Statehouse Picture Slowly Emerging
A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato
There’s now no question that the gubernatorial turnover in November will be historic, with half or more of the states electing new governors (see our previous article on the subject here). With 37 of the 50 states electing governors, and 23 of those states having no incumbent running with additional incumbents in serious electoral trouble, the nation will see an epic turnover—the greatest in at least the last half-century.
It is also gradually becoming clear that Republicans will be adding substantially to their current total of governorships. The primaries have yet to work their will, and voters will change the odds in some races by nominating stronger or weaker candidates.
Nineteen of the statehouses on the 2010 ballot are currently held by Democrats, and eighteen by Republicans. (In the 50 states as a whole, the count is 26 D, 24 R.) The 23 open governor’s races are also balanced fairly evenly between the two parties (12 D, 11 R).
Let’s take a look, region by region, at the current state of the states:
Connecticut—Gov. Jodi Rell (R) is retiring, and the contest to succeed her hasn’t fully gelled. The top Democratic contenders are 2006 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate Ned Lamont and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, while the Republicans have a choice between former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, Lt. Gov. Mike Fedele, and political neophyte Oz Griebel. Foley and Malloy won their parties’ respective convention nods on May 22nd, but the party primaries in August could easily render different verdicts. Foley seems a safer bet to win the GOP nod than Malloy does the Democratic one. On the one hand, a long period of GOP control (16 years) in this Democratic state would naturally suggest it’s time for a Democratic turnover, and that’s our early bet. On the other hand, 2010 has something of a GOP cast to it, and as you will see throughout this analysis of gubernatorial elections, we are disinclined in many instances to tilt the playing field for November until we see the actual party nominees—and know how divisive the nominating contests may have been. So for now, we’ll keep it a TOSS UP.
Maine—Gov. John Baldacci (D) is term-limited, and it is a free-for-all in both parties. In fact, we have been told forthrightly by good sources that “undecided” is handily leading the private polls on both sides. One public poll has now confirmed this. Leading Democrats include state Senate President Elizabeth (Libby) Mitchell and former Attorney General Steve Rowe. The probability is that the Democratic nominee will be either Mitchell or Rowe. The GOP is considering Steve Abbott (U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ former chief of staff), state Sen. Peter Mills, local mayor Paul LePage and wealthy businessman Les Otten along with three others. 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. However, the GOP cast to the year gives the Republican a real shot. And at least three Independents have already filed for the general election. Why do we mention them, since they go nowhere in most states? In modern times, two Independents (James Longley and Angus King) have held the Maine governorship for a total of 12 years. You just never know in this unpredictable state. TOSS UP.
Maryland—Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is running for a second term, and a bad economy has given him so-so ratings. Now he’s gotten the only Republican opponent who could possibly dethrone him in this heavily Democratic state, the man he defeated four years ago, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R). O’Malley starts out with the advantage in a heavily Democratic state, and Ehrlich will have to run a perfect race to win. But we need to see how big the Republican wave is this November. If you see Ehrlich winning early on election night, then you know the Democrats are in for a very unhappy night. TOSS UP.
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, though recently surveys have had him doing somewhat better. Whatever the polls show, it won’t be a cinch to knock off this close Obama ally in a state that, despite Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s upset, trends strongly Democratic most years. Highly regarded Republican Charles Baker, an ally of former Gov. William Weld (R), is the GOP nominee, but he faces a massive complication in the general election. State Treasurer Tim Cahill, also a Patrick critic, left the Democratic Party to become an Independent, and he is running in November under that label—thereby splitting the anti-Patrick vote. There is little question that a three-way race helps Patrick. It may be that the Democrat cannot get 50% plus one in November, but he can squeak to victory with a showing in the 40s while opposed by both Baker and Cahill. Not surprisingly, the national Republican Governors Association has targeted Cahill with TV ads and attacks, and it makes perfect political sense. If they can collapse Cahill’s vote or force him out, then Baker has a fair to good shot at Patrick. After all, partly because voters like to check the massively Democratic state legislature, Republicans held the Massachusetts statehouse from 1990 to 2006. 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. If Cahill’s candidacy deflates, we’ll reassess, but as long as we see this contest defined by a division in the anti-Patrick vote, we’ll call it LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD.
