But according to interviews with Republicans in their home states, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill differ from Clinton by two important measures: They’ve managed to win elections without developing polarizing personas, and they’ve shied away from emphasizing gender in their campaigns.
The distinctions are important for Obama, the front-runner in the Democratic nominating contest, as his campaign begins the process of thinking about possible running mates. Selecting a woman might serve to mend the gender-based rifts that have surfaced as a result of Clinton’s historic candidacy — and Sebelius, Napolitano and McCaskill all possess red-state political portfolios that would make them attractive vice presidential candidates.
Some common themes emerge when talking to Republicans who have battled them. All three are respected for their ability to win in difficult political environments for Democrats, and all are credited with having done so by successfully tacking to the center, reaching out to Republican voters by crafting an independent image. In part, that’s why Napolitano and Sebelius made Time magazine’s “5 Best Governors” list in 2005.
Napolitano draws praise from the other side of the aisle for managerial competence and canny political skills. Arizona Republicans describe the former federal prosecutor as extremely smart, noting that she has adeptly handled hot-button issues such as immigration.
“I think Gov. Napolitano, to the dismay of a lot of Republicans in this state, has been effective because she has governed from the center,” said Jaime Molera, a Republican political consultant in Phoenix. “She has not been seen as a partisan Democrat.”
Molera points to her successful budget compromises with the Republican state Senate last year as a prime example.
Napolitano’s opponents also agree that her pragmatic approach is an asset — though critics say it reflects a lack of core principles.
“I can’t help but wonder if her strengths and weaknesses are one and the same. She’s a highly calculating politician. She does not make a move without considering the political implications,” said Republican consultant Garrick Taylor. “That has benefited her in a traditionally Republican state, but she runs the risk of being cast as a typical politician.”
In Kansas, where Sebelius has managed to frustrate the Republican political establishment while winning over GOP voters, opponents also view her with a kind of grudging admiration. Though conceding she is warm and persuasive in small settings, Republicans gleefully note that she fell flat in her first moment in the national spotlight — when she delivered the Democratic response to the president’s State of Union speech in January.
But more than anything else, Sebelius’ foes generally agree that she has a great talent for recognizing and seizing opportunities in a state where the Republican majority has been bitterly divided between conservatives and moderates.
“She ran as a conservative. She won [reelection] in Kansas because she’s adopted whatever things the Legislature has done,” said Republican state House Speaker Melvin Neufeld. “She takes credit for whatever happens, which a good politician does.”
When Sebelius first captured the governorship in 2002, she did it with a Republican business executive as her running mate. Four years later, in her 2006 reelection, she stunned the state’s political establishment by selecting a new lieutenant governor candidate to run with &mdah; the state’s former Republican Party chairman.
“Kathleen has done a good job of walking through fissures in the Kansas Republican Party,” said Republican state Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt. “She’s governor because our party has been fairly deeply factionalized since the late '90s, particularly during the last two gubernatorial cycles.”
McCaskill is also respected for her savvy political instincts, winning credit for her campaign trail work ethic and for not making the same mistakes twice.
In an unsuccessful 2004 run for governor, she concentrated heavily on urban areas and got beaten badly in rural counties. When she won her Senate seat in 2006, it was with a populist flavor and a more pronounced focus on rural Missouri.
“She learned that a Democrat in Missouri can’t just focus on urban areas,” said Jared Craighead, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. “You need to focus on rural areas.”
“Claire McCaskill is a crafty politician who campaigns hard,” added Gregg Keller, a Republican consultant who managed Talent’s 2006 campaign.
Curiously, while Sebelius and Napolitano both do well among women voters — according to 2006 exit polls, Napolitano won 66 percent among women in her easy reelection win — McCaskill’s advantage seems less pronounced. In 2006, she won 51 percent among women in a narrow victory.
Like Sebelius and Napolitano, McCaskill did not highlight the gender factor. “I frankly hope gender is not an issue in this campaign at all,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2006. “This is not something we’re stressing around the state.”
In Arizona and Missouri, Republicans also said gender has been a political nonissue.
“The story in Arizona is that we’ve had a number of female chief executives,” said Taylor, the Republican political consultant. “So [Napolitano’s gender] has been part of a story line but hasn’t been part of her narrative personally.”
“I don’t know that [Sebelius’] gender has played a big role, other than that her percentage of female appointees has been greater than most governors,” said Kansas state Senate President Stephen Morris.
Regardless of the strengths Sebelius, Napolitano and McCaskill might bring to the ticket, home state Republicans insist that none of them could deliver their respective states if they were on the ticket.
McCaskill has narrowly lost and narrowly won Missouri in her two most recent elections, and her popularity doesn’t rank with the two governors. Kansas, which delivered 62 percent to President Bush in 2004, is not considered a competitive state for the Democratic nominee. As for Arizona, local Republicans say any boost Napolitano might provide would be washed out by the presence of another home-stater on the ballot — presumptive Republican nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain.