Why you should care
Because governors often become presidents.
As America prepares for President Trump, a dozen states are also readying for their choices to fill the governor’s mansion. Republicans added two state chiefs this cycle, now holding 33 out of 50 states, their highest number since 1922. This year, Democrats lost ground but also found a few standard-bearers in states that went to Trump, including in Montana, West Virginia and North Carolina. Experts hold varying opinions about why this happened, but the general assumption is that those split-ticketers were less tied to party than personality of the winning candidate. Here are a few of the names making waves. Unless otherwise noted, representatives of each politico were reached out to but did not respond.
The Next Pence
Eric Holcomb had always been the bridesmaid; never the bride. The longtime Republican operative led the state party between 2010 and 2013 and has advised Indiana Sen. Dan Coats and Gov. Mitch Daniels in previous stints. But when Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigned to become president of the awkwardly named Ivy Tech Community College, then-Gov. Mike Pence appointed Holcomb to be his second-in-command. Just eight months later — with Pence standing staunchly alongside Trump — Holcomb won the race for Pence’s seat, becoming Indiana’s 51st governor. “The larger question a lot of people are asking is whether he will be like Mike Pence or Mitch Daniels in terms of the policies he will pursue,” says Indiana political scientist Andy Downs. His focus on social issues reflects Pence, Downs says, including supporting efforts to limit abortion and preserve so-called religious freedom laws that many say discriminate against LGBT folks. But Holcomb has a Daniels-like operating style that reflects an interest in driving the legislative agenda — specifically toward transitioning from old manufacturing to new manufacturing jobs, infrastructure renewal and implementing the education-focused Every Student Succeeds Act.
The Historic Choice
Oregon Democrat Kate Brown rose from secretary of state after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid corruption allegations in February 2015. Now the people have spoken, helping her become the first elected openly bisexual governor in American history. She continues a trend of out LGBT politicos from Arizona to Florida. Brown, who has been married to her husband, Dan Little, for decades but previously dated women, was “outed” in the ’90s by an Oregonian article documenting LGBT lawmakers. While Brown doesn’t often talk about her sexual orientation, she spoke about how her parents reacted to the news during a May commencement address at Willamette University. She said they flew from Minnesota to Oregon, urging her to just call herself a lesbian; some gay friends, she said, referred to her as “half-queer.” As for her policy inclinations? She recently unveiled a 2017–19 budget proposal that would increase taxes on cigarettes, cigars and alcohol; keep Oregon higher education funded at the same level, despite rising costs; and increase funding for child welfare and early education programs. When asked for comment on those decisions, a spokesperson pointed to remarks made by Brown when announcing the budget in December.
Reigning Red in the Land of Bernie
In another life, Republican Phil Scott was a champion stock car racer, the winningest driver in the modern era at Thunder Road in Barre, Vermont, where the Milk Bowl race involves the winner kissing a cow. Now the Vermonter is set to lead his home state — the same one that gave us Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. The lieutenant governor for the last six years, Scott test-drove jobs across the state as part of his Vermont Everyday Jobs tour to better understand how lawmakers can help workers. He ran as a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage candidate in the liberal state, while promising fiscally conservative bromides such as an independent audit of all state agencies. He also promised to veto any state budget that grew faster than wages or the state economy — which will be tested with what lawmakers expect to be a $50 million budget hole come springtime.
A Coal Kingpin and All Roads That Lead to Trump
Within two weeks of winning his first political contest this fall, West Virginia’s richest man and newly elected governor, Jim Justice, answered a phone call … from President-elect Donald Trump, a fellow real estate tycoon who had promised to make coal, one of Justice’s other business empires, great again. Eric Trump’s 65-year-old hunting partner told reporters their friendly relationship would help his beleaguered state: “We have a path to the presidency from West Virginia. That doesn’t happen very often.” Justice, a longtime Republican, converted to the other party in February of 2015; he didn’t really run “an issues-based campaign but a personality-based” one, says R. Scott Crichlow, political science chair at West Virginia University; when he did talk shop, it was about adding coal jobs and increasing tourism to the state. “He was running as the salesman of the state. He will use that bully pulpet-ish position to try to have an effect,” Crichlow says. Grant Herring, the governor-elect’s communications director, adds that Justice will create new jobs in agriculture and furniture manufacturing: education, too, will be high on the agenda. In the meantime, Justice recently celebrated his 1,000th win as a high school basketball coach — and yes, he still plans to patrol the sidelines, even as governor.
The Man Under Moneyed Fire
In October, the National Institute of Money in State Politics declared Missouri the battlefield for the most expensive gubernatorial race in the nation — paying for explosive ads like the one above. Eric Greitens, the purple-hearted Navy SEAL who became a New York Times bestselling author and CEO of the veteran-serving nonprofit The Mission Continues, ran on outsider credentials and a promise to destroy politics-as-usual cronyism. He defeated the incumbent Democratic attorney general, Chris Koster, by six points in November and is now expected to pass the holy grail of Midwestern conservatism — right-to-work laws to restrict labor unions — with the help of the Republican statehouse.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Phil Scott, a Vermonter, as a Vermontian.