Stateline Story

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Back

  • November 14, 2005
  • By Eric Kelderman

With his victory in New Jersey's Nov. 8 gubernatorial election, Democrat  Jon Corzine joins an even more exclusive club than the one he belongs to as a U.S. senator .

Corzine, who won his congressional seat in 2000, is just the ninth governor since 1900 to come directly from the U.S. Senate, according to a Stateline.org analysis of the National Governors Association 's biographical database. He joins former Sens. and now Govs. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who has yet to declare whether he will seek a second term in 2006, and Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, who is stepping down when his second term ends next year.

Corzine's move is a reversal of the usual political progression, in which it's far more common to see governors move to the U.S. Senate. Since 1900, at least 56 governors have used that office as a stepping stone to the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol, according to the NGA and historical sources.  

Before Corzine, Murkowski and Kempthorne was former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who led the Golden State from 1991 to 1999 after leaving the U.S. Senate. But before that, you have to look back to 1957, when Texas Gov. Price Daniel (D) was elected after serving in the U.S. Senate.

Overall, the number of congressmen who forsake Washington, D.C., to run their state governments is rising in recent years. Currently, eight of the nation's 50 governors traded Capitol Hill for their state Capitols -- the most at one time since the start of the 20th century.

Besides Murkowski and Kempthorne, who came from the Senate, six current governors came directly from the U.S. House of Representatives: Bob Riley (R) of Alabama, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D ), Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) , Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R ), Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) .

U.S. House members are likely or declared candidates in at least nine of the nation's 36 gubernatorial elections in 2006, positioning themselves to take advantage of their political pedigrees and national fund-raising potential.

While only nine U.S. senators have left to become governors since 1900, 63 of the 1,400 elected or appointed governors came directly from the U.S. House of Representatives , according to historical data from the U.S. House's Office of the Clerk. That number excludes politicians who took time off after serving in Congress or served in another post before becoming governor. One example from that category is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who served in the U.S. House, then was appointed secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton.

Other recent governors who have come from the U.S. House include Republican Tom Ridge, who served 12 years in Congress before becoming governor of Pennsylvania and then Homeland Security secretary. In an even more elite group are U.S. Sens. George Allen (R) of Virginia, Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware and Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, who pulled off a hat trick by launching political careers in the U.S. House, then winning gubernatorial terms,  and eventually, moving to the U.S. Senate. Allen is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008.

In the only other gubernatorial election this year, Virginia promoted Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to succeed Gov. Mark Warner (D ), who is limited to one four-year term.

The move to Trenton, N.J., might have appealed to Corzine because the governor is the only statewide elected official in state government and is allowed enormous influence in setting major policies, explained David P. Rebovich , a political scientist at Rider University . "[Corzine] also has been candid about having a hard time being a member of the minority party in the Senate," Rebovich said. Garden State voters created a new statewide position in state government on Nov. 8, when they approved a constitutional amendment creating the post of lieutenant governor in 2009.

Lawrence Jacobs , political science professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs , said one possible reason more Congress members are considering gubernatorial posts is that states have gradually taken a greater role in policy decisions since the 1970s. At the same time, rank-and-file congressmen have lost some control of their agenda to House and Senate  leadership.

Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D), who spent 18 years as a U.S. Representative before serving his single term as governor, said being in Congress may be prestigious in some people's minds, but it's hard to tell whether you have made any impact on the lives of your constituents.

"Somebody once said to me, and they were right: 'Do not go to Congress if you cannot handle deferred gratification,'" he told Stateline.org.

With greater responsibility at the state level comes greater risks, Wise warned. "People greatly respect the Congress, but they don't expect Congress to be directly affecting their lives every day. It's the governor who has responsibility for the schools. It's the governor who calls up the National Guard. It's the governor who handles getting the roads fixed," said Wise, who now heads the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

Several congressmen appear willing to take those risks and are declared or likely 2006 gubernatorial candidates in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Many are expected to be front-runners.

"To be able to recruit a member of Congress is a real coup for a state party," said Jacobs. Senators and representatives have been tested on the campaign trail and have a proven ability to raise enough money to be competitive, he said.

But Wise said that congressmen running for governor also can seem out of touch with voters. "While running for governor, I made some speech and [my wife] said to me: 'When you started talking about House Bill 4434, you lost them,'" he said.

"That may be why four of the last five presidents have been governors," he added.