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Statehouse Rock: 2010 Governor Races

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Thursday, October 08, 2009

With the off-year midterms just a year away, the Crystal Ball will focus on the statehouses. It gets us out of Washington and away from Congress--and that is refreshing in itself.

It's more than just refreshing. The 2010 competitive action is in the statehouse races. A much higher proportion of contests for governor are clearly competitive than contests for Senate and House. In fact, as you will see from our summaries below, all but a handful of governorships are moderately to highly competitive in 2010. Moreover, in comparing this midterm to those over the past two decades, it appears that a higher proportion of governorship races will be competitive in 2010 than in the most recent half-dozen midterm years.

We've already taken a preliminary look at the governorships on the ballot next year (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), but in just a few months, there have been dramatic changes in some places. And thanks to the nomination of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China, the country has added a 37th statehouse up for grabs. Counting New Jersey and Virginia in 2009, 39 of the 50 governorships will be decided in the next thirteen months. Twenty-one of these statehouses are currently held by Democrats, and 18 by Republicans. (In the 50 states as a whole, the count is 28 D, 22 R.)

There are 19 open governor's races in 2010 without an incumbent running (plus one in Virginia in 2009), balanced almost evenly between the two parties (9 D, 10 R). A couple of incumbent governors are still being cagey about whether they will seek another term. See the accompanying chart for the electoral status of all incumbent governors.

In a few states, the two major-party nominees are all but determined for 2010. In a handful of states, the likely winner has also emerged. But in most of the states, a real horserace is underway just for the party nominations, and it is impossible to handicap the general election until we know the party nominees.

By the way, in five states (Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, New York, and Utah), non-elected governors who were elevated to chief executive because of their predecessor's resignation are trying to secure their first voter-endorsed term. At least two of them, in Arizona and New York, are in serious electoral trouble.

Let's take a look, region by region, at the current state of the states:

NORTHEAST

Connecticut: Gov. Jodi Rell (R) is a heavy favorite if, as expected, she runs for a third full term. Should she surprise her state and retire, her lieutenant governor, Michael Fedele (R), has already expressed interest in running. And we can't even count the Democrats who will take a look with Rell out of the picture, headed (as always) by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Maine: Gov. John Baldacci (D) is term-limited, and it is a free-for-all in both parties. Democrats include state Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, former Attorney General Steve Rowe, and possibly Congressman Michael Michaud. The GOP is considering Maine and Company CEO Matthew Jacobson, state Sen. Peter Mills, and wealthy businessman Les Otten. Even though both U.S. Senate seats are held by Republicans, Democrats often start out as at least a slight favorite for governor, and this is probably the case in the very early going for 2010.

Maryland: Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is running for a second term, but a bad economy could produce a seriously contested Democratic primary. Several heavyweights are considering entering the primary, but there have been no announcements--and O'Malley could still get lucky. Possibly waiting in the fall is former Gov. Bob Erhlich (R), who lost his bid for a second term to O'Malley. Erhlich is biding his time, seeing if a rematch is wise. If he runs, it means the Republican believes he has a 50-50 chance of winning. No other Republican will have much of a chance in Maryland, and even with Ehrlich, it's dicey. A Democrat starts out with enormous advantages in this deeply Blue state.

Massachusetts: Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has not exactly been a roaring success in his first term. Gaffes, goofs, tax increases, and rocky legislative relations have left him vulnerable and with low poll ratings. People just don't seem to like him much. Patrick is even feuding with fellow Democrat and popular Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. But it still won't be a cinch to knock off this close Obama ally. Highly regarded Republican Charles Baker, an ally of former Gov. William Weld (R) is running, but he has to get past Christy Mihos in the GOP primary. Baker is regarded as the primary favorite. State Treasurer Tim Cahill recently left the Democratic party to become an Independent, and he is running in November under that label--thereby either splitting the Democratic vote or the anti-Patrick vote. We'll have to wait a while to see which it will be, though early polls suggest a three-way race helps Patrick. It may be that Patrick cannot get 50 percent plus one, but he can squeak to victory with a showing in the 40s in a three-way contest. Everyone thinks of the Bay State as overwhelmingly Democratic, but Republicans held the Massachusetts statehouse from 1990 to 2006, so the governorship is probably the top Massachusetts office most vulnerable to a GOP takeover. Obama will spend some real chips to try to get Patrick reelected, and it is no accident that the president's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, is advising Patrick.

New Hampshire: Gov. John Lynch (D) is no longer untouchable, given the bad economy and a recent controversy over legislative approval of gay marriage. But Lynch's ratings are still solid and he must be viewed as the automatic favorite for another term. It's not clear whom the GOP will nominate. 2010 may be a Republican-leaning year in the Granite State, and if so, Lynch's usually large vote margin could be significantly reduced.

