Under a clear blue sky in late summer, with the peaks of the Gallatin Mountains as a backdrop, Montana Governor Steve Bullock mingles with guests at a private event on a ranch just outside Bozeman. Holding a plate piled high with barbecue, Bullock is half a head taller than most of the people here. He is genial and relaxed, in jeans and battered brown shoes. His nametag reads, “Governor Steve.”
A young mother brings over two little girls in flowered sundresses, and Bullock immediately drops down to eye level. A few minutes later, the girls leave with their mother, smiles on their faces, their votes no doubt locked up for 15 years hence when the girls will be old enough to cast a ballot. In half the conversations that swirl around Bullock, there are joking references to 2020 and hints about the Governor’s ambitions. It’s an open secret here that the Bullock might be running for President.
Just this past fall, Bullock won re-election over GOP challenger billionaire Greg Gianforte by four percentage points—50 percent to 46 percent—in a state where only 35 percent of voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton for President and Donald Trump won by 20 points. That victory is Bullock’s calling card into the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, along with the prairie populist credentials he has burnished. As the state’s Attorney General, he endeared himself to sportsmen by authoring a state opinion guaranteeing access to public lands. He also took on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, defending the state’s ban on corporate spending (he lost when the Court reaffirmed its decision).
But Bullock is not the only Democratic Governor with an eye on 2020. No fewer than five Governors (out of a field of only 15 Democratic Governors nationwide) are rumored to be or talked about as serious potential presidential contenders. Many of these, like Bullock, are governing in states that voted for Trump, or where the legislatures are controlled by Republicans, or both. And many, like Bullock, claim a pragmatic approach to policy that’s intentionally difficult to pigeonhole—by turns progressive, populist, and libertarian.
These governors join what is seemingly already a cast of thousands vying for the chance to take down Trump. In addition to liberal senatorial heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, none of whom have (yet) officially revealed their intentions, there is a raft of younger Senators, House members, rising-star big-city Mayors, and an assortment of CEOs and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (though revelations of Facebook’s pre-election ad sales to the Russians might sink that candidacy before it begins).
But of all of these, a Governor might have the best shot at actually winning. Why is that? The simple answer is that Governors are not inherently Washington swamp creatures, and that’s what the Democrats need to fracture Trump’s stubbornly loyal coalition.
We are now nine months into an Administration marred by chaos, intemperance, and whiffs of corruption, and yet the loyalty of President Donald Trump’s base remains perplexingly solid. Despite overall approval ratings in the toilet, Gallup polls find that 81 percent of Republicans and one-third of independents still give Trump a thumbs-up as of early October, even as GOP Congressional approval ratings tumble. Democrats’ fervent hopes for a great wave of buyer’s remorse have yet to pan out. Just 6 percent of Trump voters regret their choice, according to a September 2017 poll by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, while nearly nine in ten approve of the job he’s doing. Even among so-called Obama-Trump voters—2016’s version of “Reagan Democrats”—approval rates are still as high as 70 percent, with only 16 percent regretting their vote.
Barring impeachment or Armageddon, Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik concluded gloomily in the Washington Post, Trump is plausibly on track to re-election “simply by maintaining his current level of support with his political base.”
Many Democrats still stunned by Hillary Clinton’s defeat believe that Trump’s unconventional victory in 2016 demands a similarly unconventional challenger in 2020 to break the Trump coalition: a populist partisan warrior who can match Trump tweet for tweet, or a celebrity whose star-power outshines Trump’s own. Either strategy carries major risks of miscalculation.
Governors, on the other hand, are a tried and true source of successful nominees, though their perceived staidness may not immediately quicken the pulse of a Bernie Bro. Historically speaking, the road from Governors’ mansions to the White House is a well-trod one. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, 17 Presidents first cut their teeth as Governors, including both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (both formerly Governors of New York), Woodrow Wilson (New Jersey), Ronald Reagan (California), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), Bill Clinton (Arkansas), and George W. Bush (Texas).
