The Return of the Ex-Governors

Campaign 2010 has less than a month to go. And in a handful of states it's possible that what's old may end up being new again. Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports:


All across America, incumbents are struggling to survive a call to "throw the rascals out."

One survey suggests that voters feel their own representatives are not worthy of re-election, a record low for incumbents.

And yet, across America this year, no less than five ex-governors, who are years, even decades, away from the state house, have won their party's nomination to win back their old jobs.

Maryland Republican Bob Ehrich lost four years ago. Georgia Democrat Roy Barnes is seeking the office he lost eight years ago. Oregon Democrat John Kitzhaber stepped down eight years ago. Iowa Republican Terry Branstad retired twelve years ago. And California Democrat Jerry Brown was governor 28 years ago.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said "there are no second acts in American life," he surely wasn't contemplating this mass political resurrection. So we asked: How to view all this gubernatorial déjà vu?

Special Report: Campaign 2010

Terry Branstad is pressing the flesh, working the crowd, more than a decade after he held the governor's office for 16 years - and after a stint at a university as president - he is running again. And the question is, why?

"I loved what I was doing, but being governor is a bigger job, with bigger challenges," Branstad said. "I got proven results. I have done it before and I can do it again."

And there's one clue to the re-emergence of these "ex's," and why Branstad has opened up a significant lead over the incumbent Democratic governor, Chet Culver. The very discontent with those now in office makes those who were then in office a reminder of better times.

Ann Selzer is a prominent Iowa-based pollster on both the state and national level.

"And now they have a window of opportunity because people are disappointed," Selzer said. "People are unhappy. I think it sort of pushes that urge within them, to get back in the saddle and be the one to lead things to a better tomorrow."

Nowhere is the effort to return more remarkable than in California, where Jerry Brown is seeking to regain the office he first won literally half a lifetime ago

"I like this work. I promised never to admit that, but I do enjoy it. I like the politics, I like the government, and I find this almost a Rubik's cube of complexity, an intractable, unsolvable problems. And I just feel my entire life work, everything I've ever learned, everything I've ever done, has prepared me to take it on. And that kind of a challenge excites me," Brown said.

"If you remember, when, in that movie about Patton, when he talks about how he loved war, you know, and that's a shocking kind of statement. But he was a great general because he loved what he did. And I love this work," Brown said.

Dan Schnur, who runs the Jess Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, and who spent 20 years as a California Republican operative, says the motive is more than a longing for the center ring.

"It's easy to dismiss this as a midlife crisis, as a sports car, as a comb over, as a young girlfriend. That sort of thing," Schnur said. "Even Michael Jordan came out of retirement. Brett Favre goes through this every single summer. And every shopkeeper who's ever retired walks past his or her old store wanting to go back inside and get back behind the cash register. So if you have served, no matter what the job, but particularly in the public eye, at the center of all that action, there's a natural temptation, particularly during difficult economic times, to say, they need me, I can come back, and I can help better than any of you young people can."

Of course, not every ex seeks that corner office again. Gray Davis was California's governor for five years before being recalled by voters in 2003.

"I mean, [people] have suggested to me a couple years ago that I run. I wouldn't take it on a bet because clearly the public sector is going to have to do more with less. And that's a very tough prescription to fulfill. People want you to do more with more, not more with less," Davis said.

Moreover, these ex-governors all have records - targets of opportunity for their opponents, who use their pasts to argue that they are the wrong choice for the future.

So why the effort, why the risk? Maybe it's the very challenge of running a state again in a time of scarcity. Or maybe it's simply in the blood.

"I heard an interview with Dolly Parton one time. Her plane was stranded on the tarmac for five hours and she eventually stood up, started singing, entertaining the crowd," Selzer said. "And the interviewer said, well, don't you get sick of having to be on at the time? And she said in her way, 'Hell, I wanted to be a star all my life. Now that I am, I'm not gonna bitch about it.' And there's a little bit about that that's in any politician."
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