Sabato's Crystal Ball

Lieutenant Governor Mania

From "Fifth Wheel" to Powerhouse

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 30th, 2009

In the mid-nineteenth century, a delegate to a Virginia constitutional convention argued against the office of lieutenant governor, calling it, “the fifth wheel of a wagon, and much more useless.” Worse has been said about the vice presidency over the centuries. Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP, John Nance Garner, declared his position was not worth a pitcher of warm spit. He actually cited another bodily excretion, but the press of the day cleaned up the language.

Gradually, as lieutenant governors and vice presidents succeeded to governorships and the Oval Office–just this week Sean Parnell assumed the top job in Alaska after former Gov. Sarah Palin’s resignation–the occupants of the second-banana, Rodney Dangerfield posts finally began to get some respect. After Al Gore and Dick Cheney, few doubt the influence of the V-POTUS (the acronym for Vice President of the United States). And given what has happened in statehouses across America in the past decade, lieutenant governors are recognized as more than stand-by equipment.

Only 42 states have an elected lieutenant governor, though New Jersey will become the 43rd following this year’s election. Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming have an elected secretary of state that is the functional equivalent of a lieutenant governor and next in-line to the governor, while five other states (Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, and West Virginia) simply designate their state Senate president as the governor’s immediate successor. Tennessee calls the Senate president a “lieutenant governor.”

As the accompanying tables 1 and 2 (available by clicking here) show, over a fifth (22 percent) of all lieutenant governors in the past 25 years have gone on to become governor. Nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) of all recent state governors served as lieutenant governor prior to taking the top office.

More important, 28 lieutenant governors became governor in the past quarter-century without the benefit of an election. They succeeded governors who died, resigned, or were impeached. Some of the cases tell quite a tale:

Since 2000, the states have seen 15 lieutenant governors succeed to the top job. Many of these elevations happened in well-known circumstances. Parnell (R-AK) succeeded to office following the resignation of former VP candidate Palin (R). Mike Huckabee (R-AR) stepped in once Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) was convicted on a Whitewater scandal offense. Pat Quinn (D-IL) was next-in-line to the Obama Senate seat-selling Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). David Paterson (D-NY) became America’s first legally blind governor after Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) saw too much of prostitutes.

Of course, people in and out of South Carolina are still waiting to see if Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R) will inherit the governor’s office from the disgraced and very strange Mark Sanford (R), who continues to cling to power after his extramarital fling in Argentina–having gone AWOL from his responsibilities.

The Bauer example is instructive. The main reason Sanford has been able to survive (other than the voters’ gullibility) is the unacceptability of Bauer, who is widely considered to be too immature and wild to serve as governor.

This is a cautionary tale for Americans everywhere. You may not think the candidates for lieutenant governor are worth your time and attention, but they are. At any time, a powerless number two can become an omnipotent number one. As John Adams commented when he served as our first vice president, “I am nothing, but I may be everything.”