New Jersey: Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is in a difficult race for reelection with Republican Chris Christie, but he's been doing better of late. Corzine has been an unpopular first-term governor, and he is depending on New Jersey's heavily Democratic nature to save him in November. At present Christie leads Corzine by varying margins in polls, and the GOP candidate is widely considered to be the favorite in November. But there is an unmistakable trend back to Corzine, in part because of a lackluster Christie effort. If Corzine loses, he would be the first New Jersey governor ousted since Gov. Jim Florio (D) lost to Christine Todd Whitman (R) in 1993. Corzine is fighting back hard, going negative on TV, finding ways to accuse Christie of corruption, and outspending the GOP nominee. Conceivably, a moderate-liberal independent candidate, former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Chris Daggett, could drain critical anti-Corzine votes from Christie. Daggett is drawing up to 13 percent support in some polls and has been endorsed by the Sierra Club. Daggett's political consultant, Bill Hillsman, engineered Independent Jesse Ventura's gigantic gubernatorial upset in Minnesota back in 1998, so Daggett should not be ignored. Ideologically, one would think that Daggett would hurt Corzine more than Christie, but this may be yet another example (see Massachusetts, above) where a disliked incumbent governor cannot scale the 50 percent barrier--but can win 40-some percent to win a three-way contest. Observers in the Garden State are deeply divided as of this writing. Some think Christie will hold on to win narrowly, while others think Corzine can pull off the comeback. This one needs to be watched closely all the way to November 3rd.

New York: Gov. David Paterson (D) , who succeeded disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) when Spitzer was forced to resign in a prostitution scandal, has sunk to some of the lowest job approval levels ever recorded in the Empire State. Worried White House officials, fearing a GOP gubernatorial victory that could affect 2011's U.S. House redistricting, have made no secret of their hope that Paterson will step aside in 2010, though Paterson is resisting for now and some viewed the White House's handling of the matter as ham-handed. If state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo runs against him, Paterson is very probably doomed in the Democratic primary. If former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani challenges Paterson in the general election--assuming Paterson somehow wins his party's nomination, Giuliani may well win. A Cuomo-Giuliani match-up would tilt to Cuomo. If Giuliani does not run for governor, the GOP nominee may be former Congressman Rick Lazio, best remembered for losing badly to Hillary Clinton in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Lazio would start out as a significant underdog.

Pennsylvania: Gov. Ed Rendell (D) is term limited, and the Pennsylvania tradition calls for rotation to the Republicans now, probably state Attorney General Tom Corbett. Congressman Jim Gerlach (R) is also a credible candidate, though without a statewide base. It is unclear whom the Democrats will nominate, though it will probably be either Allegheny County Executive Don Onorato or state Auditor General Jack Wagner. Former Congressman Joseph Hoeffel, the unsuccessful challenger to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter when last he was a Republican in 2004, is also trying for a comeback. The GOP believes history gives it the edge, since the parties have flipped the governorship every eight years for decades. But the Keystone State is now substantially Blue--much more so than in the past--so any Democratic nominee has a fighting chance.

Rhode Island: Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) is term limited. The early guess is that this Blue state--by some measures the most Democratic of the fifty--would inevitably return to the Democratic party fold in 2010, after 16 years of Republican statehouse control. Well, this is half right. No Republican is going to win it. But the likely Democratic candidate, Treasurer Frank Caprio, will have his hands full with former GOP U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, now running as an Independent. Chafee lost his Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the anti-Bush Democratic sweep of 2006, but it wasn't because the state's voters disliked Chafee. The Chafee name is still golden in Rhode Island, so this is a comeback that might happen.

Vermont: Gov. Jim Douglas (R) surprised everyone by deciding not to run for a fifth term. He would very likely have won it, despite his veto of gay marriage that didn't help him with this exceptionally liberal electorate. (The legislature overrode his veto.) Vermont gave 67.5 percent of its vote to Barack Obama in November 2008, below only Hawaii and D.C., so this governorship is a prime pick-up opportunity for the Democrats. The enduring split between state Democrats and the Vermont Progressive party could make it possible for another Republican to win. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R) seems likely to fill the GOP ballot line, while Democrats have a choice among Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and state Senators Doug Racine and Susan Bartlett. At this early point Markowitz and Racine (the losing 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee) appear to be in a close contest. No word yet on what the Progressives may choose to do. Some say Republican Dubie is no Jim Douglas, both more conservative and less highly regarded, while other Vermont observers caution that Dubie has frequently been underrated.

MIDWEST

Illinois: Gov. Pat Quinn (D) , who succeeded the clownish, corrupt Rod Blagojevich (D) in early 2009, got a remarkable break when state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) announced she would not try to be governor. Madigan might well have defeated Quinn. But now, Quinn is facing another serious challenger in the party primary, well-funded Comptroller Dan Hynes. Quinn has proto-incumbency and seems honest enough--who wouldn't look good after Blagojevich?--but he's seeking sizeable tax increases and presiding over a miserable state economy. Few governors in Quinn's position could be regarded as truly secure. However, the GOP has yet to find a credible general election candidate, so the winner of the Democratic primary will likely be favored in the fall.

