ATLANTA (AP) — In an election year of the angry electorate, former governors in five states are hoping that a deja vu appeal sells better than the anti-establishment pitch.
The candidates – some a little grayer, others a little balder – say they want a second chance after taking a hard look at the seemingly intractable challenges their state was facing and concluding they were the best qualified to take them on. If elected, they would inherit states hemorrhaging jobs and staring down massive budget gaps.
The former governors in California, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland and Oregon are betting that a dose of nostalgia for better economic times, combined with a desire among some voters for a steady, experienced hand, will help them prevail in November.
All but one has already made it through a primary. And polls and political experts say that two months from the general election, races in each of the states appear close.
Check out the want-to-be comeback kids of 2010 (story continues below):
After serving as Democratic Governor of Georgia from 1999 until 2003, Roy Barnes decided to seek a return to the governorship in 2009. During his first stint as governor, Barnes mounted an aggressive and successful campaign to remove the confederate emblem from the Georgia state flag. Barnes faces Republican Rep. Nathan Deal in November and currently trails his opponent by 9 points, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.
Democrat John Kitzhaber served as Governor of Oregon for two terms between 1995 and 2003. His eight-year tenure in the governor's mansion was marked with significant work in the state's health care system, as well as education and welfare reform. He's set to run against Mitt Romney-backed former NBA center Chris Dudley in the general election. The race is tight, according to recent polling.
Successor to Ronald Reagan as Governor of California, Democrat Jerry Brown served for eight years between 1975 and 1983. His time as governor was marked by a fiscal conservatism that brought the state large budget surpluses, and also by a number of revolutionary and unconventional ideas for alternative energy and technology that eventually led to his nickname, Governor Moonbeam. He is facing former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has already spent more than $100 million -- and she plans to spend more -- in her quest for the governor's mansion. The race has been tight so far, though a recent poll shows Whitman with her first lead of the contest.
Sixteen years wasn't enough for Republican Terry Brandstad, apparently. After serving as Governor of Iowa from 1983 to 1999, Brandstad has decided to take another shot at the governorship. The former governor's position as a family values conservative has gotten him the attention of Republican heavyweights such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney. Brandstad has held a significant lead in the polls over Democratic incumbent Gov. Chet Culver.
Bob Ehrlich, Republican Governor of Maryland between 2003 and 2007, was the only incumbent gubernatorial casualty in the 2006 midterm elections, a defeat that he is seeking to rectify by taking on Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who knocked him out. Recent polling shows O'Malley with a slight lead over Ehrlich.
In Georgia, Democrat Roy Barnes has been on the campaign trail hammering home the theme of "no on the job training necessary."
The 62-year-old Barnes was ousted in 2002 after just one term in part because of anger in rural parts of the state over his push to shrink the Confederate battle symbol on the state's flag. On the stump, Barnes argues that Republicans have been leading the state on the road to ruin, focused on frivolous fringe issues – like roadkill and microchip implantation – while the state's schools have suffered and its roads have grown ever more clogged by traffic.
"I don't want another line on my resume," Barnes told supporters at a recent fundraiser. "History's going to judge me pretty well the way I am right now."
The former governor, who's been earning more than $700 an hour as a lawyer in private practice since leaving office, notes he already "lived in the governors' mansion and I don't really care much for flying in helicopters."
Barnes is facing former Rep. Nathan Deal, who served 18 years in Congress and narrowly captured the GOP nomination earlier this month.
"I am running for one reason and one reason only: because this state is headed in the wrong direction," the Democrat said.
Candidates in other states are delivering a version of Barnes' oft-repeated message.
"I think the next two years – literally the next two years_ are going to determine whether this state falls apart politically and fiscally," said Democrat John Kitzhaber, who's running for a third term as governor of Oregon after an eight-year hiatus from elected office. He faces Republican Chris Dudley, a former NBA player who has never held elective office.
Kitzhaber, a 63-year former emergency room doctor, boasts about his experience. He is unapologetic for issuing a record number of vetoes and labeling Oregon ungovernable.
"I believe that more today than I did then," he said.
In California, Jerry Brown – once dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" for proposing that satellites be launched into space – has been playing up his old-school credentials.
"At my age, I just want to get the state working again," said the 72-year-old Brown, who unsuccessfully ran for president three times. "I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I don't have to make any more money."
California has struggled with a $19 billion budget deficit, furloughing thousands of state workers.
Polls show Brown virtually tied with former eBay Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, despite the Republican spending $104 million of her own money into the campaign so far. Brown has remained true to his frugal reputation, spending less than $1 million according to the latest financial report, although he is being buoyed by millions in spending from union-backed groups.
Brown served as California governor from 1975 to 1983, first winning the office when he was 36. He briefly left the political scene, traveling to Japan to study Buddhism and working with Mother Theresa in India after a bitter defeat in the 1982 Senate race. The son of popular two-term governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, he spent the last four years as the state's attorney general and before that, eight years as Oakland's mayor.
In Iowa, Terry Branstad also has a long track record in the political spotlight. The Republican was governor for 16 years – from 1983 to 1999. Since leaving office he's held a plum job at the helm of Des Moines University.
Like the others, he said his decision to get back on the trail was met with some skepticism.
"My wife's initial reaction was, 'Are you crazy?'" Branstad said during a campaign swing in Pella, Iowa.
"I'm just sick about the mess that we're in and I just felt that I could really make a difference," he said.
In Maryland, Republican Robert Ehrlich was ousted from office after just one term. He is facing a possible rematch against the man who sent him packing, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Ehrlich, who in 2002 was elected Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966, said he sensed a change in voters' attitudes last year. He says Maryland's economic struggles could be pivotal in helping him overcome a 2-to-1 advantage in the state of registered Democrats over Republicans.
Whether voters will embrace the would-be comebacks remains to be seen. Ehrlich is facing a Sept. 14 primary against Brian Murphy, a political newcomer running with the backing of Sarah Palin.
But the four others have easily won party primaries, suggesting they have solid support from their own party's base.
Nationally, Democrats are looking at California and Georgia as opportunities to pick up states held for the last eight years by Republicans. The GOP is eying Iowa, where they think Branstad could unseat sitting Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.
All total, there are 37 governors races this year, 26 for open seats.