How Often Do Governors Get Elected to At-Large US House Seats?
Sarah Palin is contemplating a bid that could add her name to a short list in the annals of U.S. elections
Following the death of long-serving Alaska Republican U.S. Representative Don Young last week, several notable names are readying their campaigns for the special primary election to be held on June 11th from which the top four candidates will move on to the August special.
Perhaps the biggest name who has floated a potential bid is former governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Palin last served in elected office in July 2009 when she resigned during the third year of her governorship.
If Palin decides to run and is elected she would become just the 10th ex- or sitting governor – and only the fifth since the 1900s – to win election to the U.S. House from a state with just one at-large seat.
More than half of the states – 30 in total – have been represented by a lone at-large U.S. Representative at some point during their history; some states for just a few years and some for several decades.
Twenty-two of these 30 states have never elected a sitting or former governor as their single representative in the U.S. House: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington.
The most recent at-large U.S. Representative to have previously served as governor was South Dakota Republican Bill Janklow.
Janklow served four interrupted terms as governor (1979-1987; 1995-2003) before defeating Stephanie Herseth by 7.8 points in the 2002 open seat race for the at-large seat.
Three other governors went on to win at-large U.S. House elections during the 20th Century:
- Nevada Democrat James Scrugham had six years between his governorship (1923-1927) and his U.S. House service (1933-1942). [Scrugham would win election to the U.S. Senate in 1942].
- Vermont Republican Robert Stafford was at the end of his two-year term as governor (1959-1961) when he won the first of five elections to the U.S. House (1961-1971). [Stafford would then win three terms to the U.S. Senate].
- Delaware Republican Mike Castle served eight years as governor (1985-1992) before directly moving to the U.S. House where he won nine terms (1993-2011) before a failed U.S. Senate bid
Five ex- or sitting governors were elected to at-large U.S. House seats during the 19th Century:
- Indiana’s first statehood governor, Democratic-Republican Jonathan Jennings, served two terms (1816-1822) and then won a special election to the U.S. House in 1822 at the tail end of the period in which Indiana held only one seat in the chamber
- Arkansas Democrat Archibald Yell’s gubernatorial service (1841-1845) was bookended by representing the state in the U.S. House as its lone delegation member (1836-1839, 1845-1846)
- Delaware’s William Temple had a long pause between his partial term as an elevated Whig governor (1846-1847) and as an elected Democratic U.S. Representative (1863-1863)
- Similarly, Oregon’s first statehood governor, Democrat John Whiteaker, saw 17 years pass between his governorship (1858-1862) and his single term in the U.S. House (1879-1881). [Whiteaker served in the state legislature for several years in between].
- Wyoming Democrat John Osbourne won his U.S. House seat (1897-1899) just two years after his governorship ended (1893-1895)
Nearly 20 at-large officeholders won election to the U.S. House prior to becoming governor including three current officeholders: Delaware Democrat John Carney, South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem, and Montana Republican Greg Gianforte.
While Palin may not be as popular in Alaska as she was when she won the governorship with a 48.3 percent plurality after knocking out incumbent Frank Murkowski in the 2006 GOP primary, it is difficult to imagine that she would not muster enough support to land in the top four in the June primary to move on to the August ballot.
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If she wins, Sarah Palin would become the first woman ever to represent AK in the house.
Which would mean that 2 states would break that barrier with VT likely electing a woman to replace Peter Welch, the only difference being that AK has already elected a woman to the senate whilst VT has not.
After which, the only 2 states left in that category would be MS and ND.
It is worth noting that a number of States have had 2+ At-Large seats, by either design (e.g. NM from 1912 through 1966) or failure to re-draw the lines in time (e.g. MN during the early 1930s). As well, how is a determination made as to whether or not to confer just one or more than one House seat to a State at the outset?
I might be going out on a limb here, but methinks the ex-2-term Wasilla mayor and former half-term governor will not suit up for either election to that seat (August special, November standing). One does not make a whole lot of moolah nor become all that much visible in that office – at least not at the start. More to the point, she seems to be under the impression that, like the state house vacancies in some states, a vacancy in the federal House can be filled in an interim basis by the governor, based on public statements that have been reported (and known to me). Bear in mind that not only did she not stand for an additional term in 2010, but she actually walked away from her powerful and prominent post before its expiry in order to pursue ‘fortune & glory’ in the private sector that was and is found mainly in the Contiguous 48. Ah well, at least an informative report has been written up as a tangential result of her indicating a morsel of interest!
If Palin runs and wins, she would also join a short list of losing vice-presidential nominees who were later elected to a new office (this stipulation is intended to exclude, say, senators who lost an election for VP but continued to win reelection to their Senate seat — to be more precise, I’ll count any election they won as a non-incumbent). For example, John W. Bricker was concluding the last of three terms as governor of Ohio when he signed on to Thomas E. Dewey’s losing ticket in the 1944 election, and he was elected to the Senate two years later.
Since then, the only former unsuccessful VP nominees who managed this feat did so by winning an indirectly elected office — Bob Dole was elected Senate GOP leader in 1984 after running for VP in 1976, and Paul Ryan was elected speaker of the House in 2015 after running for VP in 2012.
A few others have tried: Geraldine Ferraro, the only Democratic VP nominee since 1940 to be neither an incumbent VP nor senator (with the exception of Sargent Shriver in 1972 who replaced Sen. Thomas Eagleton), ran for the Senate in 1992 and 1998, losing in the primary both times despite starting out as the frontrunner. Several losing VP nominees later ran for president, though the only one to win their party’s nomination was Dole [technically we can include Walter Mondale too as he was the losing VP nominee in 1980, and thus include his 2002 Senate run in the list of unsuccessful attempts].
There are many more examples if we consider appointed offices: Earl Warren later became chief justice, while Ed Muskie and Lloyd Bentsen were appointed to the cabinet. Mondale, Ferraro, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. later served as ambassadors.
Looking at pres. and VP nominees of smaller parties, we have a few interesting examples:
*Sen. Glen H. Taylor was the Progressive nominee for VP in 1948; he then lost renomination for his Senate seat in 1950 and also lost the general election for Idaho’s other Senate seat in 1954
*Gov. Fielding L. Wright was the Dixiecrat nominee for VP in 1948; he was term-limited in 1951 but ran for governor again in 1955, losing the primary
*Charles L. Sullivan was the Constitution nominee for president in 1960; he was elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi in 1967
*Ron Paul was the Libertarian nominee for president in 1988; he was elected back to the U.S. House in 1996 and served until 2013
*Bob Barr was the Libertarian nominee for president in 2008; he sought his old U.S. House seat in 2014 but lost the primary runoff
*Matt Gonzalez (perhaps best known for his close race against Gavin Newsom for mayor of San Francisco in 2003) was an independent candidate for VP in 2008 as the running-mate of Ralph Nader; he became the public defender of San Francisco for a few weeks in 2019, as an interim replacement in that elected office following the death of the incumbent
*Cheri Honkala was the Green nominee for vice-president in 2012; she ran a write-in campaign for a seat in the Pennsylvania state House in a special election in 2017, placing second to a Democrat who also ran as a write-in