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STATEHOUSE ROCK: 36 Governorships on the Chopping Block in 2010

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We've had two good weeks of gubernatorial fun in the Crystal Ball , reviewing the early match-ups for the 2010 midterm Governor battles here and here. Now it's time to examine the remaining sixteen statehouses, all currently controlled by Republicans.

ALABAMA--Gov. Bob Riley (R-AL): OPEN SEAT. With Gov. Riley completing his second and final term, Alabama can look forward to a rough and tumble contest to succeed him. The Democrats appear certain to have a competitive match-up between Lt. Gov. (and former Governor) Jim Folsom, Jr. and Congressman Artur Davis (D-AL), an African-American. There is some talk that others may jump in, but Folsom and Davis would probably be the front-runners. If black turnout is high in the primary, as it often is, Davis would be in a good position to win the party nod, but it's too early to know. The Republicans hoped to get Congressman Jo Bonner (R-AL) into the race, and he would have been the presumed frontrunner, but Bonner bowed out in February. Instead, the GOP will have a choice among state Treasurer Kay Ivey (R), former Judge Roy Moore (R), the social conservative who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary against Gov. Riley in 2006, and businessman Tim James (R), son of former Governor Fob James (just like Folsom, whose dad "Kissin' Jim" is still well remembered as Governor--more legacy candidates). Unquestionably, Alabama is a tough nut for Democrats to crack, especially for an African-American nominee. Barack Obama received just 39% in the state last November. It's a Republican state, but for now, the contest is unformed and must be listed as a TOSS-UP.

ALASKA--Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK): Assuming Palin runs for Governor again instead of challenging U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), as is likely, Palin is close to a shoo-in for a second term, despite her recent troubles in and out of the state. John McCain had been faring poorly in Alaska until Palin was put on the ticket, and then the GOP won the presidential race in the Frontier State with 60%. The controversies that dogged Palin nationally will have relatively little effect on her reelection bid, at least in terms of the outcome. However, her controversial candidacy for Veep has made her the target of much new criticism in Alaska, as residents have learned things about her and her family that they don't like, and wonder if she is dedicated to her current job or one in a White House in Washington. So far little-known business consultant Bob Poe, a former state administrative official, is the only Democrat in the race. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

ARIZONA--Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ): When Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano was confirmed on January 20th to head President Obama's Department of Homeland Security, Secretary of State Jan Brewer became Governor. State Democrats were apoplectic, since Brewer is a conservative Republican who opposes much of what Napolitano had been trying to do. Further, Brewer--who had been Secretary of State for six years in a state without a Lieutenant Governor--has a GOP legislature, insuring that much of what she wants (and the legislation Republicans want) will pass. Some Democrats, understandably, are unhappy with Napolitano, but she can hardly be faulted for taking this big step up in her career, with only two years left on her second and final term as Governor. It remains to be seen how Brewer will fare as Governor. This is not the old, deeply conservative Arizona of decades past. A large Hispanic population and sprawling urban centers have made the state competitive. If Brewer governs moderately, she will have a better chance of securing an elective term in 2010. It is not even certain at this point that Brewer will be unchallenged in the GOP primary since plenty of ambitious Republicans hold major office in Arizona. A conservative favorite, U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, is apparently considering a Republican primary bid. The likely Democratic candidate to oppose Brewer (or the eventual GOP nominee) is state Attorney General Terry Goddard. Once again, this is a fluid situation, and no rating other than TOSS-UP can be assigned at the moment. Yet Brewer can be in the driver's seat as the incumbent if she plays her cards right.

CALIFORNIA--Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA): OPEN SEAT. The Terminator is term-limited, and thus the Great Blue Whale (California, not Schwarzenegger) has an open seat contest for Governor. Without even knowing the eventual nominees, this one will have a Democratic tilt--or at least, the majority-party Democrats will have to blow the race for the distinctly minority-party Republicans to win it. And therein lies the tale, since Democrats are always capable of throwing away what they believe is a sure thing. In the event that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1990, decides to finish her career as her state's chief executive, the odds are she'd win the nomination and the general election. If she doesn't run (and she's 75 years old), the Democratic battle will be led by another familiar name, former two-term Governor (and now Attorney General) Jerry Brown, son of the late two-term Governor Pat Brown (more dynasty...) Brown was the 'Boy Governor' when he was elected in 1974 at age 36. By 2010 he'll be 72. Brown has staged several losing presidential runs in 1976, 1980, and 1992, and more recently served as Mayor of Oakland. What a long, strange trip it's been for Brown. Will the state really welcome him back to the top spot once again? It's an open question. Brown will have plenty of opposition for the nomination from others, possibly including Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and maybe a billionaire or a Hollywood celebrity or two who will pop up in the meantime. For the Republicans, most-often mentioned are John McCain campaign chair and ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, both of whom seem to be off and running. Former Congressman Tom Campbell, a moderate who lost a 2000 U.S. Senate battle, could jump in as well. This contest ought to lean Democratic in theory, but overwhelmed by appropriate caution and unimpressed with the field of Democrats, we'll call it a TOSS-UP.

