The Challenges of Electing Governors and Lieutenant Governors Separately
A Commentary By Louis Jacobson
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In almost half the states, governors and lieutenant governors are either nominated separately, or else the official who is next in the line of succession is elected separately.
— This makes it reasonably common for the governor and lieutenant governor to come from separate parties. Currently, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Vermont fall into this category. Sometimes these pairings work smoothly; other times, they don’t.
— Even governors and lieutenant governors from the same party can have relationships that range from distant to acrimonious. There are recent examples of this phenomenon in Idaho and Rhode Island.
— In states where gubernatorial candidates cannot choose their running mates, it may be harder for them to win the governorship in the first place.
Lieutenant governors across the country
In some ways, the lieutenant governor of a state is much like the vice president on the federal level: They serve as a backup in case of death or resignation from office, and they don’t have a lot of other specific duties in their portfolio.
But in almost half the states, there’s a big difference from the vice presidency — lieutenant governors are elected separately from the governor.
In 17 states, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, rather than running on a joint ticket. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington state.
In 3 other states — Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming — there’s no lieutenant governor, but a separately elected secretary of state takes over if the governor can no longer serve.
And in 4 other states — Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and West Virginia — the presiding officer in the state Senate, who’s also elected separately from the governor, is first in the line of succession.
Sometimes having a No. 2 elected separately works out just fine for a state and its governor. Other times, it doesn’t.
Sometimes the governor and lieutenant governor end up being from different parties and working at cross purposes. Sometimes both officials are from the same party but lack the personal closeness that comes from having run as ticket-mates. And sometimes a gubernatorial candidate is hampered in their efforts to win the office in the first place because they had no say in who the candidate for lieutenant governor is.
Right now, in North Carolina, the Republican lieutenant governor is using his bully pulpit to bash the Democratic governor. In Idaho, a shared Republican Party affiliation has done nothing to forge cooperation between a governor and lieutenant governor from different wings of the party. And in Virginia, some observers wonder whether the inability to appoint a running mate hampered former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) bid to win a new term in 2021.
Then there are the ever-present tensions that stem from career jealousy. “Generally there are issues between governors and lieutenant governors because many lieutenant governors are ambitious and have eyes on the top job,” said Ed Feigenbaum, who was staff director of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors from 1983 to 1987 (that organization is now called the National Lieutenant Governors Association).
For this article, we reached out to political observers in many of these states to see how well, or poorly, their ticket-less system has worked over the years.
What do lieutenant governors actually do?
In many states, lieutenant governors preside over the state Senate, and in some states, that carries significant power. In Mississippi, for instance, the governor will have difficulty moving legislation that is opposed by the lieutenant governor, said Stephen Rozman, a Tougaloo College political scientist.
Beyond that, the duties of the office vary widely by state — if they have any specified duties at all.
In Pennsylvania, the lieutenant governor is a member of the Board of Pardons. In Louisiana, the lieutenant governor heads the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. In California, the office’s occupant serves on the boards of the University of California, California State University, and California Community College systems. The lieutenant governor also joins the state controller and a gubernatorial appointee on the State Lands Commission, a low-profile but powerful body. In other states, lieutenant governors are able to find a policy issue they can focus on, even if it’s not in the official job description. In Arkansas, for instance, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a Democrat, advocated for a state lottery to fund college scholarships, while current Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a Republican, has led a task force on public school standards reform established by GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has leveraged his office to promote marijuana legalization, which in turn has helped boost his current Senate campaign.
In some states, such as Vermont, the post of lieutenant governor is officially part-time. When the legislature was not in session, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie was an airline pilot, and Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman operated an organic farm.
States with governors and lieutenant governors from different parties today
Currently, 3 states have a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties. In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards serves with Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper serves with Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. And in Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott serves with Democratic Lt. Gov. Molly Gray.
These relationships run the gamut from amiable to oppositional.
In Vermont, Scott has maintained his popularity in the blue state by hewing to the political center. “We certainly don’t agree on everything, but we are willing to come together and work together,” Gray told U.S. News & World Report earlier this year.
In Louisiana, Edwards, a moderate Democrat, and Nungesser, a pragmatic Republican, have a good working relationship, said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist. Unlike Edwards’ friction-filled relationship with Jeff Landry, the state’s more aggressively partisan attorney general, the governor seems to have something of a non-aggression pact with Nungesser, observers said.
