Senators vs. Governors: Who Will Have the Edge in 2008?

We hear many senators mentioned as possible presidential candidates before and during every election cycle. Most of the senators mentioned bring the attention upon themselves by not declaring or denying their intentions to run. This always leads to a period of increased political bickering and in-fighting as would-be candidates devote time to self positioning rather than congressional cooperation.

A look at history reveals just how well Senators John McCain, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum or Hillary Clinton might fare against non-Senate presidential candidates and what it means for their nomination potential.

In the history of our nation there have been only two Presidents who came from the rank of active senators. This rare feat was accomplished in 1921 by Warren Harding and repeated in 1961 by John Kennedy. Harding was essentially drafted by default at the 1920 Republican convention and Kennedy is arguably the most charismatic politician ever. In total, only 11 Presidents had any Senate experience while 17 Presidents have risen from the gubernatorial field.

A cursory glance at the failed presidential bid of Sen. John Kerry provides recent evidence of one challenge faced by senators running for the highest office. Much exposed during this presidential race was the contradictory voting record that Kerry compiled throughout his long career in the Senate. Kerry was exceptionally vulnerable in this area because he did appear to contradict himself often. However, even the most consistent senator will be vulnerable in the area of voting record. Each vote represents the senator’s official opinion. Defending this seemingly endless list of opinions can become particularly burdensome for a national campaign. This burden is compounded if the senator is running against a governor or other executive branch member who needs only to defend the agenda of his/her administration.

A second major point of a senator’s vulnerability comes from their general lack of executive experience. It is far too easy for non-Senate opponents to point out the rule-by-committee nature of Congress. History and a look at the current pool of candidates from the Senate validates this claim. Job seekers everywhere will tell you that a lack of relevant experience is often the final nail in the coffin of not being hired, a point seemingly lost on many senators.

All of these factors will certainly come into play in the current election cycle. Two of the oft-mentioned candidates so far are Gov. Mitt Romney (R.-Mass.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.).

Romney will be able to point to his many successes, including massive health insurance reform, as governor of Massachusetts. The state’s landmark insurance reform provides coverage for every citizen without raising taxes. Perhaps more impressive was the bipartisan effort that went into creating the legislation. There is already much talk of applying this program on a national level if it continues to have success in Massachusetts.

Romney will be able to draw on this and other issues like his recent handling of state flooding to establish himself as a qualified executive branch leader. Here’s what Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Timothy Murphy had to say when I asked him what made the insurance reform possible: "Governor Romney set priorities early on, brought together the resources of state government, held people accountable to deliverables, made certain that work products were aligned with his vision, and had enough confidence in his leadership team to delegate authority without surrendering responsibility." Statements like these and his overall record as governor could elevate him to roadblock status for any opponent with lesser executive credentials.

Drawing on her experience as first lady will inoculate Clinton from the accusations of lacking executive experience that most other senators face. This poses an interesting question for Republicans as to whether or not they are willing to risk nominating someone with less executive experience than Hillary.

The political and media buzz makes it easy to forget the simple history of elected Presidents. Overall, both parties have had success in nominating governors and failure in nominating senators. This has caused many to believe that both parties will favor non-senate candidates with the obvious exception of Clinton, who is intensely popular with the Democratic base.