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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:

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:

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 .

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).

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