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 decent enough and he must be viewed as the automatic favorite for another term. It’s not clear yet whom the GOP will nominate in its September primary. 2010 may be a Republican-leaning year in the Granite State, and if so, Lynch’s usually large vote margin (over 70% in the last two elections) could be significantly reduced. President Obama’s ratings in New Hampshire are mediocre, even though he carried it with 54% in 2008. LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD
New York—Gov. David Paterson (D), who succeeded disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) when Spitzer was forced to resign in a prostitution scandal, was essentially forced to abandon his race for a full term a couple months ago, due to scandals and extremely low popularity (teens and 20s). Incredibly, despite two corrupt Democratic governors in one four-year term, the election is nearly certain to go a Democrat who will not even be seriously challenged. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of former three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo (1982-1994) has smooth sailing all the way to November. This is yet another example of the rapid decline of the Empire State Republican party. Both Democratic U.S. senators, including a weak appointed incumbent, have also basically secured new terms in 2010. All this—in a Republican-leaning year. SOLID DEMOCRATIC.
Pennsylvania—Gov. Ed Rendell (D) is term limited, and the Pennsylvania tradition calls for rotation to the Republicans now, which means the new GOP party nominee, state Attorney General Tom Corbett. The Democrats nominated Allegheny County Executive Don Onorato, who is a solid candidate but not known statewide and is running against the tide. 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. For now, history rules. LEANS REPUBLICAN
Rhode Island—Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) is term limited. The early guess was 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. Still, it is always tough for an Independent to organize get-out-the-vote efforts, and the Democrat’s big lead in this category might enable to pull off a November win. This one is not over by a long shot, but for the moment, LEANS INDEPENDENT.
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 a gay marriage bill that didn’t help him with this exceptionally liberal electorate. (The legislature overrode his veto.) Vermont gave 67.5% 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. However, 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) fills the GOP ballot line, while Democrats have a choice among Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, state Senators Doug Racine and Susan Bartlett, former state Senator Matt Dunne, and state Senate President Peter Shumlin. At this point Markowitz and Racine (the losing 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee) appear to be in a close contest, but this is a small state with personal politics that can change quickly. The primary is very late (September 14) so this race has a long time to run. Democrats will see a certain percentage drained from their November column by Martha Abbott, current chair of the Progressive party. Abbott has to secure at least 5% to keep the Progressive’s “major-party” status under state law, and the party has decided to run a full slate of candidates for all top posts. Obviously, Brian Dubie wishes them well. TOSS UP.
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. Then Quinn got a second lucky break when he squeaked to victory over a serious challenger in the party primary, well-funded Comptroller Dan Hynes. Completing his lucky streak, the more conservative GOP candidate, Bill Brady, edged to the winner’s circle by just a couple hundred votes over a moderate who might have been a much tougher competitor in the fall. Can Quinn’s luck hold all the way to November? Sure, he had the embarrassment of Scott Lee Cohen, a shady character nominated for lieutenant governor by the Democrats and forced to resign (and now staging a ridiculous independent gubernatorial candidacy). But bad headlines like that one are par for the course these days in the Land of Lincoln. Quinn has proto-incumbency and seems honest enough—who wouldn’t look good after Blagojevich?—but he’s for sizeable tax increases and presiding over a miserable state economy. Oh, and there’s the little matter of that messy trial for Blago coming up soon, and there’s a suspicion that the ex-governor may want to pull down a few temple columns on his way to a well-guarded vacation at a state-run facility. Few governors in Quinn’s position could be regarded as truly secure. Maybe Illinois’ Democratic nature will save him but his position looks precarious in a volatile race. TOSS UP.
