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Statehouse Rock: 36 Governorships on the Chopping Block in 2010

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Friday, March 20, 2009

Last week the Crystal Ball conducted a historical overview of gubernatorial midterm elections in the past sixty years. Now we'll continue our initial analysis of the statehouse battles to come by assessing the situation in each of the 36 states hosting a contest for Governor in 2010. Let's start with the 20 Democratic statehouses on the ballot.

ARKANSAS--Gov. Mike Beebe (D-AR): Count this one almost over, barring some giant scandal or cataclysm. Beebe has been very popular in his first term, and one successful term deserves another. There are no potent challengers to Beebe in either party on the horizon. DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

COLORADO--Gov. Bill Ritter (D-CO): We don't know quite what to make of Ritter, or his upcoming reelection race. Elected in a landslide in 2006, Ritter has made his share of stumbles and doesn't always do the politically smart thing. Just one example: His interim appointment of Denver Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was a truly odd pick. It may work out, and Bennet is a bright fellow, but Ritter put the seat in some jeopardy at the very time Ritter, also on the ballot in 2010, could have used some heft in a running-mate. (Don't believe for a minute that national Democratic leaders were pleased with Ritter's selection of Bennet; some were furious.) Ritter's best chance for reelection is the Colorado Republican party, which has moved to the right and lost the moderate bearings of this changing state. The GOP isn't sure what it will do for a gubernatorial nominee in 2010. Many Republicans had hoped that state Attorney General John Suthers could be coaxed into the contest, but he said no. Possible GOP nominees include former Congressmen Scott McInnis and Bob Beauprez (who lost to Ritter in 2006), as well as state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, among others. A highly controversial choice for the GOP would be former Congressman Tom Tancredo, known for his strong views on illegal immigration. For the moment, we'll have to stay tuned, and give incumbency its due with a rating of LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

ILLINOIS--Gov. Pat Quinn (D-IL): Poor Illinois. The Land of Lincoln finally elected another President, and Governor Rod Blagojevich spoiled it all. When people think of Illinois today, they're as likely to recall Blago as the face of the state as they are Obama. It's tough love to say this, but Illinois asked for it. For decades, the state's politicians and voters tolerated extensive corruption at every level of government. Not one citizen of the state could have said that he was shocked, shocked to find out about their Governor's deeply cynical movements. After all, his predecessor, George Ryan (R), went to prison too, and half of the state's Governors over 50 years--and dozens of other officeholders--have been in serious trouble with the law. People get the government they deserve. States with more than their share of crooked officials, such as New Jersey and Louisiana, can exclaim, "Thank God for Illinois!" The most recent circus curtain came down on January 29th, with the state Senate's conviction and removal from office of the impeached Blagojevich. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) took the reins of power on that date. Most say he's honest, but can anyone blame voters for being suspicious of anyone who has spent years at the top of Illinois' sleazy, dishonest system? Gov. Quinn will have a lot of convincing to do, and he has to do it quickly. Yes, Illinois is a heavily Democratic state in the Age of Obama, but other Democrats (such as Attorney General Lisa Madigan) could challenge Quinn in the 2010 party primary, and reform Republicans such as former Governors Jim Thompson (1977-1991) and Jim Edgar (1991-1998) have been elected for long stretches. It's not impossible that it could happen again. Until a lot of rancid dust settles, we refuse to call this anything but a TOSS-UP.

IOWA--Gov. Chet Culver (D-IA): The Hawkeye State is still competitive, but there has been a definite Democratic trend in recent years. Of course, the condition of the farm economy will play a role, as always, and that's unpredictable. If times are good, Culver will be unbeatable, and if times are bad, Republicans will have a shot if they recruit one of their top-tier potential candidates (such as state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey or Auditor David Vaudt). Congressman Steve King (R), a deeply conservative politician favored by the Christian right, is also making noises, though he would have a hard time winning statewide in this moderate state. For now, Culver remains popular and he must be considered the favorite for a second term. LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

