The presidential allure of Southern Governors

The 2024 presidential race is upon us as the pre-Primary season begins to take shape.

The South has no shortage of presidential aspirants, including Sens. Scott (Tim of South Carolina and Rick of Florida.

Marco Rubio, a 2016 also-ran, seems interested, with a June book release stoking speculation about his desire to get humiliated by Donald Trump again.

The highly ambitious Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has passed on a 2024 run.

The old saying may be true: Every Senator looks in the mirror and sees a President. Even so, it is Southern Governors that have had a greater impact on presidential politics. Just this week, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley became the first Republican to join Trump in the GOP race. Her rationale focused on age and perceived electability, but her tenure as a Governor in an early Primary state complements her sterling foreign-policy credential: she was ambassador to the United Nations for the first two years of Trump’s presidency.

It may be no accident that a successful two-term Southern Governor was the first to join Trump in the 2024 contest. There is ample precedent that parties looking to change direction or reverse presidential-election misfortune turn to Southern Governors.

In 1976, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter thwarted the party’s liberal wing, trounced in consecutive elections by Richard Nixon and won the presidency. And after Northern liberals were decisively defeated in 1984 and 1988, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won successive presidential terms as a relative moderate.

Republicans responded to Clinton’s political success in the 1990s with a Southern Governor of their own, Texas’s George W. Bush. And even as the GOP took on a more Southern character before, during and after Bush’s evangelical-inflicted presidency, establishment stalwarts John McCain and Mitt Romney came up short against Barack Obama (though people forget that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses and then six Southern primaries, along with Kansas, in 2008).

Before and after the Obama era, Hillary Clinton captivated Democrats. But before she was a U.S. Senator or Secretary of State, the Wellesley- and Yale-educated Mrs. Clinton was First Lady of Arkansas. By 2020, the Democrats’ bench in the South had largely disappeared, and it fell to Joe Biden, who vanquished democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders and secured the nomination, to defeat President Donald Trump.

Though never a Governor or a Southerner, it is worth noting that Biden, of Wilmington and Washington, has lived below Mason and Dixon’s line his entire political career.

Trump’s early 2024 announcement, in November 2022, was designed to prove that he still controls the party. But robust competition will ensue to settle that question.

Unsurprisingly, no less than three Southern Governors — all handily re-elected in 2022 — may contend to not only end the Trump era, but also define what the GOP of the future will look like.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott follows Bush and former Gov. Rick Perry, who ran unsuccessful GOP presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2016. Considering Texas’s size, population and wealth, it seems almost a given that any long-serving Lone Star State executive would seek the presidency, though Perry’s lackluster attempts prove it’s no easy task.

If not for a Governor in another Southern state where a Gov. Bush once dominated (and came charging out of the gates as a presidential candidate in 2015 only to be vanquished by Trump), Abbott would surely be a top-tier candidate. He is pugnacious, strategic, flush with cash, and malleable enough to follow (or lead) the party in a Trumpist or non-Trumpist direction.

Indeed, Abbot’s gravest political misfortune is that a Florida Man has more successfully and loudly enraged libs, energized the base, and threaded the needle of worshipping and triggering Trump.

Thus, all eyes are on an epic Florida showdown between the former President and the current Governor, Ron DeSantis.

Endless commentary from operatives, donors and both friendly and hostile press focuses on DeSantis’s perceived advantages: He is more disciplined and strategic than Trump. He is not incessantly under investigation. He never tried to overturn an election, preferring more genteel forms of democratic subversion. No one (other than Trump) has ever accused him of sexual impropriety. He has a beautiful young family, with an adoring wife who beat cancer and who is known to have keen political and media instincts in her own right.

Trump certainly had his accomplishments for the rich, for White nativists, and for social conservatives, but DeSantis continues to deliver, triggering Democrats and the media all the while.

But DeSantis’ status as a Southern Governor confers additional advantages in presidential politics. After all, nothing translates to a presidential skill set as much as governing a large state.

DeSantis shares none of Trump’s deficiencies and disinterest in governing. To the endless delight of conservatives and the eternal consternation of progressives, Gov. DeSantis has shown he knows how to use every conceivable lever of power available to him — and then some. His supporters rightly suppose he would leave a much more dramatic and permanent mark on the federal bureaucracy than Trump, who was often too bored, distracted, ignorant, and incompetent to maximally impose his will on the government.

