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Statehouse '08 Update

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Friday, October 10, 2008

There are just eleven governorships up for grabs from coast to coast, six currently held the Democrats and five by the Republicans:

State

Incumbent

Last Election Percentage

Candidacy Status

Dem. Nominee

GOP Nominee

Delaware

Ruth Minner

51

Term limited

Jack Markell

Bill Lee

Indiana

Mitch Daniels

53

Running

Jill Long Thompson

Mitch Daniels

Missouri

Matt Blunt

51

Not running

Jay Nixon

Kenny Hulshof

Montana

Brian Schweitzer

50

Running

Brian Schweitzer

Roy Brown

New Hampshire

John Lynch

74

Running

John Lynch

Joe Kenney

North Carolina

Mike Easley

56

Term limited

Beverly Perdue

Pat McCrory

North Dakota

John Hoeven

71

Running

Tim Mathern

John Hoeven

Utah

Jon Huntsman, Jr.

58

Running

Bob Springmeyer

Jon Huntsman, Jr.

Vermont

Jim Douglas

56

Running

Gaye Symington

Jim Douglas

Washington

Christine Gregoire

49

Running

Christine Gregoire

Dino Rossi

West Virginia

Joe Manchin, III

64

Running

Joe Manchin, III

Russ Weeks

It is easy to forget about these eleven contests since:

  • The non-presidential years host the lion's share of statehouse elections (36 states in 2010, plus Virginia and New Jersey in 2009 and Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana in 2011).
  • Not a single mega-state has an election for Governor on tap in 2008.
  • Without exception, the major-party candidates in the eleven contests, including the incumbent chief executives, are virtually unknown outside their states.
  • And finally, the historic nature of the 2008 presidential campaign is acting as a bright sun that obliterates public notice of lesser electoral bodies.

Yet there are some fascinating slugfests developing in the year's gubernatorial prizefights, and about half of them are genuinely competitive. Despite the overall Democratic drift of 2008, there will be no party sweep of the statehouses. The GOP is very likely to hold four governorships it currently possesses, and it has fair-to-good chances in two or three other states. However, the Crystal Ball would not be surprised to see the dust settle in November with the Democrats. Let's take a look at all the races, one by one:

DELAWARE : Two-term Democratic Gov. Ruth Minner is finishing up her final year, and despite her relatively weak popularity, the Democrat is almost certain to win here. Lt. Gov. John Carney was once favored for the nod, but Gov. Minner's endorsement may have done him in. State Treasurer Jack Markell defeated Carney 51% to 49% in the primary on September 9. The GOP nominee is retired Superior Court Judge Bill Lee, who nearly denied Minner a second term. That was due to Minner's lackluster performance, not Lee's strengths. Plus, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are a lock in Delaware, providing coattails for the Democrat. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

INDIANA: First-term Governor Mitch Daniels has had a difficult four years, not least because of a bad economy but also because of some policy missteps. While an upset cannot absolutely be ruled out in this Democratic year, and a couple of recent polls showed a statistical tie in the contest, Daniels is still at least slightly favored for a second term over Democratic nominee Jill Long Thompson, who squeaked by a male primary opponent to gain the party's nod in May. Thompson is a former member of the U.S. House, best known for having grabbed Dan Coats' seat in 1989 after he was appointed to the Senate in 1989 to replace Vice President-elect Dan Quayle. Thompson lost her House seat in the 1994 GOP landslide, and failed a comeback attempt in 2002. LEANS REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

MISSOURI: This was supposed to be Governor Matt Blunt's run for reelection, but the freshman Republican incumbent surprised this state by deciding to retire. Whatever his motive, it is doubtful Blunt could have won a second term since his ratings were consistently low. In Blunt's stead on the GOP ticket will be U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who won a relatively close (49% to 45%) victory over state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, in an August 5 primary. Most 'Show Me State' observers think the contest is competitive, but that long-time Democratic State Attorney General Jay Nixon has the edge. Nixon has lost previous contests for the U.S. Senate, but this may be the year for another Nixon comeback--a "new Nixon", this time a Democrat. (Those of us who grew up with Richard Nixon running in his five national elections for president and vice president--1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, and 1972--are having a fit of nostalgia.) Also helping Nixon is the apparent lack of McCain coattails for Hulshof in the state. Polls show a very close Obama-McCain match-up in Missouri. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC (TAKE-OVER).

MONTANA: There's no real contest here. Popular incumbent Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is on his way to a very comfortable reelection to a second term. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Roy Brown, is reasonably well known but has very little chance to dislodge Schweitzer, whose broad appeal may even help Barack Obama in this normally deep Red state. McCain is the likely winner in Montana, but Schweitzer has nothing to worry about. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: This state will feature another slam-dunk reelection for a Democratic incumbent, Gov. John Lynch. First elected over a GOP incumbent in 2002, Lynch has remained very popular as this once-Red state that has turned Blue. The Republicans nominated a minor figure, Joe Kenney, on September 30th, but it hardly matters. Even should John McCain stage an upset in the Granite State in November, Lynch will win handily. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

