WASHINGTON -- The nation’s governors are coming to Washington this weekend and they’re bringing the 2016 presidential campaign with them.
As they gather Friday for the four-day National Governors Association winter meeting, the group will include a bevy of potential candidates hoping to show the political world they can get things done with bipartisan support, the kind of traits many hope set them apart from the partisan rancor and gridlock of Washington and which they hope could make them president.
Voters in overwhelming numbers dislike Washington and its politicians, and history shows voters are often inclined to turn to governors to run the country. Four of the last six presidents first ran states – George W. Bush. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
People like how governors “are given a set of circumstances and then have to deal with them. They can’t just vote no,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
At least seven current governors and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are mentioned as possible 2016 candidates.
The Republican rundown:
– Chris Christie of New Jersey. This was to be a triumphant weekend for Christie, now the Republican Governors Association chairman, reminding everyone how he won re-election in November with a broad constituency. Instead, one of the meeting’s big questions is how visible Christie might be. He’s been raising millions for the party’s gubernatorial candidates in recent weeks, but he continues to be dogged by the state’s bridge closing scandal.
He’s paying a political price. A McClatchy-Marist poll in January found 29 percent of voters nationwide viewed him favorably and 32 percent unfavorably. This month, the unfavorable number ballooned to 46 percent, while his favorable numbers stayed about the same.
– Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa called him “a folk hero among Republicans.” Walker weakened his state employees union’s collective bargaining rights and in 2012 became the first governor to survive a recall election. He wrote a book about the experience and met with Washington reporters in November to promote it. Walker, though, might face questions about two criminal investigations of political work. One continues, while the other has been closed, but he could still face questions about the activities of his aides.
– Rick Perry of Texas. He’s nearing the end of a 14-year run as governor. While his 2012 presidential bid flopped, he’s said to be thinking about 2016.
– John Kasich of Ohio. His latest Quinnipiac poll approval rating was 51 percent, and 61 percent say he’s a strong leader. He’s governor of the nation’s most closely watched swing state, and if he wins what could be a close re-election bid this year, he’ll be mentioned as possible White House contender.
– Brian Sandoval of Nevada. A dark horse, he has a resume Republican insiders love. A former state attorney general, gaming commission chairman and federal judge – supported for the job by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid – Sandoval in 2010 became the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in one of the nation’s key battleground states.
– Huckabee. He easily won the 2008 Iowa first-in-the-nation caucus, but he had trouble broadening his appeal and eventually lost the Republican nomination to John McCain. Last month, he had a prime speaking spot at the Republican National Committee winter meeting.
He stirred controversy at that meeting when he suggested Democrats want women to think “they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
– Susana Martinez of New Mexico. A rising star, she was mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee in 2012. The one-time Democrat and veteran prosecutor is considered a good bet to be re-elected to a second term this year, in a state that Obama carried in 2012 by nearly 10 percentage points.
– Andrew Cuomo of New York. He appears to be coasting to re-election and could quickly amass presidential campaign dollars. But he’d be seeking that money in the same New York salons and corporate suites as Hillary Clinton, a senator from New York from 2001 to 2009. If Clinton’s in, Cuomo is probably not.
– Martin O’Malley of Maryland. He can’t run again for governor, and he’s tried to use the governors’ association to bolster his national profile. O’Malley headed the Democratic Governors Association in 2010-11 and raised money for fellow Democrats around the country, building friendships. But like Cuomo, he would probably have to rely on many of the same people loyal to Clinton.
The governors’ mission is to spend the next few days talking issues, not politics.
“They can show how they balanced budgets and showed leadership. They can show the similarity of the roles of governor and president,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll in Wisconsin.
Being an ambitious governor, though, has perils.
“Governors are parochial to their states,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Perry learned that in 2012. During a Republican presidential primary debate, he defended a Texas law allowing some children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. “I don’t think you have heart” if you oppose that, he said. Opponents pounced.
Others learned similar lessons. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, won bipartisan support for a near-universal state health care plan in 2006, only to find conservatives hated the idea when he ran for president outside his liberal state.
The biggest political test during the governor’s meeting is likely Monday, when they are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama for 90 minutes. The session usually features frank dialogue involving pleas for federal budget help but less federal intrusion into state business.
The meeting usually illustrates why voters warm to governors as presidents. Governors are cordial but firm advocates for what they want.
“I’d be very surprised,” said Franklin, “if the tone among Republicans was anything but agreeing to disagree.”