By John Celock
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s (R) announcement last week that he was retiring refocused attention on whether U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) would decide to make a move from Capitol Hill to the governor’s mansion in Bismarck.
Heitkamp has said that she is considering a bid for the governorship – an office she lost in 2000 – and would be making a decision in due time regarding the 2016 race. If she were to make the run she would not be alone in senators who have decided that a home in the state capital was more preferable to the Senate.
Currently two sitting governors – Kansas’ Sam Brownback (R) and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton – are former senators, with Brownback going straight from the Senate to the governorship. But the trend has continued to rise with senators seeking out governorships and former governors in the Senate talking about how they more enjoyed their time as state chief executives to being one of 100 in Washington.
Heitkamp would also not be alone in current senators looking at gubernatorial bids. U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is a frontrunner in this year’s gubernatorial race in Louisiana and two former governors in the Senate, Virginia’s Mark Warner (D) and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (D), both seriously considered seeking to reclaim the governorship in recent years. In addition, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), who served 12 years in the Senate before his 2006 defeat, is looking at a 2018 gubernatorial run in his state.
Gone are the days when governors sought out Senate seats to have an impact on national policy and foreign affairs. In 1942, then West Virginia Gov. Matthew Neely (D) unsuccessfully tried to leave office halfway through his term to reclaim a Senate perch he gave up to take up residence in Charleston. He’d return to the Senate in 1948, four years after leaving the governor’s mansion and after a two year detour to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The appeal of a governorship makes sense to a senator. They would be the top of the political heap in their state, holding the power to set a statewide agenda, shape policy through executive action and be able to accomplish more in a day than a senator can in a week. In an era of more innovation at the state level, a governor can shape policy in ways that few senators can.
With a rise of partisanship in Washington, the Senate has become a body more focused on political gamesmanship at times than legislating, leaving a chance to take control of the political fortunes of a state more attractive. With voters traditionally looking more at governors than senators for the White House, a governorship can provide a resume for a national run.
For a moderate Democrat like Heitkamp though, the Senate can remain an attractive spot as well. She has positioned herself well to be a key decision maker and swing vote, a position Manchin has taken on as well. This power could lead her to decide that she can have a broader impact on various issues from her current perch in Washington than through a move to Bismarck.
At the same time, it would make sense why Heitkamp would look to take an office that eluded her the first time around. Most of her political career was in the executive office – eight years as North Dakota’s attorney general and six as the state’s elected tax commissioner – so she knows the powers granted towards the executive branch. With North Dakota’s oil boom the state remains flush with money – through the oil industry changes in recent years have had an impact. The oil boom has also led to a whole new series of challenges in North Dakota from literally constructing new communities in the western part of the state, addressing pipeline and transportation issues, social services issues and human trafficking. On human trafficking, Heitkamp has become a national leader on the issue in the Senate. For a politician, just the set of challenges in North Dakota’s state government could provide a tempting reason to make the move.
There are reasons Heitkamp could end up staying in the Senate. A recent change passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and signed by Dalrymple would require a special election to fill her Senate seat should she resign to become governor rather than having her appoint a successor. With a close battle for control of the Senate in 2016, control could end up resting on a 2017 special election in North Dakota. Heitkamp is up for reelection to the Senate in 2018, in what would likely be a competitive race for the state’s only Democrat in statewide office.
In addition, some senators turned governors have encountered pitfalls in running their states. Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) left the Senate after five years in 2006 to become governor, only to be turned back by voters when he sought a second term in 2009 after a tumultuous term. Brownback has seen budget woes from his tax cuts and narrowly won a second term last year. Both Corzine and Brownback would have likely been able to keep their Senate seats if they had stayed, with their states having set records for the length of time they have kept Senate seats in the hands of one party.
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee (D), who won the governorship four years after being defeated for another Senate term, didn’t seek reelection following a steady decline in popularity.
Heitkamp has promised a decision soon and two things are certain. One, North Dakota is likely to have a competitive gubernatorial race no matter what her decision and two, she won’t be the last senator to consider a run for governor.