CONNECTICUT--Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT): Rell succeeded the disgraced Gov. John Rowland (R-CT) in July 2004. Even though she was Rowland's lieutenant governor, she was untouched by his corruption (for which he went to prison), and easily won election to a term in her own right in 2006. Even Democrats privately admit that if she wants another term, this moderate, breast-cancer survivor with a 75% approval rating will get it. Rell seems to be running but a surprise retirement cannot be ruled out at this early moment. Democrats wanted to nominate Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who would have been a competitive candidate, but he decided not to run--as he has four times before. Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, former state House Speaker James Amann, and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy are among the potential Democratic nominees in Blumenthal's stead. Bysiewicz is the Democratic frontrunner--though surveys show she and all the other Democrats are not even competitive against Rell. If Rell runs, REPUBLICAN HOLD.

FLORIDA--Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL): Crist was elected Governor in the tough year (for Republicans) of 2006 to succeed Jeb Bush, and he has governed as a moderate conservative. While the right wing of the state GOP has made unhappy noises about his social and environmental policies, it is hard to believe he could be seriously challenged for the Republican nomination for his 2010 reelection. And the Democrats don't have any especially intriguing candidates for the post; most of the best are now looking at the open U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Mel Martinez. If Crist surprises, and decides to opt out of reelection to the Governorship in order to try for the Senate, then it is theoretically possible for the Democrats to win the statehouse--if a first tier candidate can be recruited. Some in Florida believe that Crist may indeed prefer the Senate to another term as Governor in hard economic times. But as long as Crist wants a second gubernatorial term, Florida will be a REPUBLICAN HOLD.

GEORGIA--Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-GA): OPEN SEAT. Perdue is term limited, and both party primaries are attracting major candidates. For the dominant Republicans, the primary may be a battle between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who defeated former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed in the 2006 primary, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, and Secretary of State Karen Handel. A rumor that U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson may run is unsubstantiated; it's not going to happen. The Democratic cast of characters includes former Adjutant General David Poythress and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who is African-American. Other statewide officials, congressmen, and state legislators are the subjects of frequent trial balloons. State House Minority Leader Dubose Porter (D) has committed to run. Even former Gov. Roy Barnes (D), who was defeated for reelection in 2002 by Sonny Perdue, may have the itch to run again. The contest is obviously unsettled, and one suspects the GOP nominee will have a bit of an early edge. But the election is two years off, and the Crystal Ball prefers TOSS-UP for now.

HAWAII--Gov. Linda Lingle (R-HI): OPEN SEAT. It's a blue (red?) moon over the Pacific when any Republican gets elected in the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Hawaii, but Linda Lingle has managed to do it twice. As her two terms as Governor come to a close, you cannot find anyone who believes another Republican will succeed her in Barack Obama's home state. Lingle will try to install Lt. Gov. James Aiona (R), who was elected with her as a team (no separate election for lieutenant governor), but the odds are with the Democrats. Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D) has announced a gubernatorial bid, and even at age 71, he may be the frontrunner. Other Democratic possibilities include former Congressman Ed Case (D), Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, and various state legislators. LEANS DEMOCRATIC TURNOVER.

IDAHO--Gov. Butch Otter (R-ID): Otter won a surprisingly close open-seat contest in 2006 for Governor, but that was likely as competitive an election as he is going to experience. Otter is a heavy favorite for reelection in 2010. Democrats would like to nominate Boise Mayor Dave Bieter (D), but it's doubtful he'll throw away his political future on this one. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

MINNESOTA--Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN): Most people assume that Pawlenty is running for a third term, though he hasn't given the final word and the assumption may be wrong. Republicans need him to do so, since the state GOP has been on a severe downward spiral in the last two elections, losing at least one and probably both U.S. Senate seats, several House seats, and a slew of local offices. Barack Obama carried Minnesota handily, too, with 54%. It says a lot that Pawlenty is the GOP star in this state despite never having secured a majority of the vote in his two gubernatorial victories. In 2006 Pawlenty received 47% to edge out a damaged Democrat in what turned out to be the closest race for Governor in the nation. At the same time, Pawlenty's 47% is much better than the miserable 42% mustered by both Al Franken and Norm Coleman in the contested 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota. The 2010 contest won't really begin until we know Pawlenty's decision on reelection. There will be a free-for-all in both parties if he steps aside. Otherwise, Pawlenty will start out as a slight favorite for reelection. The biggest "name" Democrat so far is ex-U.S. Senator Mark Dayton. His one term (2001-2007) was less than successful, as he himself admits, but on the other hand, he's rich. Democrats will also have other choices; already, a gaggle of state legislators and local officials are stepping up to take a chance at the big time. LEANS REPUBLICAN if Pawlenty runs, otherwise TOSS-UP.