Iowa—Gov. Chet Culver (D) wants a second term, and Iowans have almost always given their chief executives at least two terms. But Culver is in deep trouble and trailing badly so far. The bad economy is central, but one other factor is 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 naturally coalesce around likely GOP nominee Terry Branstad. Yes, that Terry Branstad, the seemingly eternal Republican governor who has already served as the state’s chief executive for 16 years (1983-1999). Branstad has had a tougher time than he expected in the GOP primary, but it’s hard to see the party’s voters turning away from their best shot at defeating Culver. Of course, assuming he’s the GOP nominee, Branstad can expect Culver to revisit all of the controversies that ensued in Branstad’s long tenure, but to this point, it’s Culver’s tenure that is the problem. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
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 refused 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. Despite a respectable Democratic candidate in Tom Holland, 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. SOLID REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
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, was on track to carry the Democratic banner, and shocked everyone by withdrawing—quite possibly because he correctly assessed his November chances. The Democratic nominee will be a relatively unknown figure, perhaps former House Speaker Andy Dillon or local official Virg Bernero. It will be a surprise if the Republicans don’t win this governorship. Smelling victory, they have a highly competitive primary ahead, featuring Congressman Pete Hoekstra, state Attorney General Mike Cox, wealthy businessman Rick Snyder, and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard. Snyder has been making gains based on his appeal to independents, and Michigan’s party primaries allow independents to vote. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
Minnesota—Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has White House fever and isn’t seeking a third term. The floodgates opened, and every state politician with a decent resume gave or is giving this race a serious look. Republicans would gladly have nominated former Sen. Norm Coleman, but he declined to step up to the plate after an exhausting recount battle with now-U.S. Sen. Al Franken. Instead, the GOP faithful decided to nominate a very conservative but charismatic state legislator, Tom Emmer, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin. Minnesota has long ceased to be the predictable liberal state of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, so Emmer’s pedigree isn’t an automatic disqualifier and early polls show Emmer essentially tied with the Democratic frontrunners. Still, Democrats have a reasonable chance to take over the reins after the Pawlenty era if they can successfully make their way through a vigorous nominating process. Another former U.S. senator, Mark Dayton, is running on the Democratic side, and state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher is probably a co-frontrunner with Dayton, who had an unhappy D.C. tenure but is wealthy. This being the land of Jesse Ventura, there will also be a representative of the Independence party on the ballot, Tom Horner, and his percentage points could tip the balance one way or another. For now, we call it a TOSS UP.
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, and Mark Lakers will be the sacrificial lamb. SOLID REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Ohio—Gov. Ted Strickland (D) was an early favorite for reelection, but a rotten economy has made his second term bid a shaky one. Former Congressman John Kasich is 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. Moreover, Strickland has been running an aggressive campaign against Kasich, who was associated with Lehman Brothers—and therefore, for the purposes of TV ads, with the Wall Street scandals. Strickland has come back from an early deficit against Kasich to a slight lead. Unlike some of the northern tier of states that we see clearly tilting to the GOP, this one is salvageable for the Democrats, and they know it. Expect a close, hard-fought campaign down to the wire in America’s most durable swing state. TOSS UP.
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. One major Democrat, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, decided to seek reelection instead of the statehouse, 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. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD
Wisconsin—Gov. Jim Doyle (D) was in deep trouble for reelection, so he bowed to the inevitable last August and decided against seeking a third term. The economic recession made Doyle, along with many of his fellow chief executives, unpopular. Either GOP nominee, frontrunner and likely primary winner Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker or underdog former Congressman Mark Neumann, will start out as a November favorite. On the Democratic side, after Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton decided not to run, the logical nominee became possible Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Doyle in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. A strange event in 2009 made Barrett even more personally popular. The mayor was badly injured while trying to protect a citizen from a vicious, unprovoked attack. But high personal approval may not be enough to win the statehouse. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
Alabama—Gov. Bob Riley (R) is term limited. This deeply conservative state, where Barack Obama did poorly, naturally tilts to the GOP. That will be the challenge for surprise Democratic gubernatorial primary winner Ron Sparks, the state’s agriculture commissioner, who defeated favored Congressman Artur Davis (D) on Tuesday. David had hoped to be Alabama’s first African-American governor, but he alienated his base (blacks and liberal whites) with a vote against the Obama health care reform while failing to win over more conservative whites. Sparks might be more competitive in November than Davis was likely to have been, but any Democrat will have an uphill climb. Republicans will choose in a run-off between former State Community College chancellor Bradley Byrne and one of two other Republicans who are virtually tied in the June 2nd voter tallies: state Rep. Robert Bentley (a 2008 Mike Huckabee delegate to the GOP National Convention) and businessman Tim James, the conservative son of former Gov. Fob James (whose second term was served as a Republican). The also-rans, especially the eventual third-place candidate (123,000 primary votes, 25% of the total) and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (over 94,000 primary votes, 19% of the total), could determine the winner. Ideologically, they and their supporters might naturally tilt more to Byrne’s opponent unless Byrne can find a way to win them over. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Arkansas—Gov. Mike Beebe (D) is all but reelected for his second term. The Republican Party has only a minor candidate opposing the very popular Beebe, despite John McCain’s Razorback landslide (59%) in November 2008. SOLID DEMOCRATIC HOLD.
