Vote in our poll: Should candidates leave their full-time posts?
Election 2010 calendar
April 26-30: Candidate qualifying for state and local office
June 21: Last day to register to vote to qualify for state primary
July 20: State primary
Aug. 10: State primary runoff, if needed
Sept. 21: Special election to fill vacancies
Oct. 4: Last day to register to vote to qualify for general election
Nov. 2: General election
Nov. 30: General election runoff, if needed
As we prepare to flip the calendars over to 2010 in a few days, gubernatorial candidates are preparing to heat up campaigns before the all-important party primaries.
Last week, a new angle developed when Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican candidate for governor, stepped down from her state post to devote her full attention to the campaign.
Earlier in the year, another GOP candidate, former state Sen. Eric Johnson, did the same thing in his run for governor, after first declaring his intention to seek the lieutenant governor’s post. He changed his mind when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle decided to seek re-election.
For both candidates, the decision to resign likely was driven by money. State officeholders are barred from raising campaign cash during the 40-day legislative session, which begins in January and could run well into spring. In Handel’s case, she needs the extra boost; she trails other GOP candidates in raising campaign cash so far and has some catching up to do.
Seven Republicans and five Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination to replace term-limited Gov. Sonny Perdue (plus one Libertarian, John Monds). That’s a dozen candidates scrambling for money, media attention and, eventually, actual votes. That competition already is heating up and will build to a fever pitch in the months leading up to the primaries.
With so many candidates in the field, voters — those paying attention this early, which likely isn’t many — are looking for ways to tell them apart, particularly when many seem to agree on most major issues. For that reason, everything they do and say can have an affect on their candidacy.
That’s why Handel’s move can be seen as a gamble in some ways, but it also brings up an important question: Is it best for candidates for high office to give up their current elected jobs or stay to fulfill their duties while campaigning?
There is a precedent for this at the national level. In 1996, Bob Dole stepped down as majority leader in the Senate while running for president, saying he couldn’t give his campaign and his Senate job the full attention required.
Last year, Barack Obama and John McCain kept their Senate seats during the presidential campaign, which at one point led to both of them splitting their attention between the two tasks when the nation’s economic crisis hit.
Sitting members of Congress are often absent from key votes while running for higher office, leaving their states underrepresented. Some governors have been known to turn over executive duties of their states to a second-in-charge while doing the same. And in each case, every vote, every speech and every decision they do make while in office is going to be analyzed from the political perspective of how it affects their chances in the next election.
Predictably, Handel’s opponents attacked her for the move, saying she was putting political ambition over the job she was elected to fill. One even called her a "quitter."
They have a point; voters chose her and expected her to serve her four-year term before begging off to seek higher office. Handel leaves herself open to criticism for failing to fulfill her current job before seeking greener pastures.
But there also is a case to be made in her favor. Because elected officials often have been perceived as using their office to further their political goals, leaving that office can silence those concerns.
Four years ago, Handel’s predecessor, Cathy Cox, filmed a series of public service ads as part of her official duties, but they aired during her Democratic nomination campaign for governor. The ads were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an attempt by Cox to use her state office to raise her profile by spending taxpayer dollars and not her own campaign funds.
As with Cox, a key part of Handel’s post is to oversee state elections. Because she now seeks higher office, it’s easy to see how a conflict of interest could erupt if any ruling or proposal she enacts were seen as advantageous to her candidacy or her party.
Other state officials could be accused of similar conflicts even as they fulfill their duties. And those who remain in their posts clearly will be distracted, if not totally consumed, by their campaigns. So are taxpayers really getting their money’s worth when those officials stay on the job?
Hard to say. Realistically, those who seek the governor’s post are likely to come from the legislature or other constitutional offices. So political ambition being a given, it’s only natural to expect politicians to run for political office. Nature of the beast. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
The problem here may be that campaigns now begin so early, largely because of the need to raise tons of money. The ink is barely dry from one election’s results before the shuffle begins for the next. Candidates for governor, for instance, launched their campaigns and began stumping for cash early in 2009, more than a year before any vote was to be cast.
Because of the shorter calendar, officeholders who want to move up now find themselves needing to spend half of their terms raising money for the next campaign. That makes them only part-time lawmakers or state officials, which is not what voters hired them to do.
Ultimately, it will be up to those voters to decide whether Handel or Johnson had the right idea to step aside, or whether those who remained in their jobs were wisest.
And in the long run, it’s likely that other qualities — leadership, vision, consensus-building — will weigh more in voters’ minds than whether a candidate abandoned his or her office early.