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Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race

Governors running for the Democratic presidential nomination have largely fizzled.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeThousands of troops dig in for inauguration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings 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 HickenlooperBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief K Street navigates virtual inauguration week Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE ending a presidential campaign that never went anywhere.

That leaves Montana’s Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden's identity politics do a disservice to his nominees Senate Democrat: Party's message to rural voters is 'really flawed' Ducey to lead Republican governors MORE as the sole remaining governor running for president.

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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 ClintonMcConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' The Memo: Biden strives for common ground after Trump turmoil MORE and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterWhy Joe Biden should pardon Donald Trump Trump's pardons harshly criticized by legal experts Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official 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 KerryParis Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing Kerry promises Europeans Biden will seek to make up time on climate action OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden recommits US to Paris climate accord | Biden nixes Keystone XL permit, halts Arctic refuge leasing | Interior secretary rescinds wilderness protection order before leaving office 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 TrumpMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Trump planned to oust acting AG to overturn Georgia election results: report 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 BidenMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Fauci infuriated by threats to family 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Biden signs order to require masks on planes and public transportation Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE raised more money than any other candidate in the second quarter and tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangYang to quarantine after campaign staffer tests positive for COVID-19 Andrew Yang sparks Twitter uproar with pro-bodega video Yang announces run for New York City mayor 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 ObamaTom Brokaw retiring from NBC News after 55 years Obama remembers baseball legend Hank Aaron as 'one of the strongest people I've ever met' Baseball legend Hank Aaron dies at 86 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.