Florida—Gov. Charlie Crist (R) shocked his state twice. First, he decided against a second gubernatorial term, preferring to seek an open U.S. Senate seat. Then, after starting the contest as a heavy favorite, Crist consistently lost altitude to former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a conservative favorite backed by his predecessor, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R). Crist, who had obvious presidential ambitions, had famously embraced President Obama during a trip to Florida, backed the White House’s stimulus plan, and taken other moderate positions regarded as heresy on the right. Seeing that he was losing by margins approaching two-to-one, Crist abandoned the GOP and filed as an Independent for the November election, ceding the Republican nod to Rubio. So far Crist has a slight, shaky edge over Rubio (and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meeks, who is mired in third place). Back to the governorship Crist is abandoning…Even though he is being opposed by a wealthy businessman (Rick Scott), state Attorney General Bill McCollum, is the likely GOP gubernatorial nominee. That is not to say that McCollum is not being tested early; Scott may spend as much as $30 million before the Aug. 24th primary, and he has gained ground on McCollum. Meanwhile, state CFO Alex Sink, a mild-mannered banker originally from North Carolina, will likely be the Democratic nominee (despite a possible late challenge from Bud Chiles, son of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles). Sink might become the first woman governor of the Sunshine State. McCollum appears to be the November favorite, and he has ex-Gov. Bush’s backing, though McCollum is a bit dull and has already lost two U.S. Senate contests in Florida. Further, McCollum’s task is now complicated by Crist’s independent bid for Senate. Sink will try to combine the moderate Crist vote with Meek’s Democratic base—which is easier said than done. While we give an early edge to the Republican, this contest is far from over and may have many twists and turns. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Georgia—Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is term limited. His Democratic predecessor, Gov. Roy Barnes, is the clear frontrunner to win his party’s nod for the second term that Perdue denied him in 2002. Barnes’ defeat was one of the great upsets that year, and he retains high name identification and Democratic support. Yet Barnes was a controversial chief executive, displaying what many considered arrogance in office, and it remains to be seen whether he can re-make his image enough to win. He is also running is a deeply Red state in a Red year, which complicates his task. At the same time, the Republicans are perfectly capable of blowing this one. They have a sizeable field of potential nominees that has not sorted itself out—which also means they could choose unwisely or split asunder in the process. The Peach State might be the site of an amazing Democratic comeback in 2010, but most state analysts still give the GOP the edge, with prominent Republican candidates such as Secretary of State Karen Handel, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, and Congressman Nathan Deal, and state legislator Eric Johnson. Oxendine leads the polls, but this one is not over. We recognize the natural GOP lean in the Peach State, but until we see how the primaries play out, we’ll keep it a TOSS UP.