Make no mistake, former Governors can still make sub-standard Presidents (witness Andrew Johnson, who made a hash of Reconstruction, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and was later impeached by Congress). They can also make poor candidates (witness Michael Dukakis peering haplessly from a tank). Yet voters ascribe to Governors a combination of traits, such as managerial expertise, that have made them politically successful in the past. The same traits could make them viable challengers to Trump, as well as better candidates than some of their Democratic rivals. Indeed, Governors could be uniquely suited to what Democrats might need in a candidate in 2020.
While the lessons of 2016 are still up for debate, it’s clear that Democrats, at a minimum, must offer up a challenger who can remedy the party’s deficits revealed last year, widen the chinks in Trump’s armor and, most importantly, offer a credible response to the underlying stresses that enabled Trump’s ascension.
Though it’s easy for some to dismiss the concerns of Trump’s white working class base as mere racism or xenophobia, the hardiness of his support points to the durability of the forces that led to his election, including lingering economic anxiety and disgust with the status quo. Nor will these forces have dissipated by 2020, given that Trump retains his power in part by stoking this deep-seated discontent. Even if Trump were to be gone by 2020, the phenomenon of Trumpism might well remain. So the Democrats cannot afford another candidate who views half of Americans as “deplorables” or who reinforces the perennial rap on the party as a bunch of hopelessly out-of-touch elites. Rather, Democrats need a candidate who can credibly connect to the voters whose feelings of neglect by the Washington establishment ultimately morphed into Trumpian rage.
Second, Democrats will need a candidate with a clear agenda and set of values that resonate with the broad majority of Americans. Democrats know at this point that simply not being Trump is not enough to defeat him. That was primarily the strategy Hillary Clinton pursued, pinning her hopes on the “Never Trumpers” and spending more energy attacking Trump rather than elucidating what she was for. The 2020 election cannot be merely a referendum on Trump; it needs to be a choice between two very different but clear alternatives for the American future.
Third, Democrats will need a candidate who can exploit a potentially emerging vulnerability for Trump: the utter lack of any achievements that have bettered the lives of the middle class. As much as Trump’s election was a giant middle finger to the political establishment, it was also a demand for results, and no such results have been or are likely to be forthcoming beyond the evanescently symbolic.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, in December 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Americans wanted the new President “to work closely with members of the opposing party in Congress,” while just 22 percent said Trump should focus only on his agenda without concern for the other side. One bipartisan debt deal notwithstanding, Trump has utterly failed to deliver on that desire.
Since taking office, Trump has only aggravated political polarization while accomplishing little of consequence legislatively. As much as Trump would like to blame Congress for these failures, he demonstrates daily the pitfalls of electing a President with neither experience nor knowledge, as promise after bombastic promise has hit the hard wall of reality. As Trump himself admitted in his struggles over the Affordable Care Act, policy is “complicated.” At some point, perhaps soon, even Trump’s most ardent supporters will tire of the thin gruel of racist dog whistles and spats over who’s doing what during the national anthem. And as the health care system unravels, promised coal jobs fail to materialize, and essential services get the axe, some may even realize that they’ve been had. Democrats will need to offer up a candidate who can make good on what Americans really want: policies that actually create jobs, grow the economy, and improve their situation.
Compared to members of Congress, CEOs, and celebrities, Governors have the best odds at checking all of these boxes as a presidential nominee: the ability to connect with voters, to stand for something, and to get things done for ordinary Americans. Since states have often been successful incubators of good ideas, a Governor with some innovation notches in his belt would have a particularly appealing record. This combination of connection, vision, competence, and innovation could be the formula that undoes Trump.
On the question of connection, a Governor’s job is inherently “populist”—as in, of the people—in a way that being a Senator, or a CEO, or Trump, is not. Governors balance budgets, build roads, and take actions that directly affect the local economy. They also spend an enormous amount of time crisscrossing their states and talking to constituents, which is not only a handy practice for campaigning but can produce a likable candidate with whom voters would happily share a beer. Compare that with the relative remoteness of the hallways of Capitol Hill, a corner office executive suite, or the luxury of Mar-a-Lago.
“Governors have a unique relationship with their voters that’s tangible and tactile,” said Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “Voters can see them in action running their state and understand what they do.”
