Tough economy has some surprising people looking to get their old jobs back

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October 30, 2010

In five states, the gubernatorial ballot will feature a familiar name.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Of the record 37 states electing a governor this year,five states have a former governor on the ballot. In California, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, and Oregon, a major party candidate has served at least one term as chief executive previously.

Jerry Brown, Roy E. Barnes, Terry E. Branstad, Bob Ehrlich, and John Kitzhaber represent ten terms, or 40 years, of collective gubernatorial experience. Of the five men, there are three Democrats and 2 Republicans; two chose not to run again at the end of their first tenures, one was term-limited out, and the other two lost re-election bids. In three races, it's quite likely voters will choose to send a former governor back to office.

California's Jerry Brown served two terms from 1975 to 1983. He succeeded Ronald Reagan, who moved up to the White House. Brown himself thought he had Presidential potential. Even during his time as the Golden's State's leader, his sights were set higher. Brown entered the 1976 and 1980 Presidential primaries, though he was unsuccessful both times. In 1982, he declined to run again, instead running for the U.S. Senate. He lost that race and, once he'd left the governorship, chaired the state's Democratic Party, made a third failed Presidential run in 1992, won Oakland's mayoral race, and served as Attorney General. He is now leading Republican Meg Whitman by double digits in 2010's most expensive race and looks likely to take his old job back.

Fellow one-time Pacific Coast governor John Kitzhaber was Oregon's commander-in-chief for two terms, from 1995 to 2003. Term-limit law precluded a third run; however, Oregon does not impose lifetime bans on any individual serving as governor. Aftr leaving office, Kitzhaber, a physician by training, spent substantial time working with health-care reform foundations largely supportive of government controlled single-payer systems. His race, against former NBA player Chris Dudley is still ranked as a toss-up by many race trackers. Though Kitzhaber has pulled ahead lately, there is still an outside chance that the GOP could affect an upset in reliably blue Oregon.

A third state represents a solid chance for a former governor to become a governor-elect. Iowa's Terry Branstad spent a whopping four terms leading the state. He is both Iowa's longest serving governor and, first elected at 36, the state's youngest governor. At the end of his tenure, which spanned 1983 to 1999, Branstad opted against another run. He spent the next decade in higher education, including six years as the President of Des Moines University. His race is considered one of the easiest bets in the 2010 cycle, all but certain to give the Republicans a win and send Branstad back to the governor's mansion. His opponent is Democratic incumbent Chet Culver, who is something of an anomaly himself. When Branstad first left office, Democrat Tom Vilsack succeeded him and served two terms. Culver's 2006 victory after Vilsack had left office represents the first time Iowa has elected back-to-back Democrats to the governorship since the late 1930s.

In an interesting pattern, it is the three governors who first left office freely or who were subject to term limits who are in strong positions to win their races. On the East Coast, two more governors never wanted to leave office and are not looking likely to get a second bite at the apple.

Marylander Bob Ehrlich and Roy Barnes of Georgia both served a single term before losing re-election bids. Both men's time in office represented departures from their state's usual political predilections. Ehrlich was the first Republican to win Maryland's governorship in nearly four decades, since Spiro Agnew's 1967 victory. Moreover, he is one of only six Republicans who have ever governed the Free State. Roy Barnes served his only term to date in Georgia sandwiched between Zell Miller and Sonny Perdue. One of the state's most powerful governors, he earned the nickname "King Roy," a sobriquet the Republicans have made hay with in the current election cycle. Looking back on Barnes' fall from power when he lost his bid for a second term, many analysts point to his support for minimizing use of the Confederate Flag in a state where it is widely perceived as a badge of pride as King Roy's death knell.

Martin O'Malley, Maryland's current governor and the man who ousted Ehrlich from office, is far ahead in the polls and will almost certainly be returned to power by voters. Barnes' campaign in Georgia is polling more closely but his opponent, Nathan Deal, is still pegged to win. However, the returns could be close enough to trigger a runoff election. While such an event would bring both the Democratic and Republican national operations out in force, Deal is still expected to prevail.

Among these five men, two are running against fresh faces. Meg Whitman and Chris Dudley, the Republican nominees in California and Oregon, are both successful and even famous in their first careers but both are also new to electoral politics. Interestingly, both of these races are for open seats. That both states could go to the GOP and were, at one point, forecast to be Republican wins speaks to voter discontent with career politicians. That the two states are, with only days before the elections, taking on a bluer shade, may be evidence that experience still counts both in knowing how to campaign and as a salient argument in winning over voters.

The other three state, Iowa, Maryland, and Georgia, feature candidates with deeply political resumes on both sides. Iowa and Maryland share a Republican challenger, who once was the governor, challenging a Democratic incumbent. The likely outcomes, however, could not be more different. Georgia is likely to remain in Republican hands, though the battle could very well be prolonged and bitter. Regarding Maryland, there is no realistic scenario where O'Malley loses.

Regardless of the outcomes in these races, any missteps in the next four years will lead to "I-told-you-so" choruses from someone. Will the American Northeast regret sending in a novice over a known quantity or be ruing the day they gave a member of the political class another chance over the new kid? Will the Midwest end up sorry or thankful they extended the record of ther longest serving governor? And will East Coast voters, already choosing between candidates who've spent much of thier adult lives in elected office, second guess their own choices?

Sometime in the next one-hundred hours, the races should be settled. And, beginning on Inauguration Day, every governor goes under nonstop scrutiny, a process sure to be filled with detailed ruminations on whether the best man got in.


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