The most antagonistic relationship of the 3 is in North Carolina, where Cooper is a moderate Democrat but Robinson regularly stakes out positions on the right flank of the GOP, including remarks critical of the LGBT community. He’s expected to run for governor in 2024 (Cooper is term-limited).
“Robinson has used this bully pulpit masterfully,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. “Although he cannot pass policy, he has been able to draw attention to himself and his issues like no lieutenant governor in recent history.”
These 3 states have seen such partisan splits frequently. In Vermont, 10 governors have served since 1962, and 8 of them have had a lieutenant governor of the opposing party for at least one of their terms, said Chris Graff, a longtime political observer in the state. “Vermonters look at the offices separately when voting,” Graff said. “They don’t mind splitting tickets for the top two jobs.”
In Louisiana, Edwards’s predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal, served with 3 lieutenant governors, 2 of whom were Democrats (although one switched parties). And North Carolina has seen 4 such examples, including Cooper with Republican Dan Forest prior to Robinson. Forest unsuccessfully challenged Cooper in 2020.
How states have previously dealt with split partisan control of the top two offices
Many states have navigated such partisan splits without producing dramatic breaks.
“Factually and anecdotally, of the hundreds of pairs of leadership teams in states through history, these teams have worked in nearly all cases, to be productive and achieve various priorities,” said Julia Brossart, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
In Vermont, for instance, the relationships have tended to be cordial and professional, said former GOP Gov. Jim Douglas. During Tropical Storm Irene, which battered Vermont in 2011, the governor and lieutenant governor were of different parties, but they cooperated effectively in relief efforts, Douglas said.
Vermont even survived a difficult transition in 1991, when Republican Gov. Richard Snelling died in office and was succeeded by Democratic Lt. Gov. Howard Dean. Dean instantly inherited the policies and personnel of the Republican administration.
Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Democratic Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts served key advisory roles in the administrations of Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican-turned-Independent, especially on health care policy, said Valerie Endress, an associate professor of political communication at Rhode Island College.
But in several states, divided control of the top 2 seats has turned rocky indeed — most glaringly so in states where the lieutenant governor serves as acting governor in the governor’s absence.
Stories abound about governors leaving Missouri “secretly” so a lieutenant governor of the opposite party could not act as governor in their stead, said Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren.
Perhaps the most celebrated example of this phenomenon came in the 1970s, when Republican Mike Curb served as lieutenant governor under California Gov. Jerry Brown. Curb, a musician and music producer, “would seize onto power whenever Brown vacationed with his then-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, or leave to campaign out of state,” said Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne. Other cross-partisan lineups in California worked better, such as Democrat Leo McCarthy’s tenure under Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. Godwin speculates that McCarthy’s long service as a state legislative leader had left him more levers of power than other occupants of the office.
In North Carolina, fear of Robinson assuming gubernatorial powers has kept Cooper stuck in the Tar Heel State. In fact, looking to the 2022 Senate cycle, Cooper was, at a time, considered Democrats’ strongest potential candidate. But Robinson’s election effectively took Cooper out of contention — if he ran for Senate and won, that would mean handing the governorship over to Robinson in the middle of the term.
One common irritant is that the lieutenant governor may be using their office to boost their own electoral challenge to the sitting governor. Douglas recalls working on Snelling’s staff during a period when Democrat Madeleine Kunin was serving as lieutenant governor. “It was obvious that she was eying the top job,” Douglas said. He recalled asking Snelling if he was concerned that Kunin would do something to undercut him. “‘No,’ he replied. ‘To her credit, she does all her mischief when I’m around.’”
Even governors and lieutenant governors of the same party can be at odds
In some states, governors and lieutenant governors generate friction because they come from different wings of the same party.
In the 1980s, there were tensions between Gov. Gerald Baliles and Lt. Gov. Doug Wilder, said Robert D. Holsworth, a founding director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy who is now managing partner of the consulting firm DecideSmart. Both were Democrats, but Wilder did not support Baliles’ tax package that was intended to fund transportation.
Currently, in Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann are both Republican, but Hosemann is considered more of a pragmatist. The two have split over such issues as Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana legalization, and control of COVID-19 emergency funds, Rozman said.
Historically, party splits in Idaho haven’t been problematic, such as the one between Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and Republican Lt. Gov. Butch Otter, said Randy Stapilus, a longtime political observer in the state. But the current relationship between Republican Gov. (and former Lt. Gov.) Brad Little and Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has devolved into open warfare.