KANSAS--Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), to be succeeded shortly by Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson (D-KS) : PROBABLE OPEN SEAT. This contest is in flux on the Democratic side, which in this case helps the GOP. Two-term Governor Sebelius has been popular but had to retire after she reached the two-term limit in 2010. She might have run for the Senate seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R)--who is leaving to run for Governor. But Sebelius recently accepted the nomination of President Obama to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services. As her successor as Governor, Sebelius had wanted to help her lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, who switched from the Republican party to run with her as a Democrat in 2006. But Parkinson earlier decided not to run for Governor, leaving state Treasurer Dennis McKinney (D) as the possible nominee. Now Parkinson will become Governor, and he is under renewed pressure to run for the Democrats in 2010. Surprisingly, Parkinson still says he won't run, and one suspects it is because he knows how difficult it will be for any Democrat to defeat Brownback. Brownback easily won his 1996, 1998, and 2004 contests for Senate, though he has a primary challenge from Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh (R). The critical unknown is the identity of the new Democratic lieutenant governor, to be appointed by Gov. Parkinson. He or she could end up being the Democratic candidate for Governor in 2010. LEANS REPUBLICAN TURNOVER.

MAINE--Gov. John Baldacci (D-ME) : OPEN SEAT. Here is another formerly Republican state that often elects Democrats--though both U.S. senators are currently Republican. Gov. Baldacci, never overwhelmingly popular during his eight years in office, is term limited, and the apparent frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is former state Attorney General Steve Rowe. It is possible that a Democratic congressman or one or more state legislators could run, however. The Republicans have no instantly logical candidate, though they will certainly find a current or former state legislator or someone from the private sector to carry their banner. Many names are being bandied about, including state Sen. Peter Mills (who lost the governorship in 2006), state House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy, and attorney Steve Abbott, the chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R). The contest is so formless that all we can do at the moment is call it a TOSS-UP.

MARYLAND--Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-MD) : O'Malley will be running for a second term, and as a Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic state, it is difficult to categorize him as anything but the frontrunner. Still, O'Malley secured passage of substantial tax increases early in his first term, and that put a major dent in his popularity ratings. To get to the Governor's Office, O'Malley defeated one-term Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich in 2006. Now Ehrlich is considering a rematch, though he hasn't made up his mind. For Ehrlich to win, the midterm elections would have to have a discernible GOP tilt across the country, just as in 2002 when he last won. If Ehrlich chooses to sit the race out, Republicans are probably in a hopeless position. Former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), the controversial new national GOP chairman, is not running, and the GOP has been decimated by Democratic wave victories in 2006 and 2008. The party has an exceptionally thin bench in the Free State. For now, LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

MASSACHUSETTS--Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) : The second African-American elected a state Governor (after Doug Wilder of Virginia), Patrick hasn't exactly been a roaring success as the Bay State's chief executive. There have been personal stumbles and ham-handed legislative relations, and his ratings are mediocre at best. But it's Massachusetts, and this incumbent will be difficult to take out--although Patrick would be more vulnerable in a party primary. State Treasurer Timothy Cahill (D) has not ruled out a primary challenge. The state GOP is a disaster area, and the only candidates being mentioned for the Republican nomination are prior election losers, except for the politically unknown Harvard Pilgrim Health Care executive Charles Baker. Governor Patrick also is fortunate to be close to President Obama, who can be expected to help him as much as possible in 2010. Whether the nominee is Patrick or someone else, DEMOCRATIC HOLD.

MICHIGAN--Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) : OPEN SEAT. For a fairly solid Democratic state, Michigan is featuring a free-for-all to succeed term-limited Gov. Granholm, including some competitive GOP candidates. Partly, this is because Gov. Granholm has been unpopular, and partly, it is because poor Michigan has been in a one-state recession for years, thanks to the decline of the American auto industry. (Michigan finally has company, and at least 45 other states are considered officially to be in recession.) The logical Democratic nominee is Lt. Gov. John Cherry, but because he carries the Granholm burden, some Democratic primary voters may give others a chance, assuming that some of the many party officeholders floating their names actually enter the primary. One prominent name being touted to oppose Cherry in the Democratic primary is state House Speaker Andy Dillon. On the Republican side, the natural frontrunners are Attorney General Mike Cox, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Congresswoman and former Secretary of State Candice Miller, and Congressmen Pete Hoekstra and Mike Rogers. A half a dozen others have hats ready to toss into the ring, too. This will be one of the wildest contests in the nation, and without question, it is aTOSS-UP.

