Gubernatorial Blasts From the Past

There’s an interesting post by Eric Ostermeier up at the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics site, leading to another post at WaPo, about Charlie Crist’s status as the only ex-governor seeking a return engagement this year (there were five in 2010, three of them winning). Ostermeier conducts a full historical analysis of the subject, noting that 144 pols have served “interrupted” gubernatorial tenures. He finds five party-switching precedents to Crist, the most recent being Fob James of Alabama, who served as a Democratic governor from 1979-83 and then as a Republican in 1995-99.

Ostenmaier also notes that one reason for the decline in interrupted tenures is the fading away of state consecutive term bans, which were nearly ubiquitous in the South until fairly recently. In my home state of Georgia, the ban was converted to a two-consecutive-term limit via constitutional amendment in 1976. In the previous four elections, former governors ran strong but losing campaigns to get their old jobs back (Marvin Griffin in 1962, Ellis Arnall in 1966, Carl Sanders in 1970, and Lester Maddox in 1974). Had the ban been killed a bit earlier, Jimmy Carter would have probably run for re-election in 1974 instead of preparing an audacious 1976 presidential bid. And next door in Alabama, a similar consecutive term ban led George Wallace to run his first wife, Lurleen, in 1966. She won but died in office, and her widower husband had to beat her successor, Albert Brewer, in a 1970 primary and runoff after the ban was repealed.

Today the consecutive-term ban for governors exists only in Virginia, which has helped make that state a hotbed of partisan competition. But the last governor who sought to make a comeback for that same office was Byrd Machine stalwart Mills Godwin, another party-switcher who won as a Democrat in 1965 and as a Republican in 1973. So Crist, particularly if he wins, may be among the last representatives of a dying breed.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.