Want results from Congress? Former governors may be the answer

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By Misty Knight-Finley and Alex Keena

In this year’s general election, 33 Senate seats are up for grabs. While much of the focus of these races is on their implications for political control over the 116th Senate (which begins next year) our research suggests that the importance of “who” is running extends beyond matters of partisanship. 

In our study of partisanship in the Senate, we found that a candidates’ prior political experiences predict how they will behave once in office. In particular, we find that former governors running for office are supported by less ideologically extreme donor bases and are systematically less partisan than their colleagues after they are elected to the Senate.

This year, six of the candidates running for Senate have gubernatorial experience. Angus King, Tim Kaine, and Joe Manchin—all former governors currently serving in the Senate—are up for re-election. Current polls show firm leads for King and Kaine and a toss-up race for Manchin. In addition to these incumbents, three former (or, soon to be former) governors—Rick Scott (R-FL), Mitt Romney (former governor of MA running as a Republican for the UT Senate seat being vacated by Orrin Hatch), and Lincoln Chaffee (D-RI)—are running or considering a run for Senate.

Do legislators’ political experiences matter?

When it comes to serving in the U.S. Senate, prior political experience is the norm, rather than the exception. Only three freshmen senators arrived to the 115th session of Congress without some prior experience in elected office. Between 1983 and present, only 57 (less than 20%) entered the chamber without prior political experience, and many of these were political appointees.

We wanted to understand how different types of political experiences affect a senator’s behavior on the Senate floor. Using the Party Unity Dataset, we examined roll call votes in which a majority of one party votes against the majority of another party—so called “party votes”— during the 98th to 113th Senates (1983-2015). While we find that serving in the U.S. House, a state legislature, or most other elected offices has no significant impact on party loyalty, the experience of serving as a state governor is associated with an 8% reduction in party loyalty. This effect holds, even after controlling for a senator’s electoral security, tenure in office, and the characteristics of their constituency. In other words, former governors have the potential to help ease partisan gridlock, a possibility that makes them worth watching.

 Understanding the governor effect

What makes former governors less partisan than their counterparts? Modern governors manage increasingly large budgets and sprawling bureaucracies, and they must also broker bipartisan compromise in the state legislature in order to enact their policy agendas. We find that the experience of serving in the governorship is such that each year of gubernatorial service decreases a senator’s Party Unity score by more than 1%.

But part of the “governor effect” also stems from the ability to build and maintain a personal support constituency. After all, because governors are familiar with statewide constituency, this gives them a key advantage as Senate candidates. To understand how former governors’ support networks compared to those of other senators, we analyzed data from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections. We find that former governors’ donors are less ideologically extreme than are the donors to other senators.

Can former governors really get results in the Senate?

In today’s Senate, which is highly partisan, former governors are aware of their differences. In fact, the recently formed Former Governors Caucus developed out of frustration over inaction and partisan gridlock in the Senate. Dubbed a “support group” for “recovering governors” by former governor turned senator Thomas Carper, the group—in the words of Senator Angus King—has “an orientation toward results and a frustration with an institution that generally isn’t very good at getting results.”

Former governors may not single-handedly cure legislative gridlock or hyper-partisanship in the Senate, but their common experiences and proclivity toward working across the aisle may set an example about what a culture of bipartisanship can look like.

Misty Knight-Finley is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Rowan University and Alex Keena is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.