To win the White House, look to the statehouses

Here’s a tip for Republicans who would like to see a new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue two years from now. Don’t look to Washington for your next standard bearer; look to the statehouses. Since 1956 nine sitting presidents have run for re-election (I’m including Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, both of whom weren’t actually elected to their first terms). Three were defeated while six were successful in securing a second term.

Presidents who lost re-election
Pres. George H. W. Bush lost to Gov. Bill Clinton
Pres. Jimmy Carter lost to Gov. Ronald Reagan
Pres. Gerald Ford lost to Gov. Jimmy Carter

Presidents who won re-election
Pres. George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry
Pres. Clinton defeated Sen. Robert Dole
Pres. Reagan defeated VP Fritz Mondale
Pres. Nixon defeated Sen. George McGovern
Pres. Lyndon Johnson defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater
Pres. Dwight Eisenhower defeated Sen. Adlai Stevenson

Do you detect a pattern here? In the past 55 years, presidents running for re-election were 0-3 when their opponent was a governor and 6-0 when they were up against another Washington insider.

While members of the U.S. Senate never seem to suffer from any self-esteem issues, when it comes to making them president, voters don’t share their enthusiasm. When given a choice of a United States senator or anyone else, only once in American history — in the 1920 race between Sen. Warren G. Harding and Gov. James Cox — have the people chosen the senator. Sure, Sen. Kennedy won in 1960, but that’s like all of Barry Bonds’ home run records; there is an asterisk attached. If the dad of Pres. Obama’s current chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Bill Daley, hadn’t spent election night digging up voters from the local cemeteries, Nixon would have won Illinois and the election. In 2008 we elected only our third senator in 56 presidential elections; but again the game was rigged. Both of the major parties had nominated candidates from the Senate, so everyone was stuck with a Hobson’s choice. It makes you wonder how Pres. Obama might have fared against an energetic Washington outsider instead of a tired and listless Sen. McCain, who was short on ideas and passion.

The good news for Republicans is that they have a deep bench of well-qualified governors to challenge President Obama in 2012.

The Best of the best

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana

Strengths: He is a great chief executive with White House experience as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bush II and his solution to healthcare reform is far better than Obamacare.

Weaknesses: He is a poor public speaker and doesn’t appear to have the “Fire in the Belly” for a bruising presidential run. His recent reaction to the Indiana legislature’s attempt to let Indiana be a “right-to-work” state will trouble many Republicans.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota

Strengths: He has been a successful governor from an important swing state.

Weaknesses: Poor speaker but getting better. He is tracking badly in Iowa and, being the governor of an adjoining state, anything less than a win in the Iowa caucus would be a disaster.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts

Strengths: Successful “blue” state governor and huge name recognition.

Weakness: While he may be the best November candidate the Republicans have, his flip-flop on abortion and his passage of healthcare reform in Massachusetts could be deal breakers in the primaries.