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Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Susana Martinez ... Do Governors Still Make the Best Presidential Candidates?

Lucian Perkins for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Willie Morris once observed, “A provincial legislature is a fertile source for a writer. So many crimes are committed there daily in an atmosphere of a social service club, and the human flaws are so accessible.”

Just look at Susana Martinez. This week, the New Mexico governor was the subject of a brutal 4,600-word profile by Mother Jones’s Andy Kroll. In the piece, Martinez is portrayed (thanks in large part to leaked emails and audiotapes from her 2010 campaign) as a foul-mouthed, dimwitted bully who refers to an opponent as “that little bitch” and cares little about policy. “Listening to recordings of Martinez talking with her aides,” Kroll writes, “is like watching an episode of HBO's Veep, with over-the-top backroom banter full of pique, self-regard, and vindictiveness.”

The MoJo piece came five months on the heels of an equally harsh 5,200-word vivisection of Martinez in National Journal by Daniel Libit. The Martinez of the National Journal story manages to keep her mouth clean but emerges as the puppet of a buck-raking political consultant named Jay McCleskey, who functions as a “shadow governor” and runs the state for personal profit. “[T]he governor’s attachment to McCleskey,” Libit writes, “continues to feed into the cynicism about money in politics that animates Iowa attack ads, GOP debate talking points, and watchdog investigations.”

Prior to Kroll’s and Libit’s pieces, Martinez’s national reputation was that of an unalloyed rising Republican star—a Latina who offered a silver bullet to some of the GOP’s most vexing electoral problems, namely courting women and Hispanic voters. Now Martinez has to be viewed as somewhat damaged goods.

Why all this scrutiny of a first-term governor of a state with just five electoral votes? Martinez and her supporters allege a conspiracy. “That the national Left is trying to smear the first Hispanic woman governor in American history because they view her as a threat is about as surprising as the National Enquirer reporting that Elvis is still alive,” her campaign said in a statement responding to the MoJo piece.

The less nefarious explanation is that after Martinez’s starmaking speech to the 2012 Republican National Convention, she became a natural object of curiosity for national reporters. After all, just how many Santorum/Paul/Cruz/Huckabee/Bush/Ryan profiles can we possibly write between now and 2016? Voters aren’t the only people who crave fresh faces.

What interests me most about the Martinez oeuvre is its deep dive into the weeds of New Mexico politics, which happens to coincide with the national press’s suddenly intense focus on Chris Christie and the ins and outs of New Jersey politics. It’s conventional wisdom that (Barack Obama excepted) governors make the best presidential candidates—the theory being that, unlike Senators and Congressmen, governors have actual executive experience, they’ve worked in the “laboratories of democracy,” and they spend the bulk of their time in the “real America” that lies beyond the Beltway.

But as national reporters are discovering with Martinez and Christie (and, to a lesser extent, with Scott Walker), the politics of Santa Fe, Trenton, and Madison can be a lot more seamy—and therefore a lot more fun to write about!—than the politics of DC. Congress’s approval rating might be in the doldrums, but, in a strange way, the fact that nothing gets done in Washington might give the presidential wannabes who spend the bulk of their time there a certain advantage over those out in the hinterlands.

This article has been updated. I originally called the Mother Jones piece a "hatchet job," which I later realized could be interpreted as a criticism of the article. That wasn't my intention, so I've changed the description to "brutal 4,600-word profile."