A Pre-Paterson Guide to Accidental Governors

When duly elected governors unexpectedly leave office, they are often succeeded by obscure and unlikely acting governors—a situation that’s now unfolding in New York. But while relatively few New Yorkers know anything about David Paterson now, recent history in other states suggests that—if he plays his cards right—things could go shockingly well for him.

Here’s look at some recent accidental governors, and how their new titles changed their political prospects.

First, some successes:

Jodi Rell (R-Connecticut), 2004-present

The gold standard for accidental-governor success stories, Rell inherited Connecticut’s governorship in July 2004 from John Rowland, who was carted off to prison on corruption charges.

As lieutenant governor, Rell had been beyond anonymous to the general public and a non-factor to state political insiders. Rowland had placed her on the G.O.P. ticket back in 1994 simply to provide gender balance. Once in office, he barely communicated with her and offered her no consequential role in his administration.

Had Rowland never left office, Rell would almost certainly have never won—or even sought—statewide office. She had no name recognition, a microscopic political and financial base, and the Republican Party in Connecticut was deteriorating. But her ascension to the top job changed everything overnight. Connecticut residents were introduced to their new governor as a human being through front-page newspaper profiles and prime-time television coverage. They warmed to her instantly, and the humble and moderate agenda she pursued meshed perfectly with the state’s prevailing political sensibilities.

2006 was a toxic year for Republicans (particularly in blue-state Connecticut, where two G.O.P. members of Congress lost their jobs), but Rell never broke a sweat in her election campaign, crushing New Haven Mayor John DiStefano by 32 points. At 62 years old, Rell is now considered a likely candidate for another four-year term in 2010. If it weren’t for her old-fashioned liberal Yankee brand of Republicanism, she’d be a natural choice for the G.O.P.’s national ticket this year.

Richard J. Codey (D-New Jersey), 2004-2006

Codey’s stint in Jersey was the same smashing hit as Rell’s was in Connecticut, with once crucial catch: The election came to soon. A 31-year veteran of the state Legislature when he took over for Jim McGreevey in 2004 (since the state had no lieutenant governor, the state Senate president was next in line), known to virtually no one outside of his Essex County-based district. But he looked, sounded and acted like an authentic, unpretentious Jersey guy—paunchy, quick-witted, and self-effacing, the perfect antidote to the ultra-packaged and rehearsed McGreevey.

The problem is that Codey took over in mid-November of 2004, less than eight months before the 2005 Democratic gubernatorial primary. And Jon Corzine, the well-known senator with bottomless pockets, had already made it clear that he wanted the governorship for himself. Codey spent late ‘04 and January of ‘05 trying to use his rapidly growing popularity to bluff Corzine out of the race, but the ploy failed and at the end of January when Corzine called in his chits from the powerful county party organizations he had spent the past five years showering with cash. Codey formally backed down, not wanting to risk his political career on an iffy primary campaign.

Still, if Corzine hadn’t been in the picture, there is little doubt that Codey would have run for—and very likely won—a full term on his own. Even as he withdrew, polls showed him clawing to within 10 points of Corzine in a primary match-up—compared to the 40-point deficit Codey faced when he was first sworn in. And by the time he finally stepped down in January ’06, Codey had amassed an astronomical approval rating and scored even higher marks for his personal likability. If Corzine declines to seek re-election in 2009—something that is hardly out of the question, given his tumultuous tenure thus far—Codey would probably be the early Democratic front-runner to succeed him.

Dave Heinemen (R-Nebraska), 2005-present

Heinemen is living proof of the power of quasi-incumbency. A former Nebraska state treasurer, Heinemen was in his second term as the state’s lieutenant governor when, in January of 2005, Governor Mike Johanns skipped town to become President Bush’s new Secretary of Agriculture. His tenure, everyone believed, would be brief because the biggest celebrity in the state—Congressman and longtime University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne—had already made it clear that he would be running for governor as a Republican in 2006. To hammer home the point, a survey in early 2005 put Osborne, who won three national titles as the Cornhuskers’ coach, more than 70 points ahead of Heinemen.

But Heinemen shrewdly used the governorship to appeal to conservative voters, who would hold disproportionate sway in the G.O.P. primary. In particular, Heinemen exploited illegal immigration, crafting an image of himself as an activist conservative true-believer. With time, Republicans came to believe that Heinemen, while not the beloved character that Osborne was, was already doing a good job as governor—so why replace him? In the May ‘06 primary, he bested Osborne by four points, then won the November general election in a cakewalk.

Argeo “Paul” Cellucci (R-Massachusetts), 1997-2001

It was boredom, and not scandal, that brought Cellucci to power in the summer of 1997, when Governor William Weld grew tired of the job he’d held since 1991 and resigned. Cellucci, a onetime state senator, had been Weld’s loyal but rather dull right-hand man. Before Weld’s resignation, conventional wisdom had held that Cellucci would never win the governorship on his own in 1998. His personality would not charm voters the way Weld’s had and would undermine him in a general election in what is a very Democratic state. Many insiders believed he wouldn’t even win the ‘98 G.O.P. primary, with the well-liked and telegenic state treasurer, Joe Malone, preparing a bid of his own.

A Pre-Paterson Guide to Accidental Governors