Governors Running for the Cabinet?

Note: This study was published on February 1, 2016 and examines the Eisenhower through Obama administrations (1953-2016). For the list of governors, departments they led, home states, and numbers in each administration, please see the pdf links at the bottom of the page.

By John Weingart


Earlier this year, almost a dozen former or present governors were running for President. Now, all have withdrawn or suspended their campaigns. Now what do they do? They could say goodbye to the national stage and each tack a lawn sign to the wall of their garage to remind them of what might have been, but that would be an emotionally difficult transition. More likely they may start to dream of a vice presidential nomination or cabinet post in the next administration.

Even if it wasn’t initially on their minds, most will find their actions between now and November interpreted in that light. Was their eventual endorsement of the party nominee delivered with apparently sincere enthusiasm? Did it come at a particularly helpful moment? Are they being active surrogate speakers or fundraisers? And, for those governors still in office, to what extent do their actions in their home states during the rest of 2016 seem more addressed to a national than local audience?

The vice presidency, almost by definition, is first prize for a runner-up, but it is a long shot and in modern times not one often offered to a governor. During the entire 20th century, only four governors were nominated: Thomas Marshall of Indiana elected with Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916; Calvin Coolidge from Massachusetts defeated with James Cox four years later, California’s Earl Warren who lost with Thomas Dewey in 1948; and Spiro Agnew from Maryland, who was elected twice with Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Since then, former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was elevated to the post by President Gerald Ford in 1974 but not chosen for the re-election ticket, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate in 2008.

In contrast, the cabinet is, at least technically, large enough to hold all nine Republican and two Democratic present or former governors who launched presidential campaigns during 2015, but here too history suggests that few, if any, will be chosen.

The 11 most recent presidents – Eisenhower through Obama – have had a total of 339 cabinet secretaries,** but only 39 of them had prior experience as governors. Each president chose an average of fewer than four, ranging from former Texas Governor George W. Bush, who tapped nine, to former Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, who named none (although he did retain three former governors President Kennedy had appointed). Bush’s attraction to the pool of his former colleagues was not shared by the other Presidents who themselves had been governors, with President Carter choosing four (albeit in only term), President Reagan three, and President Clinton two.***

The 39 former governors came to Washington from 28 states. Twenty of them were the sole governor of their state to join the cabinet during these past 63 years while Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah each sent two, and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania each sent three.

Surveying the cabinet prospects for the field of present and former governors who entered the 2016 presidential race, only four – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Scott Walker – come from states that have had a previous governor in the cabinet in the period since 1953. Texas Governor John Connelly was President Nixon’s choice to be Treasury Secretary in 1971; Reuben Askew was Governor of Florida before President Carter named him to be U.S. Trade Representative in 1979; and New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson both left their statehouses in 2001 when President George W. Bush nominated them to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively.

The other seven governors seeking the presidency in this cycle – Lincoln Chaffee, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley and George Pataki – would be the first former governors in recent times to enter the cabinet from their states of Rhode Island, Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Maryland and New York.

Notwithstanding geography, if any of the 11 governors who launched a 2016 presidential nomination campaign are interviewed for the cabinet, which post(s) should they seek? The ones in which they have the greatest expertise and interest would be a good place to start. After that, though, they might want to make sure the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, or Interior are on their list. Fully 16 of the 39 cabinet slots given to governors since the Eisenhower administration were in one of those three agencies.

Finally, it may be worth noting that only seven of the 39 governors to serve in the cabinet had run for president – Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, Orville Freeman in 1960, William Scranton in 1964, George Romney in 1968, Edmund Muskie in 1972, Bruce Babbitt in 1988 and Tom Vilsack, briefly, in 2008 – and, of those, only Freeman, Romney and Vilsack were early appointments by the men who had defeated them. Stevenson and Babbitt were nominated four years after their presidential runs while Muskie waited eight years and Scranton 12.

The following tables (pdf) provide more detailed information on governors and the federal cabinet:


*John Weingart is Associate Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and directs the Institute’s Center on the American Governor. Research assistance for this paper was provided by Krishna Jhaveri.

** Cabinet is defined here to include the White House Chief of Staff, EPA Administrator, US Trade Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations

*** This listing does not include cabinet officials who later served as governor such as Andrew Cuomo who was Secretary of HUD from 1997-2001 and elected Governor of New York in 2010 and Bill Richardson who was U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1998-2001 and then Governor of New Mexico from 2003-2011.