NEW HAMPSHIRE--Gov. John Lynch (D-NH) : Lynch is a key part of the Democratic resurgence in New Hampshire. Indeed, it is more than resurgence; it is dominance, as this formerly GOP state has yielded both congressional seats, one of two Senate seats, the state legislature, and most statewide offices to the Democrats--plus its electoral votes for President in 2004 and 2008. In a state that still has a two-year gubernatorial term, Lynch has won three landslides, and if he goes for a fourth in 2010, he'll be favored. There is some discussion--widely doubted now that Sununu has settled into the private sector--that former U.S. Sen. John Sununu (R), defeated after one term by Jeanne Shaheen in 2008, may run for Governor in 2010. This is being fueled by his father's decision to become Republican Party chairman in the Granite State. The elder John Sununu was Governor of the state in the 1980s and chief of staff for former President George H.W. Bush in the early years of his Presidency. Many Democrats wanted Gov. Lynch to run for the open seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R) in 2010, but Lynch has said no. Lynch has not yet announced whether he will run for Governor again, but most Democrats think he'll be on the ballot. If he retired, of course, the open Governorship would likely guarantee serious GOP candidacies for the statehouse. DEMOCRATIC HOLD if Lynch runs, TOSS-UP otherwise.

NEW MEXICO--Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) : OPEN SEAT. It was expected that New Mexico would have a new Governor in 2009, owing to the selection of Governor Bill Richardson (D) to become President Obama's Secretary of Commerce. Richardson's stunning decision to withdraw his nomination due to allegations of corruption in New Mexico state government has transformed the situation. New Mexico would have had its first woman Governor, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D). She has already made it clear that she will run to be the Democratic nominee in 2010, when Richardson must step down because of the two-term limit. However, as the incumbent, she would likely have been able to clear the field in her own party, and discourage strong Republican candidates. That will no longer necessarily be the case, though we would still call her the overall frontrunner. Actor Val Kilmer, the latest in a seemingly unending line of Hollywood celebrities who imagine themselves in the role of Chief Executive despite no governmental experience, wants to run for the Democratic nomination, too. Kilmer is rich and famous, so you can't rule him out, but he has a big problem: He has been a strong supporter of Ralph Nader, whom many Democrats blame for Al Gore's defeat in 2000. Kilmer even gave Nader money in 2008 for his umpteenth presidential candidacy, while snubbing Barack Obama--though Kilmer claims to have voted for Obama by absentee ballot from Bulgaria, where he was making a film. This is potentially a devastating issue in a Democratic primary. Of course, a lot depends on the outcome of the ongoing investigation into the charges involving a company that does business with New Mexico state government--whether there was a form of "pay to play" (campaign donations in exchange for state contracts). Barring the unknown effects of scandal, Denish could be hard to defeat in this increasingly Democratic state with a large Hispanic population. Barack Obama's 57% landslide in a state next-door to John McCain's Arizona, and the Democratic takeover of a large majority of offices in the state (including both U.S. senators and the entire three-person House delegation) gives Republicans little cause for optimism, absent an unpopular Richardson or Obama Administration. Perhaps the strongest Republican candidate to oppose Denish would be former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, who lost her bid to become the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in a 2008 primary with the more conservative Congressman Steve Pearce. As was completely predictable, Pearce lost in a landslide in November. LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD, pending outcome of the investigation.

