Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race

Governors running for the Democratic presidential nomination have largely fizzled.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate Left off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa MORE dropped out of the race on Wednesday night, concluding that he had no chance of winning.

A week earlier, it was former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLeft off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa Yang says he would not run as a third-party candidate The Hill's Morning Report - Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas, creeps along Florida coast MORE ending a presidential campaign that never went anywhere.

That leaves Montana’s Steve BullockSteve BullockGabbard drives coverage in push to qualify for October debate Partisan divisions sharpen as independent voters fade Jeff Bridges calls for donations to get his 'good buddy' Bullock 'up on that debate stage' MORE as the sole remaining governor running for president.


But his campaign is also struggling.

After entering the race late because the Montana legislature was still in session, Bullock has yet to qualify for the next presidential debate and is unlikely to make it.

Governor’s mansions were once reliable steppingstones to the White House for members of both parties.

Democrats Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' Booker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump MORE and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency Juan Williams: Why does Trump fear GOP voters? Booker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' MORE launched successful presidential bids as governors from Southern states, while Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were state-level executives before turning to national politics.

In recent years, however, there have been relatively few governors to emerge as top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the last Democratic governor to have a real presidential primary moment.

In 2004, Dean came out of nowhere to electrify the liberal base before falling short to the eventual nominee, former Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLet's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy The Memo: Democrats struggle to find the strongest swing-state candidate 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster MORE (Mass.).

In an interview with The Hill, Dean argued governors can make good presidents. But they don’t necessarily make great candidates, he added.

“I’d love to argue that pragmatism and being in charge of something makes you a better candidate,” Dean told The Hill. “It might make you a better president, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a better candidate.”

Democrats interviewed by The Hill pointed to several reasons why the governors in 2019 have flopped so far.

The massive field of contenders competing for money and air time is a barrier to any candidate seeking to break through. That’s been a real problem for the three governors, who come from relatively small states and did not enter the race with big national profiles or donor bases.

“The governors just haven’t gotten as much attention because in this environment, the media flows from the national level to the local level, so people already in Washington have a built-in advantage,” said David Turner, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). “But as a party, we’re also just too focused on federal politics. We have to reengage at the state level because that’s where all the progress is being made.”

Some Democrats say the mood of the primary electorate cuts against the core argument that most governors make — that they’re pragmatic and can get things done by reaching across the aisle.

One of Hickenlooper’s primary selling points was his accomplishments while dealing with a Republican legislature. Bullock has billed himself as a pragmatic leader who has thrived in a deep red state that voted overwhelmingly for President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE in 2016.

“There’s still an anti-establishment current here, so making the case that you’re pragmatic and finding solutions and common cause with the other side is not going to play well in this environment,” said Luis Miranda, a Democratic strategist. “That puts these governors at a real disadvantage.”

Inslee and Hickenlooper may have had flaws as candidates that held them back.

Hickenlooper, who is now running for the Senate from Colorado, infuriated grass-roots liberals by running a campaign focused on warning Democrats against moving too far to the left by embracing socialism or progressive policies, such as "Medicare for All."

“Hickenlooper cut his own political throat … by red-baiting delegates and activists, the core of the energy in the party, so good riddance to him because he’s a drain on the party,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist.

Inslee was effectively running a one-issue campaign focused on climate change. He has emerged as a party leader on the issue. But despite demands from activists to have a debate solely focused on climate change, the issue hasn’t driven the conversation the same way that Medicare for All or immigration has.

“You can’t be a single-issue candidate if that issue is not the one that voters are most concerned about,” said Miranda. “If the issue you’ve chose isn’t a lightning rod, then you’re going to have to be a really special candidate to last.”

Bullock, meanwhile, is running as a pragmatic centrist with executive experience.

His problem, Democrats say, is that the lane he’s chosen is being swallowed up entirely by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE, the clear front-runner and top pick for mainstream Democrats looking for moderation and executive experience.

“Biden is directly in his way, and that’s going to be a problem for anyone looking to fill the pragmatic moderate space in this race,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.

Bullock is fuming over the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) debate qualifying criteria, saying the national fundraising and polling requirements have put governors behind the eight ball, making it difficult for them to turn their regional popularity into a national movement.

“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 Wednesday on MSNBC.

But that hasn’t been an issue for other Washington outsiders who have made waves in the 2020 Democratic primary.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE raised more money than any other candidate in the second quarter and tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangBiden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth The Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? MORE’s viral campaign have helped both to elbow their way on to the debate next month in Houston.

If the governors fell short, Dean said, it’s not because they’re governors, but rather because they couldn’t connect with the base.

“They’re all competent executives but the bottom line is you have to connect with a national audience,” he said. “It wasn’t about policies with [Bill] Clinton or Obama. It was about the personal attributes and connecting with voters.”

Turner, the DGA spokesman, said he’s not worried about politicians no longer seeing governor’s mansions as a stepping stone to the White House.

There was a time when the Senate was viewed as a graveyard for potential presidential candidates — conventional wisdom that was turned on its ear in 2008 by Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama meets with Greta Thunberg: 'One of our planet's greatest advocates' Trump: Cokie Roberts 'never treated me nicely' but 'was a professional' Obama, Bush among those paying tribute to Cokie Roberts: 'A trailblazing figure' MORE.

“With all the progress the Democratic governors are making in the states, you’ll see them start to raise their profiles and be talked about as real White House contenders,” Turner said.