NEBRASKA--Gov. Dave Heineman (R-NE): When Dave Heineman stepped up from the lieutenant governorship in January 2005 to become Governor, succeeding Governor and Agriculture Secretary-designate Mike Johanns, many saw him as a short-termer. Popular Congressman (and former football coach) Tom Osborne was considered the odds-on favorite to be the next Nebraska chief executive. But Heineman decided to run for a full term, impressed voters with his energetic handling of his office, and defeated the 60-year old Osborne in the 2006 GOP primary. Heineman scored a landslide over an anonymous Democrat in November. Nobody expects Heineman to give up his dream job, and he will run for a second full term in 2010, and very likely win it. Democrats are casting about for a candidate, and some state legislators have been mentioned, such as State Sen. Tom White of Omaha. Should Heineman win and serve the second full term, he'll be Nebraska's longest serving Governor, with ten years under his belt. REPUBLICAN HOLD.

NEVADA--Gov. Jim Gibbons (R-NV): What a mess for the GOP. First-term Governor Jim Gibbons, a former congressman elected in 2006, has been mired in scandal from the day he took over. Gibbons has been plagued by charges of sexual harassment, followed by a messy divorce in which the first lady would not vacate the Governor's Mansion, plus various other controversies and improprieties. Not surprisingly, he has rock-bottom popularity, and is very probably a one-termer. Already, two Republicans have decided to challenge Gibbons in the party primary: former state Sen. Joe (Give 'em) Heck and North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon. The general election will not be especially competitive if Gibbons is the Republican nominee, but if he doesn't run again or is defeated in the primary, this dynamic Wild West state of casinos, legalized prostitution, strong unions, Hispanic population growth, and in-migration from California could still feature a closely fought election. The Democrats are on the upswing here, as evidenced by Barack Obama's comfortable 55% triumph in John McCain's backyard in 2008, and that gives the party hope that they can win a gubernatorial election for the first time since 1996. The most prominent candidate appears to be Rory Reid, Clark County commissioner and son of U.S. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid--who will also be on the ballot in 2010. The dynastic factor will be one to watch: Will Nevadans react well or poorly to the idea of voting for two Reids at once? No doubt, other Democrats will be competing in the primary, too. As for the GOP, conditions have become even more unsettled as Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) has been indicted for actions he took while serving as state Treasurer. The resolution of these charges will determine whether Krolicki could be a possible successor to Gibbons or a challenger for Harry Reid in 2010. Meanwhile, Gibbons and Krolicki are opening feuding with one another, sniping about petty matters of all kinds--just what the GOP didn't need. Nevada politics is complicated, isn't it? If Gibbons is the GOP nominee, LEANS DEMOCRATIC. Otherwise, a TOSS-UP.

RHODE ISLAND--Gov. Don Carcieri (R-RI): OPEN SEAT. Isn't it remarkable that, by 2010, the Governorship of the most Democratic state in the Union will have been occupied by Republicans (Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri) for sixteen consecutive years? Partly, this is because voters view the state chief executive office very differently than a Senate seat; the former is about nuts and bolts governing, the latter about liberal vs. conservative ideology. In any event, this anomaly will probably come to an end in 2010, when Carcieri is term limited. No one in either party knows the identity of the nominees at this early stage, but the Democratic team is impressive (Treasurer Frank Caprio, who is the early frontrunner, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts) and the GOP contingent is underwhelming (an unknown state representative or two). The only possible spice in the race is former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, who served as a Republican from 2000 to 2007 but who may run for the statehouse as an Independent. Yes, Democrats have thrown away the statehouse before (three times with unpopular state Sen. Myrth York as their nominee), but the odds against this happening again are considerable. Chaffee is an unpredictable element worth watching, but this one still LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

SOUTH CAROLINA--Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC): OPEN SEAT. Gov. Sanford is completing his two terms, and so both parties will have robust primaries. On the Democratic side, a former Democratic party chairman, Joe Erwin, and two state Superintendents of Education, the incumbent Jim Rex and the former, Inez Tenenbaum (a failed U.S. Senate candidate in 2004) head the list, with various state legislators as possible contenders, too. A youthful state senator, Vincent Shaheen, is attracting some attention on the Democratic side. Over on the Republican ballot, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Attorney General Henry McMaster, Carroll Campbell (namesake son of the late former two-term Governor), Congressman Gresham Barrett (now definitely in), and state House Majority Leader Jim Merrill are all prominently on the list. Now, just compare the candidate fields. Which one is more substantial? Every now and then a Democrat wins the Palmetto State Governorship--the last was Jim Hodges (1999-2003)--but conditions must be just right: the Republicans must split, nominate a weak candidate, and have the national wind at their face. It might happen in 2010, but the early money is on the Republicans, as usual. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.

