Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee are respected two-term Democratic governors, with proven records of accomplishment.
In this presidential primary season, that counts for next to nothing.
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Bullock, the Montana governor, got shut out of the first debate. Inslee, the Washington governor, hasn’t cracked 2 percent in a national poll. Colorado’s Hickenlooper has hit even harder times — his senior staffers urged him to drop out of the race last month.
The three governors in the 23-candidate field are mired at the bottom of national polls for any number of reasons, though one reason appears to stand out more distinctly than the rest: Donald Trump.
While the steady stream of scandal and controversy surrounding the president is proving to be a boon to members of Congress running for the White House — giving some of them almost limitless opportunities for media exposure — it’s turning out to be a problem for the statehouse-based candidates.
Lacking a nexus to the nation’s capital and the Trump administration story of the day, the governors are left standing on the outside looking in, news cycle after news cycle.
“You have a [Attorney General William] Barr hearing or a [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh hearing or impeachment-related hearings — you’re in front of millions and millions of people. The exposure that members of Congress get is tremendous and governors don’t get that,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who considered running in 2020. “I did not have a lot of people asking me to go on national television to explain which roads I was building to ease congestion in Virginia. It was not a sexy topic.”
The cable TV appetite for anti-Trump voices has offered a convenient platform for the House and Senate members who can easily do their hits from the halls of the Capitol. Nationally televised confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh and Barr also helped launch Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker onto the national scene, as the pair leveraged their Judiciary Committee perches to tap into Democratic grassroots outrage and capture headlines.
“Every press story seems to be playing off Donald Trump. It’s either what he said, or responding to what he said,” said former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President Barack Obama. “I’m not even sure Trump knows governors run states.”
Campaign staffers for the governors don’t expect that dynamic to change anytime soon. A senior aide to one of the governors — none of the campaigns would talk on the record — is already bracing for the bounty of TV hits that will benefit rival 2020 candidates when former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before Congress next week.
“You know who will be in those conversations? People in Congress, people in the Senate,” the aide said. “You know who’s not going to be in those conversations? People not in Congress, people not in the Senate. What ends up happening is these candidates end up having a louder voice on the national stage because of it.”
It wasn’t always this way. Doubts about elevating legislators to the presidency once ran deep — until Obama’s victory in 2008, John F. Kennedy was the last president to have moved directly from Congress to the White House. Governors were elected to the White House in seven of the eight elections between 1976 and 2004.
Fundraising, in particular, has been a problem for the governors this year. Their donor bases tend to be narrower, and constrained to their home state — and they can’t transfer their money to a presidential race.
Senators, on the other hand, have broader networks of donors and their existing campaign accounts are dictated by federal rules, meaning they can seamlessly move money built up over time into their presidential accounts.
As a result, they’ve gotten a big head start. Hickenlooper, for example, raised $2 million by the end of the first-quarter reporting period and Inslee raised $2.2 million. While that wasn’t so far off from the size of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s haul over the same period — $3 million — the New York senator had the benefit of transferring $9.6 million from her existing Senate account.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren did the same — she transferred more than $10 million. Sen. Amy Klobuchar transferred $3 million from her Senate account.
That financial edge is proving critical this cycle because it has enabled well-funded candidates to buy up email lists and bulk up their online fundraising — which is essential to success in a primary where the Democratic National Committee required candidates to have 68,000 unique donors to make the first round of debates and 130,000 unique donors to qualify for the second round.
“The competition to get into the debates is running campaigns into the ground,” said a campaign staffer for one of the governors, referring to the high cost of acquiring or attracting unique donors.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania identified another hurdle for the governors: None hail from large states with high-profile media markets. And they’re all running as moderates — a tough sell in a primary where the activism and energy are with the left flank of the party. That leaves them vying for a slice of the electorate that, at least for now, is aligned with former Vice President Joe Biden.
“These governors are all effective governors,” Rendell said. “But none of them have that charismatic personality. That doesn’t mean they won’t make a good president, but there are no Pete Buttigiegs among them. They’re not hell-raisers. They’re not angry, they’re not flamboyant. They have trouble, so I think it’s the nature of the personality a little bit.”
Former Gov. Jim Hodges of South Carolina, the state’s last Democratic governor, also pointed to the challenge of breaking through as relative moderates in a crowded field.
“These are accomplished people,” he said. “Their politics don’t match up with the primary electorate in a 20-plus-person field. It’s hard for moderates to distinguish themselves.”