Five Former Governors Return to the Campaign Trail This Year
He's a Republican in a Democratic state, trying to regain the seat from the man who defeated him decisively four years ago. This time, though, Ehrlich's prospects could be boosted by a hard reality: Governors are under siege.
During the nation's economic downturn, governors have faced tough choices: raising taxes, cutting services, downsizing campaign promises made during better times. Amid the political upheaval that has followed, this year's elections already are guaranteed to produce the most new governors in 50 years.
That class of newcomers could include some old-timers. Five ex-governors are trying to get their former jobs back. Their pitch: Are you better off than you were when I was in charge?
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley acknowledges that recession-battered incumbents may have a tough sell. " 'It could be a lot worse' doesn't make a great bumper sticker, does it?" he said in an interview.
In all, 37 states will elect governors in November for 19 seats now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. The electorate's volatile, anti-incumbent mood is bedeviling both parties. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 18 of the contests as toss-ups and another six as competitive.
In what may be a sign of turbulence ahead, Republicans regained governorships last November not only in Virginia but also in solidly Democratic New Jersey, off-year upsets that have worried incumbents and emboldened challengers.
While more attention has focused on whether Democratic control of the U.S. House and Senate is at risk this fall, a wave of change clearly is headed for the statehouses.
Even without any losses by incumbents, 23 governors have chosen not to run again or are barred by term limits, an analysis last month by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found. And some losses by incumbents are likely.
In Iowa, former governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, is leading in statewide polls against Democratic Gov. Chet Culver. This week, Branstad began airing TV ads for the job he left more than a decade ago. "Are you ready for a comeback?" he asks supporters in one ad - a reference not only to himself but also the state's economy.
Branstad accuses Culver of making "foolish" decisions to spend and borrow money that have gotten the state into a "financial pickle." Abby Curran, Culver's campaign manager, counters that Branstad is "desperately running away from his tax-raising, budget-busting record" as governor.
In Maryland, O'Malley argues that the difficult steps he has taken in office - which include pushing the biggest tax increase in state history through the Legislature - have brought fiscal stability to the Free State, preserved its Triple A bond rating and positioned it to recover as the economy begins to grow again.
Ehrlich, who formally announced his candidacy Wednesday, promises to roll back the one-cent sales-tax increase enacted in 2007 and said O'Malley's policies on spending and regulation have made Maryland less attractive for business investment.
In an interview, he also said that, if elected, he would join other states in challenging the federal health-care bill in court.
"I'm not one to live in the past, and this is not going to be a replay of who-struck-John," he said of his rematch against O'Malley.
"But it's no secret I would have governed differently."
More than bragging rights are at stake.
States across the country will redraw the lines of U.S. House and state legislative districts in the wake of the 2010 Census.
Those redistricting decisions, political tradeoffs in which governors typically play a powerful role, will influence elections for the next decade.
The new governors also will help decide whether to implement the new health-care law or join lawsuits trying to block it.
"A lot of the future of both national and state health care, energy and other programs depends on what the states do, by how much they cooperate or not," said political scientist Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia center.
In some states, the gubernatorial elections will test approaches to economic policy and the strength of the emerging small-government, anti-Obama Tea Party movement.
Distributing the pain
In his second-floor office in Maryland's Capitol, O'Malley, 47, said he hasn't had the governorship he had planned.
To balance the state's budget, he has pushed through a $1.4 billion tax increase and $4.6 billion in spending cuts. While he has pursued programs to protect green space and expand health insurance coverage, some of his campaign promises on transit initiatives and affordable housing have been put on hold.
"It's been a very challenging time," said O'Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore. "These are the times when you have to find your job satisfaction in keeping things from being more hurtful and protecting as many people as one can in the face of our shared economic reality. You have to make progress at the same time while you're trying to distribute the pain of this recession."
The rematch against Ehrlich is likely to be hard-fought. O'Malley called his opponent "a bitter, angry, partisan guy" who left a fiscal mess for him to clean up.
