- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The anti-incumbent fever sweeping the nation apparently isn’t contagious when it comes to gubernatorial contests.

Five former governors who left office years or even decades ago are back on the campaign trail, having won their parties’ nominations in defiance of a national tide that rewards fresh faces and views career politicians as little better than career criminals.

At the same time, the once-and-future governors may be benefiting from a bit of voter nostalgia. No matter how grim the situation during their first terms — Iowa’s Terry Branstad, for example, was at the helm during the state’s disastrous 1993 floods — the financial situation was almost inevitably rosier than it is today.

“They clearly demonstrated some level of success the first time or they wouldn’t have made it through the primary process,” said Tim Storey, senior fellow and elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “With all five, they have very clear records, which makes it easy for the voters to ask, ‘How did the state fare when they were in office?’”

Three of the five former governors are running against sitting governors, which largely takes the anti-incumbency card out of play. Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, is facing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley in a rematch of their 2006 race.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, both Democrats, may have the toughest hurdles to overcome: They’re both running against intriguing first-time candidates who have wasted little time in labeling the former governors as retreads.

In Oregon, Republican Chris Dudley, a former National Basketball Association star with the Portland Trailblazers, is running radio ads calling for voters to embrace “a new vision.”

“It’s clear that after 24 years, the same insiders, including Gov. Kitzhaber, are desperate to protect the status quo,” says the ad, which is narrated, ironically, by former Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh. “I’m supporting [Dudley] because I think it’s time we finally turned the page on the politics of the past.”

Analysts say this year’s newcomer phenomenon appears to play better in Senate and House races than it does in gubernatorial contests. While voters appears eager to jettison their representatives in favor of someone new, they may be reluctant to place a total unknown in charge of running the state, a job that calls for a measure of experience in state affairs and executive skill.

“The legislative and executive branches are very unique, very different, and I do think voters take into account whether someone’s run a large organization, especially one that’s under tremendous stress right now,” said Mr. Storey.

Mr. Kitzhaber, who was term-limited in 2002, has countered the Dudley attacks by hearkening to the state’s strong economy in the 1990s and the gains made during his tenure on workers’ compensation and the environment.

His eight years’ experience on the job was pivotal in winning the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, even though the newspaper also praised Mr. Dudley as “intelligent and charismatic.”

“[Tough economic times] demand that voters choose a governor fully prepared — ready now, not later — to lead Oregon forward,” said the Oregonian in its Oct. 9 editorial. “Dudley has clearly grasped what’s wrong with Oregon … [but] Dudley has no public service record.”

In California, Mr. Brown is the only former governor to have held public office since his time as chief executive. His opponent, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, has gathered the lowlights from his extensive public service record in an ad titled, “A Lifetime in Politics, a Legacy of Failure.”

“Forty years in politics and failure has followed him everywhere,” intones the ad.

Mr. Brown has countered in part by touting his experience, and so far it seems to be working. The candidates have spent much of the election locked in a dead heat, but the latest Rasmussen Reports poll shows Mr. Brown pulling away with 50 percent of the vote compared with 44 percent for Mrs. Whitman.

In Iowa, Mr. Branstad, who retired in 1999 after setting the record for the most terms served as the state’s governor at four, is seeking a fifth term over first-term Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

The Culver campaign has attempted to make Mr. Branstad’s 16 years as governor the main issue, blasting him for raising taxes, state spending and his own salary. Mr. Branstad was also in office during two state disasters, the floods and the farm crisis.

“Terry Branstad: A past we can’t repeat,” says one television spot. “It’s your decision: Will we continue forward or go back to the past?” says another.

But Mr. Branstad’s tenure during tough times appears to be helping him with the voters, who may be looking for someone who is battle-tested. Polls show that he has led the race consistently by double digits.

“Gov. Branstad led Iowa through the farm crisis of the 1980s, when unemployment was higher than it is today, and by the time he left office, it was down to 2 percent,” said Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht. “I think people see Gov. Branstad as a hands-on leader who can right the ship again.”

Georgia Democrat Roy Barnes served a single term before being ousted by Republican Sonny Perdue in 2002. Now Mr. Perdue is term-limited, and the Democrat Barnes is back for another crack at that second term in a contest against Republican Nathan Deal.

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