Governors form a subset of senators with the unique experience of serving as chief executives of their states. Adapting to a legislative body requires a different way of solving problems and getting things done for their constituents. How do they stack up as legislators compared to senators with other backgrounds?

The answer seems to be that former governors are more likely to work aggressively on a fewer number of bills, but the ones they focus on tend to have more substance, more bipartisan support, and more success.

As part of our Madison Initiative on U.S. democracy, we support a number of organizations (including those mentioned below) that work to strengthen Congress’s ability to solve problems in ways that most Americans support. Several of these organizations have honed in on the role that former governors play in the Senate and how they operate as legislators in an era of intense partisanship.

  1. They’re less ideologically extreme (so are their donors).
    The Monkey Cage and the Legislative Capacity Working Group, a project of The R Street Institute and New America Foundation, recently published an article by political scientists Misty Knight-Finley and Alex Keena, from Rowan University and Virginia Commonwealth University, respectively. They found former governors had Party Unity Scores about eight percent lower on roll call voting than non-governors. That means the former governors voted with the other party more often than other Senators, though still relatively rarely. Examining data from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections developed by Adam Bonica at Stanford University, they also concluded that “former governors’ donors are less ideologically extreme than are the donors to other senators.” 

    The Senate’s Former Governors Caucus serves as a forum for these action-oriented former executive branch leaders. Citing the caucus as an example of former governors’ collective action, Knight-Finley and Keena say,Former governors may not single-handedly cure legislative gridlock or hyper-partisanship in the Senate, but their common experiences and proclivity toward working across the aisle may set an example about what a culture of bipartisanship can look like.”

  2. They introduce and co-sponsor more bipartisan legislation.
    The Lugar Center, founded by former Senator Richard Lugar, publishes with Georgetown University the Bipartisan Index, a nonpartisan ranking of how often each member works across party lines. It is based on the level of bipartisanship in bill introductions and co-sponsorships by every member of Congress over the last 40 years. That methodology confirms the findings of Knight-Finley and Keena.

    “The performance of former governors on our Lifetime Senate Scores for all senators since 1993 is extremely high,” says Dan Diller, director of policy at The Lugar Center. “In fact, it would be hard to find a more successful, definable group, other than senators elected from swing states.”

    Among the small group of former-governor senators in the last 25 years, Senators Joe Manchin, Zell Miller, George Voinovich, Bob Graham, Chuck Robb, Ben Nelson, David Pryor, Angus King, John Hoeven, Bob Kerrey, Wendell Ford, Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, and Tom Carper all were in the top third of the rankings. Senators Jean Shaheen, Judd Gregg, and Tim Kaine were in the top half. Only two former governors, Senators John Ashcroft and Jim Risch, land in the bottom 20 percent.

  3. They focus on fewer bills, but those bills go further.
    Determining whether former governors, because of their inclination to work across the aisle, are more successful in passing their own bills is the kind of question the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) at the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University grapples with. Co-directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman developed Legislative Effectiveness Scores (LES) for all Senate and House members, which are based on their success at advancing their sponsored bills through the legislative process. Their methodology weighs legislation in three categories of importance and each bill is also categorized based on how far it got in the legislative process.

    By these measures, former-governor senators have a curious record. Their overall legislative effectiveness scores are lower than other senators, including those who are more partisan. On closer inspection, however, that may be due partly to their bill introduction strategies, and partly due to the LES methodology. Former governors typically introduce fewer bills (of all types) than other senators, depressing their scores. Moreover, highly bipartisan former governors sponsor still fewer bills; yet these relatively few bills go further in the legislative process, on average, than bills sponsored by more partisan legislators.

    It appears these former governors are pursuing a tighter but more aggressive agenda,” says Volden. “In other words, governors appear to put great effort into a focused set of legislative priorities.”

    For the former governors, as well as for other senators, bills that receive a greater proportion of bipartisan co-sponsors are more likely to become law, according to the CEL. This again underscores the importance of bipartisanship to the success of a piece of legislation, and is consistent with the former governors’ high levels of bipartisanship.

    “It appears that the bipartisan activities of governors are just as valuable for bill advancement as one would expect,” says Wiseman. “It’s just that former governors engage in such activities on a smaller set of bills than do other senators.

    4. They prioritize substantive content.
    The Lugar Center’s Dan Diller points out that bill content, not a senator’s public prominence or political networks, is the key factor in attracting cross-party co-sponsorships. “If a bill is written to accommodate and attract members of the other party, it will likely get cross-party co-sponsors. If it isn’t, all the networking in the world won’t yield much,” he says.

    Most governors who become senators historically have represented small states. They typically have less of a network, especially on Capitol Hill, when they enter Congress than senators who formerly were House members or Cabinet officials, despite having a higher profile in their home state and even nationally.

    “Public prominence helps you with your own party, but it often deters potential partners from the other party,” says Diller. “Within the Senate family where co-sponsorship decisions are made, where you came from soon matters very little compared with the new identity you establish and the committee and leadership posts you assume.”

Promoting a culture of bipartisanship is one of the best things former governors can do in the Senate, as Knight-Finley and Keena suggest. The former governors’ pattern of working across parties on a few selected legislative priorities is one model for both nurturing a Senate culture of collegiality and getting things done.

* The Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative is nonpartisan and supports nonprofit organizations across the ideological spectrum. This includes the organizations mentioned here with links to more information from our grants database: Monkey Cage, R Street Institute, New America Foundation, The Lugar Center, and the Center for Effective Lawmaking.