In a separate interview, Ehrlich said he wouldn't engage "in a schoolyard fight" but blasted the "pretty extreme agenda we see on Capitol Hill and Annapolis."
Ehrlich, 52, went to a downtown plaza in suburban Rockville, Md., on Wednesday to announce his candidacy. "Here we go again, right?" he asked more than 100 supporters to cheers. One of them, Jeff Brown of Gaithersburg, Md., carried a fake human skull on a stick with a sign that read: "They rationed my health care; just look at me now."
Along the Annapolis waterfront, however, local residents and tourists are more interested in enjoying the warm weather than discussing an election seven months away. Some aren't sure which one is the governor and which the former governor.
"I do know Ehrlich's heart was in the right place when he was here," offers Genevieve Pecknay, 36, the manager at Hard Bean Coffee&Booksellers. She hasn't focused on the contest yet, but sees the economy and taxes as top issues. The downturn has forced some storeowners near the waterfront to close.
"The general consensus is that O'Malley has done a fairly good job under not the best circumstances," said Roy Karten, 58, a professional photographer who is sitting in a small waterside park, eating a takeout lunch of chicken soup and fresh-baked bread. "I'm a Democrat, but this is a good time for the former governor to capitalize on an opportunity. People are mad about everything."
From youngest to oldest?
The turnover this year could reach historic levels.
If two of the 14 governors seeking another term lose, a majority of the nation's governors would be new next year, the Virginia study concluded. (That counts North Dakota, where Republican Gov. John Hoeven is favored to win a Senate seat.) If four lose, the turnover would set a record since at least the dawn of the 20th century.
In Iowa, Branstad, now 63, was the youngest governor in state history when he was elected in 1982 at age 35. He was the state's longest-serving governor when he left office 16 years later.
"Along with a lot of Iowans, I'm disappointed with the present governor and his ineptitude and lack of leadership, especially on the issue of jobs and fiscal responsibility and education, too," Branstad said in an interview when asked why he was running.
Curran counters that Branstad's ability to win the GOP primary is "a big if." Also running is Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative who ran for governor in 2002 and 2006 and chaired Mike Huckabee's Iowa campaign in the 2008 presidential race.
When Jerry Brown was elected to his first term as California's governor, in 1974, he was 36 and the state's youngest chief executive since the beginning of the 20th century. If the Democrat wins a bid for a third term in November, he will, at 72, be the oldest.
"Our state is in serious trouble, and the next governor must have the preparation and the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again," Brown, now the state attorney general, said last month in announcing his candidacy. "That's what I offer."
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term. Brown is by far the best-known of a half-dozen Democratic contenders and businesswoman Meg Whitman leads the Republican field.
Other former governors seeking nominations for new terms include Roy Barnes of Georgia and John Kitzhaber of Oregon, both Democrats.
Barnes, 62, was elected in 1998 but lost his bid for a second term in an upset in 2002 - a tough year for Democrats in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Boosted by President George W. Bush's soaring approval ratings, Republicans also ousted Georgia Sen. Max Cleland that year.
Kitzhaber, 63, elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1998, was barred by term limits from seeking a third consecutive term.
Never before have so many former governors sought their old jobs, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors' races for The Cook Political Report.
"A lot of that is the political environment," she said, as challengers try to tap voter antipathy toward politics in general and incumbents in particular. The disaffected mood also has opened the door to credible third-party candidates for governor in three states: former Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, state treasurer Tim Cahill in Massachusetts and former Carter administration aide Eliot Cutler in Maine.
"What's amazing is that being governor might be the worst job in Americans politics right now," Duffy said. "Thirty-eight states have (budget) deficits. They're going into situations where they'll have no money and they have to fix big problems."
Branstad said he never thought he would run for another term, and his wife, Chris, was harder to convince. "Her initial reaction was, 'Are you crazy?' "