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Remember when governors used to win the presidency?

Jay Inslee ends presidential bid

After Washington Governor Jay Inslee's sudden, yet unexpected, departure from the 2020 Democratic primary field, one governor now remains in what is still a crowded field. Inslee joins former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper as the earliest casualties of a contest featuring remarkably little real executive experience in government.

Both ex-presidential candidates immediately pivoted to alternate bids — Inslee will now seek a third term as Washington governor and Hickenlooper will try his luck with a campaign to dislodge Republican Cory Gardner from his Colorado Senate seat in 2020.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the only Democrat in the race to win a statewide election in a state won by President Donald Trump in 2016, is the last governor running for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Bullock, set back by his late entry into the race has struggled with low polling and has not met the Democratic National Committee (DNC) qualification to participate in the upcoming fall debates.

Bullock was quick to point out that the DNC debate rules are a big factor in the loss of so many governors from the race even before the end of summer.

"I think as we're losing governors from this race, maybe we ought to think about are these DNC rules for the debates disadvantaging folks who have gotten real things done?" Bullock said in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday night. "Governor Inslee has been such an important voice in this race, both for climate, and also for being outside of Washington D.C. — as a governor who actually had to get things done."

Indeed, coming from a ZIP code outside Washington seems like it should be a big advantage in a field full of the familiar faces who have spent much of their careers in the corridors of the Capitol.  A Gallup poll taken in July found only 17% of respondents approved of the way Congress is handling its job. And recent history shows there used to be a preference for sending the chief executives of states to the White House: between the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush only one president made it to office without being a governor first.

But here we are, headed into a busy fall primary race, and according to the latest CBS News poll, three of the top four candidates are sitting senators, and the leading candidate at the moment, former Vice President Joe Biden, used to be a senator.  

In the presidential elections since 2008, governors have made early departures from both Democratic and Republican primaries. Why is this happening?

Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and CBS News contributor who was the communications director for one such early-exiting candidate, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, has firsthand experience with this phenomenon.

"Governors' mansions are no longer an obvious stepping stone to the White House. Modern presidential campaigns require name ID, a broad donor base and national platform — none of which you get by being a successful small state governor," Conant said. "Governors have executive experience and outsider credentials that look great on paper, but it's really hard to translate that into nationwide support in modern politics."

And the 24-hour news media plays a role in this, too, tending to give more air time to those serving in Washington, D.C. over those outside national government.  Whereas senators and the work of Congress used to be perceived as too esoteric to appeal to the public, modern politics and media coverage has made it into a vehicle for senators to become national figures.

"I think some of the networks take the governors plenty, but a senator like Kamala Harris, they can take [her] after she's gotten out of a big hearing in D.C. where she's pummeling some Republican appointee," says Joel Payne, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. "In this media cycle that we're in, it's set up more for those types of candidates to be more front and center."

Money also plays a major role in some of the early exits we've seen in this election cycle and some of the recent cycles. Governors are handicapped in some technical ways federal legislators aren't. For instance, they are not being able to transfer money raised for state government races into federal accounts.

"Senators develop national political and fundraising networks while serving in Congress which can give them an early advantage," says former Minnesota Governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who was one of the first candidates to drop out of the 2012 presidential race. "Senators can also transfer funds from their Senate campaign to their presidential campaign, which can allow a modestly performing senator to elongate their presidential campaign."

According to FEC filings, when Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, announced her candidacy for president on New Year's Eve in 2018, after she had been reelected to the Senate that same year, Warren had over $11 million in cash in the bank to transfer to her presidential campaign.  

Now, Hickenlooper can transfer the money he raised during his failed presidential campaign to his new Senate bid, since these are both federal elections.

Other candidates, like billionaire Tom Steyer, have been able to gain traction by using some of their own money – a tactic many candidates have criticized as unfair.

"Tom Steyer spent nearly $10 million to buy his way onto the debate stage" Bullock said in a tweet earlier this month. "But no matter what the @DNC says, money doesn't vote. People do."

Another hurdle some governors have to reckon with is the national partisan divide.

"In order to be successful in the new political environment, you have to be in a lot of ways a partisan steamroller. And I don't think you can do that as a governor." Payne said. "Both of the parties have moved to the place where they have both become more hyper-partisan."

Governors who leave the presidential race and pursue alternate bids in moderate states, like Hickenlooper, could also bear the brunt of having been forced to move away from their more moderate ways.

"Governors who run for president risk shifting their positions to appeal to the base in the primary, which can cost them at home if they run for down-ballot seats in more moderate states" Says AshLee Strong, a former adviser to 2016 Republican candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

And it may also be the case that the governors' bids are hampered by the desire of many of the Democratic Party faithful to pick a nominee who reflects the diversity of the field — one who is not a white man. 

Pawlenty observed, "The current crop of presidential candidates who are governors are not diverse, at a time when more voters are looking to support diverse candidates." 

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