Oklahoma—Gov. Brad Henry (D) is term limited. The Sooner State is so rock-ribbed Republican that it is always a surprise when a Democrat like Henry wins. After eight years of Democratic control, most observers think the statehouse will fall to the GOP’s nominee, who will almost certainly be Congresswoman (and former Lt. Gov.) Mary Fallin (R) in the end. Yet the Democrats have two potent contenders, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins. They can at least put up a good fight. LEANS REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
South Carolina—Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is term limited, and just about everyone is grateful for that. Sanford has become a tremendous embarrassment to the proud Palmetto State, and his cavalier abandonment of duty to pursue eye-popping adultery with an Argentine “soul mate” has Sanford unpopular even in his own party. After the Sanford experience, one would have thought that only a squeaky clean, upstanding, maybe even boring politician would have a chance to win here. So much for assumptions. On the GOP side, Congressman Gresham Barrett (R) and state Attorney General Henry McMaster (R) were expected to do reasonably well, with controversial Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer also in the hunt. But a little known state representative, Nikki Haley, vaulted to the top of the polling pile in May thanks to strong backing from Sarah Palin and especially Jenny (the ex-Mrs.) Sanford, who is more popular, given what she has endured, than anyone in public life in South Carolina. Then came the “blogger scandal”. Just a couple weeks before the June 8th primary, Will Folks, a former Mark Sanford aide, claimed he had had an affair with the married Haley, who is running as yet another “family values” social conservative. Folks is, um, unusual, and everyone is awaiting the proof that Folks says he has, if it exists. Everything he has produced so far is circumstantial. With a new TV ad prominently featuring her husband, Haley is still likely to make it into the run-off with one of the male candidates. Goodness knows what will happen from there in this Peyton Place of a state that specializes in dirty politics. Democrats are pinning their hopes either on Education Superintendent Jim Rex, who was elected statewide and is well regarded, or youthful state Sen. Vincent Sheheen. That contest is close with Sheheen thought to have a slight edge. It’s possible to imagine a Democratic victory, given the turmoil on the GOP side, but it is always a giant upset when any Democrat wins in South Carolina. One certainty is that Mark Sanford will never be in major public office again. Incredibly, he was once viewed as a possible presidential candidate, which just goes to show how little we actually know about some people who seek the White House. John Edwards in next-door North Carolina proves the point, too. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Tennessee—Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is term limited. This one is unquestionably leaning Republican, but which Republican? Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has the inside track, though Congressman Zach Wamp is fighting hard, among others. Democrats simply don’t have a top-drawer choice for 2010, with Mike McWherter, son of former Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, as the party’s nominee. The state voted heavily for McCain and will probably end the eight-year Democratic reign in the statehouse as well. Instinctively, most political observers believe the Volunteer State will be volunteering for the GOP in 2010. LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
Texas—Gov. Rick Perry (R) is trying for an unprecedented third four-year term. If he wins it, he will serve as governor for 14 consecutive years, having inherited half of George W. Bush’s second term from 2000-2002. After Perry’s paltry 39% in a multi-candidate race in 2006, few thought he could achieve his goal, especially since popular U. S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged him for re-nomination in the GOP primary. Yet Perry shrewdly moved well to the right, even mentioning possible secession for Texas from Obama’s America. In most states, this kind of extremism would have meant political termination, but this is Texas, where the Republican Party base is exceptionally conservative. Perry successfully made Hutchison the scapegoat for all of Washington, D.C.’s failures, and he demolished her in a March primary. Well-regarded Houston Mayor Bill White is the Democratic nominee, but it would be a giant upset if he won, in this GOP-leaning year and in this state in particular—though some think Perry fatigue will make the November results closer than usual. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Alaska—Gov. Sean Parnell (R), who has recently succeeded the resigned Sarah Palin (R), is running for his first elective term. Parnell is a Palin ally, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that status—and in Alaska, there are more of the former than the latter. With Palin’s backing, he nearly dethroned long-time Congressman Don Young in a 2008 GOP House primary. No doubt, Parnell is grateful he lost that close one since he inherited a better job. Parnell has worked hard to distinguish himself from Palin and establish his own record. Alaskans have an independent mind, but for Parnell, so far so good. Parnell has the initiative and incumbency, and he has utilized both effectively to achieve wide popularity. None of the several Democrats vying to oppose him has any real shot to win, and our bet is that Parnell grabs his own four-year term. LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Arizona—Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is the former secretary of state who succeeded Gov. Janet Napolitano when she resigned to become President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security. Brewer is now seeking her first elective term. Once considered well to the right, Brewer moderated in some ways as governor—both a strength and a weakness. Within the GOP, her support of a tax increase has raised the hackles of the party base, although the electorate ratified her proposal to increase the sales tax by one cent in a May 18th referendum. More important, she signed the tough new immigration bill that has become nationally controversial. While Hispanics and Latinos are strongly opposed, the Republican base and whites generally are enthusiastically supportive. This has neutralized some of the GOP unhappiness with her about taxes and given Brewer a big boost headed into the August party primary. At least temporarily, it has also made her the favorite in November over Democratic state Attorney General Terry Goddard. LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD.
