 12 years ago and remember a much different time,” Neumann said in a recent interview. “They remember we balanced the budget and passed tax cuts.”

Neumann’s GOP primary opponent agrees.

“I liked what he did in Congress. I was for it,” Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker said about Neumann’s record in the House. “I’m not going to attack him on it.”

Neumann looks like a slight underdog to Walker in the Sept. 14 primary, with the winner facing Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former Democratic Congressman, in the general election.

Other former Members are much longer shots in either the primary or general elections.

Former Rep. Rick Lazio is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in New York but would face an extremely tough race against state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) in the general election.

In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Hoeffel isn’t even polling in the double digits with the Democratic primary less than a week away.

Four other former Members are running for governor, but their House service is no longer their defining characteristic.

Former Rep. Bill McCollum has spent the past four years as Florida’s attorney general and has a slight advantage over state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D) in this fall’s election. McCollum can’t overlook wealthy health care executive Rick Scott in the GOP primary either.

Former GOP Rep. Bob Ehrlich is running for governor in Maryland, but he was already governor for four years before being defeated for re-election in 2006.

Former Rep. Butch Otter (R) is running for re-election as governor of Idaho, and ex-Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) is running for re-election in Nevada. Otter should be re-elected easily, while Gibbons, who has been battered by personal scandal, will likely lose in either the Republican primary or general election.

This story first appeared in Roll Call and on on May 13, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.