NEW YORK--Gov. David Paterson (D-NY) : Paterson will be seeking his first elective term as Governor of the Empire State. He succeeded the scandal-drenched Gov. Eliot Spitzer, ensnared in a prostitution ring, in March 2008, upon Spitzer's resignation. The first legally blind Governor, Paterson is also New York's first African-American Governor. Paterson had a rocky start, admitting in his first hours in office that he and his wife had had extramarital affairs, and that his had been with a state employee. But he was smart to get it out on the table early, when shell-shocked New Yorkers, still reeling from the Spitzer hooker affair, were more likely to shrug and say, "Ehh..." But "rocky" continues to be the description of Paterson's Governorship, and he first has to worry about competition in the Democratic primary. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo (1983-1995), is considering a bid, and he is leading Paterson by a wide margin in early primary polling. Cuomo has been encouraged by Paterson's fumbling of the appointment to the Senate seat of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After a ham-handed Hamlet-like performance stretching over many weeks, Paterson chose U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand instead of Cuomo, presumed frontrunner Caroline Kennedy, and several other contenders. The Kennedy clan was reportedly furious about Paterson's treatment of Caroline--and if there is a family of enemies you do not want to make in politics, it's the Kennedys. Former Congressman Rick Lazio (R), who lost the Senate race to Hillary Clinton in 2000, wants to resurrect his political career by running for Governor, but Republicans hope that they can entice former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to agree to be their nominee. It's impossible to know what Hizzoner will do. Our bet is that he'll run if he thinks the Democratic nominee will be Paterson, whom Rudy can beat, but not if the candidate will be Cuomo, to whom Rudy would lose. Then there's another Hizzoner, current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on his way to an unexpected third term this year after Bloomberg got the mayoral term limits suspended. Worth billions, Bloomberg could possibly finance a competitive Independent candidacy. Purely on the basis of New York's deep Blue Democratic sea, we'll say LEANS DEMOCRATIC if Cuomo is the Democratic nominee, but TOSS UP if Paterson is the party candidate. If the match-up turns out to be Paterson versus Giuliani versus Bloomberg, anything could happen, and we're moving to New York for the show.

OHIO--Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) : First elected Governor in 2006 after a long stint in Congress, Strickland has been popular. He would seem to be an odds-on favorite to win a second term in the statehouse, although Ohio can be a tricky state to navigate in bad economic times. Strickland backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, but then he worked hard for Barack Obama in the fall, helping Obama carry the Buckeye State and win the Presidency. Strickland has no serious Democratic opposition, and the Republicans have several potential nominees (such as former Congressman John Kasich, former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, and state Sen. Kevin Coughlin). From the perspective of early 2009, a GOP upset of Strickland appears unlikely, but no one ever takes their eyes off Ohio. LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

OKLAHOMA--Gov. Brad Henry (D-OK) : OPEN SEAT. Here's a potential turnover, but it is far from definite. The popular Gov. Henry is term-limited after eight years. This was John McCain's best state in November 2008 (two-thirds of the vote). Oklahoma is deeply conservative, and that is going to help any big-name Republican nominee. Still, Democrats have strong candidates eyeing the contest. State Attorney General Drew Edmondson is probably the frontrunner, and another is Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, who would be the state's first woman chief executive. Askins is already in the race, and Edmondson almost certainly will be. At the same time, four prominent Republicans are floating their names: Former Lt. Gov. and current U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin (a rival for Askins in the 'firsts' department), Congressman Tom Cole, former Congressman J.C. Watts (who would be the state's first African-American chief executive), and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Fallin is the early GOP frontrunner. Right now, this is anybody's ballgame. TOSS-UP.

OREGON--Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D-OR) : OPEN SEAT. As Gov. Kulongoski finishes his two permitted terms, Democrats look to build on recent successes in what used to be a classic swing state. Not only did Barack Obama win in November 2008 with a massive 57%, but his coattails led to the ouster of well respected U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R), a moderate-conservative. The GOP has a thin bench after so many consecutive defeats, and so it is not surprising that the same Gordon Smith is the prime target for hungry Republicans, who last elected a Governor in--are you ready for this?--1982. [Trivia answer: He was Vic Atiyeh.] Smith lost a special Senate contest in early 1996 before winning one in November of the same year, and Smith was reelected in 2002. The Democratic nominee may be Secretary of State Bill Bradbury or 2008 Democratic Senate candidate Steve Novick, although some Democrats are pining away for a favorite former two-term Governor, John Kitzhaber (1995-2003). We have to know the nominees before tilting the race, though obviously, Smith is the GOP's best shot by far. Unfortunately for Republicans, he has taken a job at a D.C. law firm and therefore appears unlikely to mount a bid for Governor. Congressman Greg Walden (R) doesn't seem ambitious for the statehouse, either. Republican businessman Allen Alley, who lost a race for state treasurer in 2008, is running. TOSS-UP until we know the candidates, but a natural advantage for the Democrats.

