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Governorships 2010: The Changing of the Guard

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Back in 1980, the Washington Post ’s David S. Broder wrote a notable book, The Changing of the Guard , about the generational turnover of national and state leadership occurring at that time. It’s happening all over again. We’ll see dozens of congressional seats switching hands and sides in November, but the greatest transformation will be in the statehouses.

Even though just 37 of the 50 states have a gubernatorial election this November, the midterms are likely to produce so many new governors that a majority of all governors in 2011 will be newly installed .

Already, as our updated election chart (which you can view by clicking here) shows, 23 states have open contests with no incumbent running. This list includes the mega-states of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as lots of smaller, competitive states with an outsized influence on presidential politics, such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.

A 24th new governor is almost certain to be added in North Dakota , where Republican Gov. John Hoeven is the overwhelming favorite to grab the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Senator Byron Dorgan (D). Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) will become governor once Hoeven, whose current term extends through 2012, resigns to take the Senate seat.

It will take only two defeats of incumbent governors who are seeking another term to produce a majority of new governors in 2011. Almost no one thinks Governor Jim Gibbons (R) of Nevada will survive. His scandal-drenched term of office may well come to an end as early as the GOP primary. Former federal judge Brian Sandoval is currently leading Gibbons in the polls.

So which governor will be number 26? The best bet right now appears to be Gov. Chet Culver (D) of Iowa, who is losing polling trial heats by landslide margins to former Gov. Terry Branstad (R). Other incumbents who might well lose in a party primary or the November general election include Governors Jan Brewer (R) of Arizona, Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois, Martin O’Malley (D) of Maryland, Deval Patrick (D) of Massachusetts, Ted Strickland (D) of Ohio, and Rick Perry (R) of Texas. It is likely that some of these endangered state chief executives will survive, but it would be extraordinary if they all did. Two or three are likely to find themselves booted out of office.

That means the probability (as of March) is that 26 to 28 of the 50 state governors will be newly elected freshmen in January 2011. We’re not even counting the two freshmen who took office in 2010, Governors Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Bob McDonnell (R-VA), and who will have served a mere year in office by then.

How unusual is this degree of gubernatorial turnover? Crystal Ball researchers Isaac Wood and Joseph Figueroa took a look at all election years from 1900 to 2008—a total of 55 presidential and midterm years. (Click here for a spreadsheet with a breakdown by year and individual state.)

Should there be 28 or more new governors in 2011, it will set a record since there is no precedent for this degree of statehouse turnover in a single year , at least since the dawn of the 20th century. There were 27 changes in 1920, partly as a result of Republican Warren G. Harding’s presidential landslide. There were 26 changes in 1924, as Calvin Coolidge achieved a sizeable presidential win, and also in 1938 which was the “sixth year itch” midterm election of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt.

In the last 50 years, there have only been four elections in which 20 or more governorships changed hands: 1960 (21), 1966 (20), 1978 (21), and 1986 (21). 2010 is already guaranteed to be the biggest statehouse change election in the last half century.

The most recent midterm election, in 2006, produced a mere 11 new governors. And since only 11 states now elect governors in presidential election years, turnover is typically very light then. In the presidential year of 2008, just 3 new governors joined the ranks.

In sum, we don’t yet know the exact party balance of the governorships that will be elected later this year, but we do know that wholesale change in the statehouses is inevitable . There will be new faces aplenty and future presidential candidates galore in state capitals across this continental nation.

Footnote: Let’s remember that there were only 45 states in the Union until 1907 when Oklahoma was added. New Mexico and Arizona followed in 1912, but the total remained at 48 until Alaska and Hawaii brought us to our current tally of 50 states in 1959.

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

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