Iowa: Gov. Chet Culver (D) wants a second term, and Iowans almost always give their chief executives at least two terms. But his once-certain reelection is shakier because of, yet again, the gay marriage issue. Culver had opposed gay marriage, but after the Iowa Supreme Court instituted it, Culver basically went along. Iowa has a large base of fundamentalist Christians who may coalesce around the eventual GOP nominee--though the party isn't close to deciding who it wants to run. Culver is still favored over all GOP comers save one. Some Republicans are pushing long-ago GOP Gov. Terry Branstad (1983-1999) to run again, and one poll has him handily defeating Culver. Branstad has apparently filed the necessary paperwork that could be a precursor to a gubernatorial bid. Of course, if he runs, Branstad can expect Culver to revisit all of the controversies that ensued in Branstad's 16 years of running Iowa.

Kansas: Gov. Mark Parkinson (D) , who succeeded Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) when she joined President Obama's Cabinet as Health and Human Services secretary, has left his party high and dry. He refuses to run in 2010, and to add insult to injury, he picked as his new lieutenant governor a Democrat who also pledged not to run. The election is all but over. Republicans will re-take the governor's office with current U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. This is a remarkable example of the governing political party imploding. The GOP can count this one as in the bag.

Michigan: Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is term limited, and also very unpopular. The main reason is crystal clear. Michigan was in a one-state recession while the nation was prosperous; now that the country is in deep economic trouble, Michigan--the home of the decimated car industry--is in a full-fledged depression. Granholm's lieutenant governor, John Cherry, will carry the Democratic banner, and he'll be burdened by Granholm but helped by the Blue nature of the state. The Republicans, smelling victory, have a wild primary ahead with a half-dozen qualified candidates, including state Attorney General Mike Cox (the frontrunner in most polls), Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, and Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who is mounting a vigorous challenge. The GOP primary outcome is anyone's guess, but if they hold together and don't fracture, Republicans will be at least slight favorites to regain power in this critical Midwest state.

Minnesota: Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has White House fever and won't seek a third term. The floodgates have opened, and every state politician with a decent resume is giving this race a serious look. Republicans are waiting to see if former Sen. Norm Coleman will step up to the plate after an exhausting recount battle with Sen. Al Franken. Most observers will be surprised if Coleman actually makes the run. If he doesn't, a slew of GOP unknowns will try their luck. Another former U.S. senator, Mark Dayton, is running on the Democratic side, and he has lots of company from ambitious state legislators and others, such as state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. The smart money in Minnesota has been tentatively placed on the Democratic nominee--whoever that turns out to be. The identity of the actual major-party nominees (and, who knows, maybe an independent, too, in this unpredictable state) will matter enormously. Therefore, the cognoscenti's instinct about an impending Democratic victory may be dead wrong. One thing's for sure: Minnesota will put on a circus for the rest of the nation, maybe even with another eternal recount.

Nebraska: Gov. Dave Heineman (R) appears to fit his state quite well. After a half-term succeeding Bush Cabinet member and current U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, Heineman won a full term in 2006 and will almost certainly get a second in 2010. The Democratic bench is all but empty.

Ohio: Gov. Ted Strickland (D) was a heavy early favorite for reelection, but a rotten economy has made his second term bid a shaky one. Former Congressman John Kasich appears set to be the GOP nominee. Remember that Ohio was one of the more difficult Purple states for Barack Obama in both the 2008 primary and general election. Obama's popularity has faded here faster than most states. We're a long way from the election, and a better economy will rescue Strickland. But it's going to be a bumpy ride for Ohio Democrats. Strickland is a slight favorite but he'll have to run a superb campaign to win, with cooperation from a balky economy.

South Dakota: Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is still popular after two terms, but can't run again. The GOP primary will probably determine Rounds' successor. Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard and state Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson are leading the Republican pack. The only Democrat with a good chance to become governor, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, has decided to seek reelection, with an eye towards succeeding Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2014. State Sen. Scott Heidepriem will fill the Democratic slot on the ballot. Heidepriem is an able candidate but will need a lot of luck to win this one.

Wisconsin: Gov. Jim Doyle (D) was in deep trouble for reelection, so he bowed to the inevitable in August and decided against seeking a third term. The economic recession has made Doyle, and many of his fellow chief executives, unpopular. Either likely GOP nominee, frontrunner Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker or underdog former Congressman Mark Neumann, may start out as a November favorite. But it's way too soon to know for sure, and it's unclear who the Democratic nominee will be. So far Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton is running for the party nod, and she may be joined by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Doyle in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary and could be the early leader. Recently, Barrett was badly injured while trying to protect a citizen from a vicious, unprovoked attack. This has made him a hero, but also perhaps less likely to run because of health and family reasons.

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

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