PENNSYLVANIA--Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) : OPEN SEAT. The popular two-term Governor, Ed Rendell, is stepping down, and he hopes he can pass along the statehouse to a member of his own party. Who will that be? It's surprising how formless the contest is on the Democratic side. Several Democratic congressmen, state legislators, and local officials have been mentioned, but to the best of anyone's knowledge no one has absolutely been given the inside track by Rendell and others. If there's a Democratic favorite, it's probably Allegheny County Executive Don Onorato; Allegheny is Pennsylvania's second largest county and Onorato is a pro-business moderate like Rendell who has already accumulated a $4 million campaign kitty. Auditor General Jack Wagner (D) and Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham (D) may also run. On the GOP side, while many names are mentioned (such as moderate Congressman Jim Gerlach and Delaware County district attorney Pat Meehan), state Attorney General Tom Corbett seems to be the early favorite. Given the enormous Democratic landslide in the Keystone State in 2008, it's notable that he won reelection with 52% in a Blue tide. On the other hand, Republicans are now the undisputed minority party in Pennsylvania. Unless it is an incumbent like U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a GOP nominee needs a strong wind at his back to win statewide in most circumstances. Let's also not forget the 'lucky eight' factor: control of the Pennsylvania Governorship has switched back and forth between the parties every eight years since 1954.TOSS-UP.

TENNESSEE--Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN) : OPEN SEAT. The Volunteer State may be increasingly Republican, but it has been reasonably happy with a moderate Democrat, Phil Bredesen, for two terms. With his term-limited departure in 2010, the Republicans want to reclaim the statehouse, and they had hoped to bring out one of their biggest guns. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), who voluntarily left the Senate in 2006 to honor a term-limits pledge, was considered the leading GOP candidate until he announced in early 2009 that he wouldn't run. Frist would have been virtually unopposed for the nomination should he have sought it, and the undisputed frontrunner in the fall, but no one else will be in that favored position. Congressman Zach Wamp (R) and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R) have made known their interest, but many Republicans believe that Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is the early frontrunner to be the GOP nominee. So far the Democrats do not have a prominent candidate. Congressman Lincoln Davis decided not to run. Former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan has filed but a half-dozen others, such as former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and ex-Congressman Harold Ford, an African-American who lost a close 2006 U.S. Senate race, are contemplating a bid but have not announced. We'll be a bit surprised if this one doesn't lean Republican in the end, but with Frist out and the nominees uncertain, it's only fair to call it a TOSS-UP.

WISCONSIN--Gov. Jim Doyle (D-WI) : It looks likely that Doyle will run for a third term, although Doyle has not announced anything definite. He has been elected with modest majorities in both 2002 and 2006. While not the most popular of Wisconsin's modern Governors, Doyle has generally kept his base happy and has been acceptable enough to independents. Given Barack Obama's solid 56% majority in the Badger State, a Democratic incumbent has some reason for optimism. Still, the GOP has two credible possible opponents for Doyle in 2010: former Congressman Mark Neumann, who lost a U.S. Senate race narrowly in 1998, and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. Keep an eye on this one. LEANS DEMOCRATIC, but potentially competitive.

WYOMING--Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D-WY): If Republicans could get a clean shot at this Governorship, they would almost certainly win it. And they thought they were going to grab it as popular Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal finished his second and final term in 2010. After all, Wyoming is consistently one of the three or four most Republican states, although we should also note that since 1962, six men have served as Wyoming Governor--three Democrats and three Republicans. The Governorship in a small state is less ideological and very much a matter of personal chemistry with voters who expect to meet the candidates at least once or twice. Freudenthal passes that personal, "I like him" test. Term limits were supposed to send him on his way in 2010, but now most legal experts believe a recent state Supreme Court ruling invalidating legislative term limits applies to the top executive job, too. Freudenthal hasn't announced, but it looks likely he'll go for a third term--and he'll be the clear favorite. Having said that, Republicans have an early frontrunner, state House Speaker Colin Simpson, son of former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R) and grandson of another Governor, Milward Simpson (R). The Simpsons are viewed as relatively moderate, which is not necessarily a good thing in a conservative party--so Colin Simpson will undoubtedly have GOP primary competition. However, Simpson may not want to run against incumbent Freudenthal. Assuming Gov. Freudenthal runs again, this one is LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

That's the early line on the twenty Democratic gubernatorial chairs on the ballot in 2010. Next week we will cover the sixteen GOP governorships on the midterm ballot.

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

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