NORTH CAROLINA: Incredibly, in a state we think of as basically Republican because of its presidential and congressional voting patterns, the GOP last elected a governor exactly two decades ago. The Republicans have a real shot of doing so this year, with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is bright, able, and not associated with the far right. He has made gains on Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who handily won her May 6 primary against serious opposition with a memorable TV ad from Andy Griffith, reprising his fabled role as sheriff of Mayberry, N.C.: "She'll make a goo-oo-ood governor!" Barack Obama is targeting the Tar Heel State, and while he probably will not win it, he is amazingly close to McCain here and won't be the burden that Democratic presidential candidates usually are for the down-ticket. Gov. Mike Easley (D) is finishing up two terms in fairly good shape, so that's also an assist for Perdue. Still, Perdue just hasn't caught fire. Had anybody but McCrory won the GOP primary, she would be "in like Flynn." However, McCrory is doing well enough to grab McCain's possible (short) coattails. It may simply be that, after sixteen years of Democratic control of the statehouse, Tar Heels want--here it comes again--"change." Perhaps Andy Griffith will come to Perdue's rescue; if Mayberry's aging sheriff has that much clout. Or maybe Obama will pull off an upset and create coattails for the entire Democratic ticket. We'll see. NEW TOSS UP.

NORTH DAKOTA: Barely a race. Republican Gov. John Hoeven is running for his third four-year term, and given the popularity of his first two, he'll win a landslide against the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Tim Mathern. SOLID REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

UTAH: Another total non-contest. GOP Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. will sweep to his second term in the heavily Republican Beehive State. The Democratic sacrificial lamb is Salt Lake City businessman Bob Springmeyer. SOLID REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

VERMONT: One of the fascinating aspects of both the two-party system and American federalism is the ability of the minority party to win some key statewide elections under the most adverse conditions. Vermont couldn't be more liberal and Democratic, yet Republican Governor Jim Douglas has a good chance to win his fourth term. It helps that Douglas is a moderate, of course. His Democratic opponent, State House Speaker Gaye Symington, could be assisted by the expected Obama landslide, but she's hurt by the siphoning of left-wing votes likely to end up in the column of Progressive Party nominee Anthony Pollina. In the Green Mountain State, the progressives are a real force--appropriate for a state that elects a Socialist to the U.S. Senate (Bernie Sanders). Given all this, why don't we list it as a sure victory for Douglas? Because under quirky Vermont law, he must win 50% plus one in a three-way split--or the Democratic state legislature will get to elect the next governor. Why do we think they will be tempted to choose their Democratic speaker, Ms. Symington? On the other hand, an old sense of Yankee fairness and propriety may lead them to confirm Douglas as governor as long as he has led Symington by a substantial margin in the popular vote. LEANS REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

WASHINGTON: Who doesn't love a good rematch between champions? This year the "other Washington" has claim on the best gubernatorial contest in the nation. Few in politics will forget the excruciatingly close race between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi in 2004 for the open governor's chair. At first, and against the odds in a big Democratic year in the state, Rossi appeared to have scored an upset, leading Gregoire by a fingernail. He was even declared Governor-elect by the state. But after two recounts, several controversial court rulings, and hundreds of 'found' ballots in heavily Democratic King County--hotly protested by Republicans--Gregoire captured the statehouse by 129 out 2.8 million cast: 1,373,361 for Gregoire to 1,373,232 for Rossi. In unison, Republicans cried, "we wuz robbed," and vowed to avenge the loss in 2008. Sure enough, Rossi is running a second underdog campaign. Gregoire is now a four-year incumbent, though she has never been especially popular. However, while the state's two female U.S. senators endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Gregoire struck up an alliance with Barack Obama that may be paying off. Obama will win Washington State easily, and this should help Gregoire. Early polls showed her ahead of Rossi beyond the margin of error, but more recent ones have hinted at a tightening contest. At the same time, there may be a hidden sympathy vote for Rossi once the circumstances of the 2004 election are replayed for voters at the end of the campaign. In addition, the Washington ballot has been restructured so that the general election is a run-off between the top two finishers from the September free-for-all primary. This has guaranteed that Gregoire and Rossi will be facing off directly, eliminating the Libertarian candidate who could have been expected to take disproportionately from Rossi. Washington's is the least predictable of the nation's 2008 gubernatorial contests, and it is only one of two we are calling a TOSS UP .

WEST VIRGINIA: Yet another non-contest. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III will easily win a second term with minimal GOP opposition. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

If we reasonably assume for a moment that Gov. John Douglas will win reelection in Vermont, then there are only three truly competitive statehouse contests: Missouri, North Carolina, and Washington. Democrats may sweep all three, yielding a net gain of one for the party nationally (30 Democratic versus 20 Republican governors in the fifty states). Or Republicans could grab them all, producing a net gain of two for the GOP (26 Democrats versus 24 Republican governors). Since Missouri leans Democratic in our analysis, we think the most likely national outcome ranges from a net Democratic gain of one governorship, to a net Republican gain of one. This is no earth-shattering shift either way, yet one party will get minor bragging rights--unless the highest probability outcome occurs: that is, shifts in two or three states produce no net change in the total of 28 D, 22 R governors (the current net line-up).

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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