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Wanted: executive ability

Campaign 2010 | It's more important than ever in the nation's state house races

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

"Executive ability is prominent in your makeup," reads a fortune cookie proverb prized at my house, where, as another saying goes, we have many chiefs and few Indians.

Executive ability is prized no less in our selection of Chief Executive. Four of our last five presidents were governors-a recognition that the management skills learned and practiced in the state house can be an important prerequisite to serving in the White House. So it is notable that in this election year, 37 governorships are up for grabs. This record level of potential state-house turnover comes on the political eve of what may be a contentious 2012 presidential election-when at least one party will be looking hard at which successful governor could lead a nation. And it comes at a time when, thanks to the restructuring brought about by the financial panic of 2008 and its aftermath, which includes significant drops in state revenues and substantial increases in federal authority, the very nature of governing any state in our union is changing.

About 10 Democratic governors will be retiring or facing term limits, versus about 11 Republican governors. The rest, nine Democrats and seven Republicans, face reelection. In a mid-term election the power of incumbency is muted and underdogs have a fighting chance, so this should be good news for Republicans.

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But at the dawn of 2010, Republicans face some of the same challenges that dogged them in the 2008 presidential election. In a number of gubernatorial races the party is torn already among conservative and moderate candidates who might rather fight and lose than unite and win. Primaries in those states will be decisive for conservative voters who want to press for more fiscal responsibility or who want to preserve traditional marriage laws, among other issues.

The divide is having ramifications in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist decided to run for the U.S. Senate and believed he could easily beat former speaker of the Florida House Marco Rubio for the GOP nomination. But Rubio won support from conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Family Research Council, while Crist's support for the Obama stimulus package and cap-and-trade legislation has eroded his popularity; so much so, that, according to The Wall Street Journal's John Fund, Crist is actually rethinking which office to run for and may re-enter the governor's race.

Republicans must overcome another challenge: They have an ethics problem. Personified by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who was a GOP favorite to run for the White House in 2012 until he went AWOL from the state house to join his mistress in Argentina, it's a problem overhanging 2010 governors' races. In Georgia the field of GOP candidates leading into a July primary is riddled with the potentially compromised: Frontrunner John Oxendine, the state insurance commissioner, is under investigation for illegal campaign contributions. Conservative Nathan Deal has been listed as "one of America's 15 most corrupt members of Congress" by one watchdog group for, among other charges, preserving state contracts that benefit his own salvage business.

In this economic climate voters are less likely than ever to overlook fiscal irresponsibility at the state level. The 50 states combined face a total budget shortfall of $350 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). "The worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record," it noted in December. Thirty-nine states face budget shortfalls that CBPP says are likely to grow in 2011, when federal stimulus money eases off and potential cuts to Medicaid and Medicare programs from healthcare reform legislation kick in. New York's Democratic Gov. David Paterson spoke for more than his state or party when he said his cuts to funding for schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and college financial aid is "pain that is indescribable. . . . I expect that I'm going to come under harsh criticism. . . . All of us are going to have to sacrifice in order to save our state."

But who knows? Perhaps the demand for sacrifice and leadership at the state level will produce a few national hopefuls with executive ability more prominent than ever in their makeup.
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