When U.S. Senators become Governors

One of the best races ever was the contest for Governor of New York in 1954: the three-term incumbent, Republican Thomas Dewey, was retiring after two failed presidential bids. The Democrats ran Averill Harriman, an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1952 who had served as Ambassador to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union, and Secretary of Commerce. The GOP, anxious to avoid losing the Governor’s mansion, ran their strongest possible candidate:Irving Ives, a former Cornell Dean and Assembly Speaker who was in his second term as New York’s United States Senator. Ives had already won one extraordinarily tough race, beating former three-term Governor Herbert Lehman, the founder of the Lehman Bros. investment banking firm, by a 52%-48% margin. (Lehman had been Lieutenant Governor when Franklin Roosevelt had been Governor and had served in the State Department during World War II as Director of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations and as Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.) In 1952, he beat Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore by nineteen percentage points. Harriman beat Ives by just 58,000 votes; he lost re-election in 1958 to Nelson Rockefeller. In 1958, Senate Minority Leader (and former Majority Leader) William Knowland viewed himself as a potential presidential candidate and thought being Governor of California would help him reach the White House. Knowland’s problem was that the incumbent was a Republican and Governor Goodwin Knight initially declined to back down to accommodate Knowland’s national ambitions. Eventually Knight agreed to a job switch and announced that he would run for Knowland’s Senate seat. But California voters resented the backroom deal and in the general election, Knowland lost to Edmund “Pat” Brown by over a million votes and Knight was beaten by Clair Engle, a somewhat obscure Congressman. The beating suffered by the GOP at the top f the ticket resulted in the first Democratic-controlled legislature in more than one hundred years. Knowland never made peace with the circumstances that ended his political career, and in 1974 he committed suicide — the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Popular United States Senators sometimes find it difficult to become a beloved Governor. Bob Torricelli, viewed as the 800-pound gorilla during speculation that he would trade his Senate seat for the governorship in 2001, found that his appeal as a gubernatorial candidate would last just twelve days. Republican Frank Murkowski won re-election to the Senate in 1998 with 74.4% of the vote. He left the Senate after 22 years in 2002 to run for Governor of Alaska and won by a 56%-41% margin. Among Murkowski’s first moves was to appoint his daughter to fill his Senate seat. Now Murkowski is struggling with his own job approvals, and Democrats nearly ousted his daughter in 2004. Democrat Lawton Chiles was a strong vote-getter during his eighteen years as a Senator, and two years after his voluntary retirement he returned to public office when he unseated GOP Governor Bob Martinez in 1990. But Chiles wasn’t as popular as Governor as he was as Senator, and in 1994 he nearly lost his job to Jeb Bush. Republican Pete Wilson, the Mayor of San Diego, beat former Governor Jerry Brown in a 1982 Senate race, and won re-election in 1988 against Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy. He returned to California to run for Governor in 1990 and beat the popular Mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein. By 1998, Wilson After eighteen years as a fairly popular Senator from Connecticut, Republican Lowell Weicker lost re-election in 1988 to Democrat Joseph Lieberman. Weicker became an Independent and in 1990 he won a close three-way race for Governor. Weicker was so unpopular as Governor that he didn’t even bother seeking a second term in 1994. In 1952, Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland lost his bid for a third term to a young Phoenix City Councilman named Barry Goldwater. McFarland came back two years later and won election as Governor of Arizona. Instead of seeking re-election, he ran again for the Senate and lost a rematch against Goldwater.

When U.S. Senators become Governors