As for competence and vision, governors tend to have plans for their states: how to grow jobs, attract businesses, invest in schools, and improve the quality of life for residents. Moreover, they have established records of achievements. “If you’re a U.S. Senator, all you can talk about is what you’ve fought against,” said veteran Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “If you’re Governor, you can talk about what you’ve done to impact people’s lives. That’s a different story.” If the next four years are filled with gridlock and non-achievement, a Governor with a track record of accomplishment could be a welcome tonic.
Governors enjoy other advantages as candidates as well, such as their aforementioned street cred as “non-swamp” Washington outsiders, coupled with insider expertise. “Governors are unique in that they offer both executive experience and experience outside the Beltway,” said Nathan Daschle, another former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “No one else can marry those two things.” It’s a recipe that could be particularly attractive to Americans who are still disgusted by establishment politics but who, exhausted by the antics of a completely novice President, want reassurance that their President actually has a clue.
Finally, Governors offer a depolarizing balm against the toxicity of modern politics, which many voters could also find appealing. For one thing, much of what governors achieve has to happen in a bipartisan way. “Governors are notorious for working with the other party,” as Daschle says. Most states, for example, require balanced budgets every year, an exercise that forces cross-party compromise.
And while Governors can navigate the swamp, they are not creatures of it, which means they can keep their hands clean of the partisan squabbling that ensnares members of Congress. Nor do they have long voting records on procedural matters and litmus-test issues that can be weaponized into hours of talk-radio fodder. “Governors can be seen as less polarizing figures than a Senator might,” says John Weingart, director of the Eagleton Center. “They don’t have to deal with signing on to Bernie Sanders’ [single-payer] health insurance bill.”
The political advantages that Governors might have as candidates are of course insufficient in and of themselves to win the presidency. And perceptions of what Democrats might need to topple Trump could change between now and the early months of 2020. All bets are also off if Trump is impeached or removed from office, which would also dramatically change the calculus, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Democrats would be foolish to bypass a hard look at their bench of Governors in favor of candidates with more luster. In addition to Montana’s Bullock, the Governors rumored to be 2020 hopefuls includes New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, Washington’s Jay Inslee, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper. Even three-time contender Jerry Brown of California has not ruled out a run, though he would then be 82 years old. There is also growing buzz around first-time governors John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, and Gina Raimundo of Rhode Island, not to mention former Governors such as Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick.
Among this wealth of possibilities, the strongest potential nominees might be Montana’s Bullock, Colorado’s Hickenlooper, and Virginia’s McAuliffe. All three are Governors of red or purple states in the south or west, and all three have compiled records that appeal to broad swathes of their constituencies. Hickenlooper, for example, has built a solid economic record in Colorado and developed a reputation for bipartisanship, so much so that a presidential “unity ticket” with Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich has been rumored to be in the works. McAuliffe, meanwhile, has made diversifying Virginia’s economy a top priority, and recently took credit for a $2.2 billion boost in the state’s tourism industry, which the Governor has worked hard to nurture.
At the same time, all three have progressive credentials that are potentially sufficient to energize the liberal base (or at least avoid their enmity). Hickenlooper, for example, has crafted one of the nation’s most forward-thinking policies on marijuana legalization, while Bullock, in addition to his crusade against Citizens United, cut Montana’s uninsured rate by half through a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. And Terry McAuliffe, despite his checkered past as the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and longtime ties to the Clintons, has crusaded to restore voting rights for felons and bragged about his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association.
As important in this age of celebrity, none of the three is boring. While Bullock has presidential-caliber height and hair (he could have been an extra in A River Runs Through It), Hickenlooper’s background is charmingly eclectic as the founder of Denver’s first craft brewery after being laid off as a geologist. McAuliffe is the brashest and most ebullient of the three, the size of his personality matched only by the size of his personal network, amassed over years as the Democrats’ top fundraiser, and the size of his potential war chest. Many observers say that of all the Governors entering the 2020 primary scrum, McAuliffe might emerge on top. “Terry’s got the biggest balls,” said pollster Anzalone, who has known McAuliffe for decades. “He shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Even if a Governor isn’t ultimately the Democrats’ next standard-bearer, they could still show national Democrats how populism and pragmatism working in tandem can energize liberal turnout while still winning crucial swing-state support. It’s a formula that could pose a potent challenge to Trump in 2020.