To Spot Future Political Leaders, Keep An Eye On the 2018 Down Ballot Races
Between the ongoing stock market correction, the hangover from the Supreme Court confirmation process and Hurricane Matthew’s landfall in Florida on Wednesday, you’d be forgiven for having missed this news: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a likely 2020 presidential candidate, will travel to South Carolina next week. Big deal? Yes. South Carolina is an early presidential primary state and Harris is an up and coming Democrat with White House aspirations.
South Carolina also was in the news this week because Nikki Haley resigned as President Donald Trump’s United Nations ambassador, prompting speculation about her motives and, naturally, her next move. Was she fed up and eager to launch a primary bid against her soon-to-be former boss?
Haley says no, but these two potential candidates’ resumes tell us a lot about where to look for future presidential talent and why non-federal races this year might be more important than meets the eye.
Before joining the administration, Haley was governor of South Carolina, the first woman and the first minority to serve in that position. Harris hasn’t even finished her second year in the Senate. Prior to that she was her state’s attorney general. While, statistically, the vice presidency is still the most frequent precursor to the top White House job (14 U.S. presidents previously flew aboard Air Force Two), serving in state government is close behind. Making the leap from Congress is considerably harder.
In the country’s history, only four individuals—Warren Harding, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama—have gone directly from the United States Senate to the presidency. Only one member of the House of Representatives, James Garfield, went from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. (John Quincy Adams, incredibly, went in the opposite direct, from being president to a serving as a lowly member of the U.S. House.)
Nine individuals, meanwhile, have gone straight from their governor’s mansion to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
If today’s polls are an indicator, after this November, Democrats will have a much larger bench from which a future White House candidate might spring.
Election analyst Charlie Cook, who runs the respected Cook Political Report, wrote he believes the “real blue wave” will happen in the states. He expects Democrats to gain between six and 12 governorships on Election Day this November. (Currently, Republicans hold 33 governorships to Democrats’ 16. Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, is an independent.)
According to Cook’s latest analysis, Republicans are in danger of losing their governors’ seats in Illinois—where incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has battled with the Democratic state legislature over spending cuts, pensions, and education reform, faces significant headwinds—Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Democrats, meanwhile, are vulnerable in just Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
Among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who might have even loftier future aspirations is Richard Cordray, the former director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who is running for governor in Ohio. This summer, Cordray’s GOP opponent, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, was ahead in the polls. In September, the race was tied. The latest polling has Cordray up by six points. If Cordray can win in this state, which has been getting redder in recent elections, he should be taken seriously on the national stage.
Two of the Republican incumbent governors who are still in good shape despite the blue wave threats are Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland and Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. Both candidates are running for reelection in heavily Democratic states and are well-liked. In fact, according to the current polling, of all of the 50 current governors across the United States, Democratic or Republican, these two have the highest approval ratings. Winning reelection in a blue state surely would be an attractive trait to GOP donors if either of these two decide to make a bid for the White House. (Though, notably, that accomplishment didn’t have much bearing on Mitt Romney’s ability to win the presidency in 2012 as a former governor of Massachusetts.)
While no state legislators have made the direct jump to commander in chief, it’s worth paying attention to the farm team developed here. Remember only four years before he landed in the White House, Barack Obama was in his fourth term as an Illinois state senator. And, of the 100 members of the current U.S. Senate, 44 started their political careers in state legislatures. (220 members of the 435-member U.S. House also served in their states’ legislatures.)
And at this level of government, too, we’re likely to see a large influx of new Democratic talent in November.
Republicans control both the senate and house chambers in 25 states. Democrats can say the same in seven states. Nebraska has a one-house legislature and, in the other 17 legislatures, party control is split. According to Ballotpedia, control in 21 of the 99 state legislative chambers could switch this year. That shift doesn’t sound seismic until it’s put this way: Charlie Cook expects Democrats to net between 400 and 650 state legislative seats, “more than the average midterm loss of 375 seats for the party in the White House.”
That’s a lot of new Democratic faces on the horizon. Will a few of them one day campaign in South Carolina? It’s both likely, and probable that we’ll see it sooner than we think.