Governors Associations Retooling for the Long Haul

by Stuart Rothenberg September 11, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Two Washington, D.C.-based campaign committees are changing their strategies — moves that could benefit Members on Capitol Hill and undoubtedly will affect redistricting after the 2010 Census.

The Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association don’t get a lot of attention in this city because their targets are primarily outside the Beltway, but both are adopting long-term strategies and positioning themselves to assist ambitious politicians looking to climb the political ladder.

“We have to operate on a four-year cycle,” said DGA Executive Director Nathan Daschle, the son of former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), noting the wide inequity of governorships up each year. For the first three years of the “cycle” (2007-2009) there are only 16 races, compared with 36 races in the fourth year (2010). And of those 36 races, at least 19 will be open seats.

Unlike the parties’ House and Senate campaign committees, which elect chairmen for two-year terms, the RGA and DGA have generally operated on a year-to-year basis, with annual chairmen and rotating staff.

Even though the DGA’s four-year strategy, called Project 2010, is the first organized effort of its kind for the committee, Republicans give Democrats credit for initiating the long-term concept during the 2005-2006 races. Project 2010 is likely to be formally launched later this year.

Republicans are developing a long-term strategy of their own, pushing for continuity at the RGA.

In January, Republican governors changed the RGA bylaws to allow a governor to serve more than a one-year term as chairman. Proponents of the change hope that removing the honorary status will create some healthy competition for the post, motivate the chairmen to invest in the committee and not allow other governors to ignore the committee for the three years they aren’t up for re-election. Previously, many governors didn’t think much about the Washington-based RGA when they weren’t running for the office.

The current RGA chairman, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, chose not to be the first to seek a second term to avoid it looking like he changed the rules for his own benefit. But he is hoping to leave his mark at the committee — and current Executive Director Nick Ayers will be part of that legacy.

RGA Vice Chairman Matt Blunt (Mo.) was slated to become chairman in 2008, but because of his tough re-election race next year, Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) is likely to ascend to the top slot, according to knowledgeable GOP sources. But as part of the move, Perry has agreed to keep Ayers and other staff on through 2008. The Republican governors’ official vote on the move won’t take place until November, but it is expected to be a formality. It’s unclear, however, whether future RGA chairmen will buy into the staff-continuity concept.

Unlike the RGA, the DGA has a history of keeping some staff beyond the one-year terms, including former executive directors Penny Lee (2005-2006) and B.J. Thornberry (1999-2005). Daschle is likely to stay on through 2008.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson chaired the DGA for both 2005 and 2006 when Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was vice chairman in 2005, did not succeed him in the top slot because of her competitive re-election race last year. His successive terms were a rarity. According to the DGA’s bylaws, governors are prohibited from a second term as chairman, except by unanimous vote of the executive committee.

Like Blunt, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) is up for re-election next year and is slated to become chairman of the DGA. But Manchin is in no danger of losing his bid for a second term and will balance the roles of candidate and chairman. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is the current chairwoman.

For the next 14 months at least, both committees are likely to have young executive directors at the helm, with the 25-year-old Ayers at the RGA and Daschle, 33, at the DGA.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the two gubernatorial committees are not fierce adversaries. They share similar struggles, battling for relevancy in a city obsessed with control of the House and the Senate.

The DGA also is trying to define itself as a powerful subsection of the party because its governors work outside the increasingly unpopular city of Washington. Democratic governors represent 295 electoral votes (270 are needed to win the presidential election) and 15 Democratic governors preside over states that President Bush won in 2004. The committee also promotes its governors as leaders on policy issues, such as education and health care, and highlights their proven appeal in Republican-leaning states.

Each committee makes a similar case to potential donors, using Congressional redistricting and policy briefings as tools to generate interest.

The unbalanced election years — including a gubernatorial race every year — necessitates a four-year plan, particularly in budgeting, according to one experienced Democratic operative. Unlike the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which trail their Democratic counterparts in fundraising, the RGA is outpacing the DGA in fundraising ($12.4 million to $5.3 million through the first six months of the year), but a fundraising advantage tends to matter less than in federal contests.

The ultimate effectiveness of the DGA and RGA directly affects Congress in two primary ways. First, governors in 33 of the 38 governorships up in 2009 and 2010 will play an active role in redrawing Congressional boundaries following the 2010 Census. Democrats currently hold 28 out of 50 governorships nationwide.

Secondly, Members of the House and Senate could benefit if they become candidates for governor themselves.

This year, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) is the heavy favorite to become the next governor of Louisiana, and no current Member of Congress is likely to run for governor in 2008. But the list of potential 2010 candidates already is starting to grow, even three years out.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) says she may run for governor in Texas, even if Perry seeks a third term. Rep. Artur Davis (D) of Alabama has made no secret of his statewide ambitions. And Reps. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) are mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates. Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) also may run.

Over the past few cycles, Members of Congress have a mixed record of running for governor. In 2002, four House Members ran successfully for governor, including then-Reps. John Baldacci (D-Maine), Bob Riley (R- Ala.), Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.). Former Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), Tom Barrett (D-Wis.) and Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.) all lost gubernatorial bids that cycle. One year later, then-Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) successfully moved from the House to the governorship in Kentucky, even though his re-election prospects this fall are dim.

Last cycle, three more Members — former Reps. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), Butch Otter (R-Idaho) and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) — were elected governor. Reps. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), Jim Davis (D-Fla.), Mark Green (R-Wis.), Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) all lost bids.