SOUTH DAKOTA--Gov. Mike Rounds (R-SD): OPEN SEAT. Mike Rounds has been a very popular Governor, and he would easily win a third term were he not limited to two. South Dakota is a state with highly personalized politics, and while it leans Republican overall, the voters are more than willing to elect Democrats they like, such as U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Democrats hope that Herseth Sandlin will run for Governor in 2010. Her grandfather, Ralph Herseth, held the post from 1959 to 1961 (another dynasty watch). If she does, Herseth Sandlin might well win it. The Republicans have a good dozen statewide and legislative officeholders who are reported to be interested in trying to hold the statehouse for the GOP, including Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman, and state Sen. Dave Knudson. Herseth Sandlin's decision about a candidacy might shake out the Republican field, one way or the other, but it is too soon to know how this contest will develop. Keep in mind that South Dakota has the nation's longest consecutive winning streak for one party's gubernatorial nominees; the GOP has won eight elections in a row there. That suggests how strong the Republican tie is among state voters. Of course, you could also make a claim that the Democrats are due one. TOSS-UP.

TEXAS--Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX): What a Texas rumble this one is going to be! Gov. Perry is already the longest serving Governor in Texas history (since December 2000, succeeding George W. Bush), but he wants four more years. Problem is, he's not terribly popular, and he received just 39% in a wild multi-candidate contest in 2006 to win reelection. His record shows he can't be counted out, but Perry has the toughest possible GOP primary opponent in U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Other Lone Star State pols on the GOP side have been musing about running, but it is difficult to see anyone else squeezing out some daylight in the Perry-Hutchison face-off. One thing is certain: this Republican primary will be one of the nastiest in the nation in 2010. Perry is expected to court social conservatives with special ardor, given Hutchison's mildly pro-choice stand on abortion, and Perry will not yield his governor's chair easily. If Hutchison wins the primary, she'll certainly be favored in the fall. If Perry wins, though, the candidacy of a respected moderate Democrat, such as Houston Mayor Bill White, becomes viable, since many Hutchison voters might back him to end Perry's long reign. Former Ambassador Tom Schieffer, a George W. Bush ally who is nonetheless running as a Democrat, may be a fallback candidate. (His brother is CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.) The unusual Kinky Friedman may toss his hat into the Democratic primary as well. The vast majority of ambitious pols other than these 'big boys (and one girl)' will likely choose to wait for Hutchison's open Senate seat, which Hutchison may or may not resign before the gubernatorial election. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD, especially if Hutchison is the GOP nominee.

VERMONT--Gov. Jim Douglas (R-VT): The amazing thing is that Vermont-now so Blue it rivals the sky-is here in the Republican column. The GOP only has Douglas, an old-style moderate New England Republican. Vermonters just like the man, and they are willing to overlook his party label. As always, the Democrats will try to dethrone him in 2010. But the separate Progressive party usually splits the anti-Douglas votes and money. We'll place an early bet on Douglas for a fifth two-year term, assuming he runs. But Douglas has not made his intentions known, and without him, the GOP will be in trouble. Already former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (D) has said he will seek the Governorship, and a current statewide Democratic officeholder, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, is considering it. REPUBLICAN HOLD if Douglas runs, otherwise leans Democratic.

As we conclude out three-week analysis of the 2010 gubernatorial line-ups, let's remember that it is extremely early in the election cycle. Anything can and will happen in some of these states. Elections are a process, unfolding over a two-year cycle that is dynamic and full of surprises.

Starting out, most incumbent Governors who can run again appear to be favored--though conditions in late 2010, not early 2009, will determine whether this evaluation holds up. It is the open seat contests, already guaranteed to number sixteen (nine for the Democrats, seven for the Republicans) that will feature the most turnover in party control. Change is especially likely in states that usually lean to one party, but for one reason or another have a Governor of the other party currently in office. The open seat total also may grow, as some incumbent Governors not legally term-limited nonetheless decide not to run again.

The Crystal Ball's political junkies will have plenty to feast on as the 36 statehouse battles continue to heat up. From time to time, we'll revisit our listings and update them, to take account of new developments.

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