California—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) cannot seek reelection, and he has probably run out his string anyway. The Golden State is badly tarnished—again—by a continuing deep fiscal crisis, the result of decades of profligacy. The voters have played a major role by passing initiatives that tied the state’s hands on taxes and spending. The largest state is a giant mess, and it’s a wonder anyone wants to be governor. But major candidates have emerged. On the Democratic side, state Attorney General Jerry Brown is unopposed for the party nomination and is running for a third, definitely nonconsecutive term as governor. He was first elected to the post in 1974 and 1978, and if successful in 2010, Brown would attain the status of having been California’s youngest and oldest governor. He once was facing a tough challenge in the primary from Hollywood-handsome but controversial San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, endorsed by former President Bill Clinton—still sore at Brown for the attacks against Clinton during their 1992 Democratic presidential battle. Newsom dropped out, however. The main Republican contenders are ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, with the nominee to be determined on June 8th. Most Golden State observers expect Whitman to win handily since she is the favorite of most party leaders and has already spent over $70 million from her own pocket. That’s nothing—she plans to plunk down $150-250 million in total by November, an amount that would shatter all previous records for gubernatorial contests in the fifty states. In the end, as unhappy as Californians are, this is still a heavily Democratic state. Gov. Schwarzenegger is extremely unpopular, and that will be a burden for Whitman. We’ll be surprised if Brown doesn’t win in the fall. However, it’s early, Brown is old-hat dynastic in an anti-establishment year, and he’ll be dramatically outspent in this ultimate media state. The safe, cautious rating for now is TOSS UP.
Colorado—Gov. Bill Ritter (D) shocked his state and retired after only one term. Voters had mixed views of his governorship and he would have had a tough contest to retain the office. For example, even within the Democratic coalition, Ritter alienated organized labor with a series of vetoes of union-backed bills. Despite a setback at the May 22nd state party convention, where businessman Dan Maes, a Tea Party candidate, narrowly edged him, former Congressman Scott McInnis will be the GOP nominee after the party primary in August. Democrats have settled on the popular mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper. This is a close one, and both sides agree on that privately. TOSS UP.
Hawaii—Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is term limited, and almost no one believes that her chosen successor, Lt. Gov. James Aiona (R), will win. Hawaii is just too Democratic a state in the age of its son, Barack Obama, despite the recent 39% plurality victory of Congressman Charles Djou (R) in a special election. Which Democrat will follow Lingle? It is a tight contest between former Congressman Neil Abercrombie or Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER.
Idaho—Gov. Butch Otter (R) wants a second term, and in this overwhelmingly GOP state, it will very likely be his—though who wasn’t surprised by Otter’s anemic 54.7% of the vote in the May 25th GOP primary against weak opponents? Tea Party sympathizers were apparently still unhappy about Otter’s failed 2009 attempt to raise the gas tax. Democrats think they have a shot at an upset in November with Keith Allred, a former Harvard professor. It’s true that other Red Western states have elected Democratic chief executives, and Gov. Cecil Andrus (D) long held sway in Idaho a few decades ago. But starting out, Allred has a mountain to climb. LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Nevada—Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is running for a second term, but you can’t find odds even in Las Vegas that he’ll last beyond 2010. Gibbons has been involved in a soap opera sex scandal since he took office, with a divorcing first lady and tales of sexual harassment. Consistently and deeply unpopular, we have long bet that Gibbons would lose the June 8th GOP primary to former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, the first Hispanic federal judge from Nevada who resigned the lifetime post to prepare for the 2010 election. The Democrats are set to nominate Rory Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who’ll also be on the 2010 ballot for reelection, which is awkward). Ironically, Harry Reid secured a judgeship for Sandoval to get him out of politics a few years back; now Sandoval may end up running against Reid’s son, and Sandoval is the favorite in both the primary and the general election. The dynasty factor and his father’s current unpopularity appear to be hurting Rory Reid’s chances. As long as Gibbons isn’t the GOP nominee, LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD.