McGeachin, who has received President Donald Trump’s endorsement in a 2022 primary challenge to Little, has taken positions on the right-most edge of her party, while Little has been more of a pragmatist, especially on coronavirus policy.
“On more than one occasion when the governor has been outside Idaho, McGeachin has taken to issuing executive orders as acting governor,” Decision Desk HQ reported. “Little has rescinded the orders, and apparently didn’t inform McGeachin he was going out of the state earlier this month.”
Stapilus described the 2 as being “ferociously at odds almost all year, and neither has been, at least in recent months, making any real effort to hide or soft-pedal it.”
Another recent example comes from Rhode Island, where Democrat Dan McKee was elevated from lieutenant governor to governor in early 2021 following the confirmation of fellow Democrat Gina Raimondo as President Joe Biden’s secretary of commerce.
Prior to McKee’s elevation, the two reportedly didn’t see each other in person for more than a year; to communicate, he had to ask capitol police officers to hand-deliver letters to her office. At one press availability, Raimondo was asked whether she’d had any substantive discussions with her lieutenant governor. “Not often,” she acknowledged.
Endress describes the Raimondo-McKee relationship as “really dysfunctional,” noting that Raimondo didn’t attend her successor’s inauguration, nor was McKee invited to her farewell address.
“Raimondo garnered national media attention as state treasurer with her overhaul of the state pension system, and she relished the limelight as her national profile continued to rise,” Endress said. “McKee, who served as a town councilman and mayor of a town of 35,000, adopted a much more low-key approach to governing. The two also differed vastly on their approach to economic development, arguably the central focus of policymaking in Rhode Island since the 2008 recession.”
One consequence of the poor relationship: Several state legislators and officeholders in Rhode Island have begun floating changes to the way the state’s 2 top officeholders are elected, Endress said.
Gubernatorial candidates can be hobbled by not being able to choose a running mate
Several states use a slightly different system, in which the governor and lieutenant governor are chosen separately, either through a convention or a primary. The nominees then run together in the general election.
In Pennsylvania, this hasn’t worked too well in recent years, with “teams” that have differed in both style and substance. Gov. Ed Rendell regularly clashed with fellow Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll, while Gov. Tom Wolf ended up with a disastrous pairing with Mike Stack in 2014. Stack and his wife were accused of mistreating their staff and the state troopers who were providing their protection. Wolf ended up removing Stack’s police protection and reducing his staff.
In Virginia — one of the aforementioned states where the lieutenant governor is elected completely separately from the governor — Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe may have been destined to lose to Republican Glenn Youngkin last November. But the margin was less than 2 points, and it’s possible to wonder how much of an impact the state’s separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor played into that result.
McAuliffe won the primary over, among others, 2 Black women, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy from Northern Virginia and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan from the Richmond area. But rather than being able to select either of the runners-up, McAuliffe was limited to running alongside the winner of the primary for lieutenant governor.
As it turned out, the Democratic nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general all came from Northern Virginia. And not having either a Black candidate or one from outside of Northern Virginia “really hurt Democratic turnout in other major population centers of the state, including Hampton Roads and the Richmond area,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist.
Bill Bolling, who served as a Republican lieutenant governor under both Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and Republican Bob McDonnell, said that it’s par for the course for lieutenant governors to be distant.
In Virginia, Bolling said, “most governors have not involved the lieutenant governor actively in their administrations. Frankly, that has been the case regardless of political party. They have not historically been actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the governor’s administration.”
Bolling said that he and Kaine were friendly, having cut their teeth in Richmond-area politics, but because the governor was from a different party, “he was obviously not going to involve me in the day-to-day operation of his administration.” During McDonnell’s tenure, however, the two “governed together as a team,” including a key role for Bolling on economic development issues.
Given his experiences as lieutenant governor, Bolling said, “I have long been an advocate for changing the way we elect the lieutenant governor and changing the role of the lieutenant governor. I would prefer a system where the governor and lieutenant governor ran together on a ticket, just like the president and the vice president. If this happened, I think governors would be more inclined to let their lieutenant governor play a more active role in their administration. This would make the office much more meaningful and better prepare the Lieutenant Governor to become governor should the need ever arise.”
Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the Almanac of American Politics 2022. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.
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This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.
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