Electorally, DeSantis is not only a safer bet to deliver Florida’s 30 electoral votes than Trump, but he is also a more attractive General Election candidate in Sunbelt states Republicans need to win like Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada without much chance of performing worse than Trump would in the Upper Midwest battlegrounds.

At the moment, it seems difficult to imagine anyone besides Trump or DeSantis, who is reportedly considering entering the race in the months after Florida’s legislative session closes in early May, winning 2024 delegates in a GOP Primary or caucus.

But presidential politics can be surprising.

If — big if — there seems to be appetite within the party for a different style of candidate or an actual repudiation of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election (which DeSantis has to date declined to offer), there are candidates waiting in the wings. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and outgoing New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu could meaningfully compete in the Trump-skeptical lane (if such a lane exists).

And while both have shown rare courage in denouncing indecency, obnoxiousness, and degradations of democratic norms by a President of their own party, neither Hogan nor Sununu has a path to the nomination in today’s GOP.

Another Southern Governor, however, might credibly claim the mantle of standing up to Trump. Georgia’s Brian Kemp does not generate the headlines DeSantis does, but it would be hard to argue he is not well-positioned in 2024.

Unlike DeSantis, who owes his Governorship to Trump’s decisive 2018 endorsement and who is terrified to attack Trump, Kemp owes him nothing and has already proven he has the courage and moral fortitude to stand up to Trump.

In fact, when it mattered most, Kemp refused to go along with Trump’s pathetic, criminal attempts to steal the 2020 election by demanding Georgia officials rig the vote in his favor.

He may lack DeSantis’s national base of support, but if it proves impossible or inordinately unsavory for DeSantis to stab the man who made him in the back, Kemp could quickly become the Trump alternative — again, if the party’s electorate actually wants one.

On the Democratic side, it seems likelier than it did six months ago that Biden will seek re-election. If Biden declines to run again — and there is to be a Democratic nominating contest in 2024 — three Southern Governors could wield influence over the process, either as candidates or as prize endorsements and surrogates.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who faces re-election this year, is the Democratic Governors Association’s top priority in 2023. If Beshear prevails, he instantly becomes an attractive vice-presidential pick if the Democrats nominate a person of color for President.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, outperforming Clinton and Biden as Trump captured North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes both times. Following Obama’s 2008 victory there, Democrats in North Carolina and around the country have fantasized about moving the Tar Heel State into the Democratic column.

Cooper has said he supports Biden’s re-election, but if the President retires and Cooper felt strongly that the party should debate the merits of competing in the South, he could impact the race. Cooper may not excite Democratic Primary voters and caucusgoers, but he would be at least as strong a general election candidate against Kemp or DeSantis as whatever Northern liberal or democratic-socialist the party might be tempted to nominate.

Finally, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited. Following the spectacular collapse of Louisiana Democrats’ political fortunes in the Bush and Obama years, Edwards dominated the Pelican State’s unusual blanket Primary races in both 2015 and 2019, enjoying two terms as a moderate, practical, bipartisan Governor of what is now a deep red state. He is also anti-abortion. Edwards could force the party, whose elites are somewhat at odds with its general election voters on abortion rights and access, to have a long-overdue but potentially devastating public debate about what, if any, abortion restrictions Democrats can support.

The GOP has become a more Southern party but faces questions about whether the region’s culture, emphases and style can help Republicans prevail in light-blue states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

The Democrats struggle to seriously compete here at all, and remain resolutely committed to structures and policies that make widespread electoral success in the South even more elusive.

Through it all, Southern Governors from both parties have become more prominent in presidential politics. The 2024 nominating contest(s) will have twists and turns, of course.

Even if the General Election is a Biden-Trump rematch, a number of Governors across the South will play outsized roles on the campaign trail and in election administration.

Eventually, American voters will elevate a current or former chief executive from the South to the Oval Office. It may come sooner than later.

But after being largely shut out of presidential politics in the (Hillary) Clinton and Trump years, 2024 could be the year Southern Governors to rise again.

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Jacob Lupfer is a writer, editor and political analyst in Jacksonville, Florida.



A frequent commentator on American politics, culture, and religion, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. You can reach Jacob at [email protected].


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