Congress a liability for lawmakers campaigning for governor’s office

Congressional experience has been an albatross for the seven members of Congress running to become governors of their states this year. 

Public anger with Washington, which has led to dismal approval ratings for congressional Democrats and Republicans, is hampering the efforts of lawmakers in both parties who hope to become governor.

Congressional experience has been a boon in the past for lawmakers running in gubernatorial races, according to Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with The Cook Political Report.

“Now that experience is a liability because of Congress’s poor image,” she said.

Georgia Republican Nathan Deal will be the next former lawmaker to test voters’ anti-Washington mood.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Deal, who left the House in March after casting his vote against healthcare reform, locked in a three-way battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination with state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. 

Deal this week joined Oxendine in attacking Handel, who is seen as the front-runner after securing the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Observers say he may not make the expected runoff between the top two finishers in next Tuesday’s vote. 

His third-place position in the race comes despite leaving Congress in the hopes of improving his chances in the primary. 

“It was important that he devote 100 percent of his time to the election,” said Brian Robinson, a Deal spokesman.

Being out of Congress also eliminates the chance a candidate will have to make a controversial vote. This cycle, members from both parties who ran for governor were forced to defend tough votes. 

Rep. Gresham Barrett faced adversity surrounding his vote for the bailout of the financial sector, and lost the GOP primary in South Carolina. The vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program has hurt a number of Republican candidates for office this year. 

“His running for governor was hurt by the vote he made in Congress,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Barrett attempted to explain his vote with a television advertisement, but in the end it wasn’t enough. 

“He had to apologize for his TARP vote over and over,” Duffy said.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) was once seen as having a great chance to become the first African-American governor of his state, but ended up being defeated handily in a Democratic primary. 

Davis was also penalized for the decisions he made while in Congress, and his vote against President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation was unpopular with Democratic primary voters. 

“My congressional experience damaged us substantially,” Davis said. “A lot of what Washington, D.C., is doing is unpopular. This is a very different year for congressmen trying to run for governor.”

Only one of the seven lawmakers running for governor is seen as a clear favorite: Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.). 

Fallin decided to remain in Congress while running her campaign. But juggling congressional responsibilities and a gubernatorial election can be difficult, Fallin said.

“It is a tough job and I am working very hard. I am visiting every county in Oklahoma before Election Day,” she said.

All of that hard work is paying off. Both analysts said Fallin has an excellent chance in her primary on July 27.

“I think she is going to be the next governor of Oklahoma,” Duffy said. “She is the top pick.”

Fallin views her congressional experience as a major benefit. She has experience in both the state and federal political arenas.

“I know very well the implications of federal policy and how it will affect state budgets,” she said.

But she thinks she’ll have more of an effect on her state as governor. 

“Governors have the ability to bring reform. As governor, I have a better opportunity to make improvements,” she said.

The other three lawmakers running for governor are Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who faces a GOP primary on Aug. 3; Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), whose primary is Aug. 5; and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), whose primary is Sept. 18.

Abercrombie is seen as having the best chance of victory in November, followed by Hoekstra and Wamp. Abercrombie is also the only one of the trio to leave Congress to focus on his campaign. 

Polls have shown Abercrombie ahead of his primary rival and Republican candidate Duke Aiona, the state’s lieutenant governor.

Recent polls in Michigan have found Hoekstra in a tight race in the crowded Republican primary, suggesting that race is wide open. 

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslem is seen as the favorite in the Tennessee governor’s race. 

The gubernatorial elections are shaping up as critical this year, since governors will have a major role in working with state legislatures in drawing lines for new congressional districts affected by the 2010 census. 

SmartPolitics analysts predict a large Republican takeover in gubernatorial seats.

“All indicators are that it will be a Republican tsunami year,” said Eric Ostermeier, author of the SmartPolitics blog.

Polling says that Republicans could win as many as 28 of 39 available seats, the most in 90 years going back to 1920.

These initial gubernatorial polls can be a good indicator of congressional election outcomes.

“There is a definite correlation between federal and state politics,” Ostermeier said.

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