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From Madam Gov. to Madam Pres.

Meg Whitman

Filling the pipeline leading to the first woman elected U.S. president will take candidates who have convinced voters of their executive abilities, argues the writer, author of two books on women’s races for the highest office. The same doesn’t appear to be true for men who run.

He hasn’t even been sworn in as senator, yet the rights to the domain names scottbrown2012.com and scottbrown2016.com were snatched up the day the charismatic Republican claimed victory in Massachusetts. This enthusiastic reaction to Scott Brown—that he could be the next president—came on the heels of what was an unprecedented political season for women in American presidential politics. Democrats almost nominated Hillary Clinton, for a time the first female front runner candidate in either major party. Republicans chose Sarah Palin, who had just burst on the national scene, as their party’s first woman vice presidential nominee. But if Martha Coakley had won the Massachusetts seat, would pundits have been quick to describe her as presidential timbre?

Probably not. Yet chances are very good that electing women governors will fill the pipeline with presidential possibilities because history shows that governorships are the surest paths to the presidency. Currently, there are six women governors. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan is disqualified from the U.S. presidency because of her Canadian birth, and M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut has announced her retirement. There are Linda Lingle, Republican of Hawaii, and Democrat Chris Gregoire of Washington, both of whom have won two terms and enjoy high approval ratings. Others include the newly elected Beverly Perdue, Democrat of North Carolina, and Republican Jan Brewer of Arizona who is running to keep the post she took over when Janet Napolitano became secretary of Homeland Security.

Barbara Lee, president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, created a guide called “Cracking the Code: Political Intelligence for Women Running for Governor.” At first, her interest was focused on women and the presidency, but she notes that “as I understood more about the paths to power, it was clear that electing a woman president would become a reality only after we unraveled voters’ complex reactions to a woman seeking full executive authority.” With the filing deadlines for 2010 statewide elections approaching, women are poised to increase the number of female governors next year. According to Electwomen.com, 29 well qualified women have declared their candidacies.

Notables include: Nikki Haley, Republican in South Carolina, Democrat Sue Bysiewicz of Connecticut, Meg Whitman, Republican of California, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, Kim McMillan, Democrat of Tennessee, and Alma Wheeler Smith, Democrat of Michigan. EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic candidates, has endorsed Alex Sink of Florida, noting that the election is “one of the country’s most anticipated races,” and Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minnesota, who the EMILY’s List website states is a “strong and practiced leader.” If they win, it will be the first time a woman has served as governor in each state. The same is true of Diane Denish of New Mexico, an earlier EMILY endorsee, as is Deb Markowitz of Vermont. Both hope to step up from their current state-wide offices as lieutenant governor and secretary of state respectively.

Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, also notes the importance of the role of governor to increase women’s participation on the national stage. “Look at governors from large states,” she told me when contemplating who may win the presidency.

From a communication perspective, the governorship gives a candidate a platform that showcases leadership ability while distancing them from legislative intricacies, which can complicate their presidential possibilities. For example, Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War was difficult for her to justify in primary debates. A governor rises above partisan legislative actions, which increases her ethos as a presidential contender. When we elect more women governors, a woman president should be on the horizon.

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