New Mexico—Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is term limited. With his luster dimmed after an unsuccessful run for president in 2008 and a brush with a lobbying scandal, Richardson may not have much influence on the choice of his successor. Yet his lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, is in a decent position to win. Denish nearly became governor when Richardson agreed to become the Obama Commerce Secretary before withdrawing, and was actually preparing her “administration.” Finally, she hopes she will get to put those plans in motion. Partly because of a growing Hispanic voting population, New Mexico has become an increasingly Democratic state after decades as one of America’s most competitive bellwethers. (People forget that New Mexico was even closer in absolute terms than Florida in 2000; Gore won it by a mere 366 votes compared to Bush’s 537-vote squeaker in the Sunshine State.) Obama captured New Mexico by 15% in 2008, and Democrats control the entire congressional delegation, though the GOP is going to make a comeback in a couple of districts this year. Could the pendulum be swinging back in the Land of Enchantment? The greatest obstacle standing between Denish and the governor’s office seemed to be former Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R), and she chose not to run. However, a new threat to Denish, another Republican woman, is on the horizon. The new GOP nominee for governor is Dona Ana County district attorney Susana Martinez, who easily defeated former state party chair Allen Weh and four others, with the help of a Sarah Palin endorsement and a tough stance on immigration. Martinez has led Denish in one poll, and she’s undeniably on the rise, though Denish still has the advantage of a deeper pool of potential party voters. This all-female contest—only the third in U.S. history—will be fun to watch. TOSS UP.
Oregon—Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is term limited and not terribly popular. His two-term predecessor (1995-2003), Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), could be his successor and easily won the recent gubernatorial primary over Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. While Oregon is the last regularly two-party competitive state on the West Coast, it clearly leans Democratic in modern times. In fact, a Republican last won the governorship of Oregon in 1982. The best chance Republicans had was that former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith would run, but he declined. Instead, the GOP picked (via a competitive primary) former Portland Trail Blazer Chris Dudley. Early polls show the contest competitive, and with voters in an anti-establishment mood, Dudley will argue that it’s no time to go back to the future. Nevertheless, Kitzhaber has retained the kind of popularity that Kulongoski never achieved, and Dudley will need some breaks and a national Republican tide to win. For now, let’s see how the dust settles from the primaries, and call it a TOSS UP.
Utah—Gov. Gary Herbert (R) succeeded Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to China, in mid-2009. Herbert is much more conservative than Huntsman, who is very moderate by Utah standards. But that helped Herbert secure the GOP nomination in May’s obstreperous GOP convention, which sent conservative Sen. Robert Bennett (R) packing. Utah normally elects its governor in the presidential year, but vacancies like this one require a special election for a two-year term. This state reelects its chief executives with regularity, and they are almost all Republicans. The last Democratic governor, Scott Matheson, Sr., won the second and last time long ago, in 1980. The only Democrat with a real shot, Congressman Jim Matheson (son of Scott), wouldn’t run, and the party nominee is Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, an able fellow who can’t overcome the lopsidedness of Utah’s one-party system. SOLID REPUBLICAN HOLD.
Wyoming—Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) is retiring after two terms, and he’ll be the last Democrat to hold this post for a while. The Democrats’ likely candidate is state party chair Leslie Peterson, who filed mainly to save the party the further embarrassment of not having a “name” candidate. There is no resistance to a woman governor, one would presume, since Wyoming gave the nation its first, Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1925, and one of the state’s nicknames is “The Equality State”. But 2010 is almost certainly a Republican year in Wyoming, with many Republicans having jumped into the race. The current frontrunner for the GOP is state House Speaker Colin Simpson, the son and grandson of Wyoming Republican U.S. senators. Other major GOP candidates include former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, former state House Majority Leader Ron Micheli, and state Auditor Rita Meyer. The Republican nomination will probably be tantamount to election. SOLID REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER.
To sum up, six states already look very likely to switch party control: Hawaii to the Democrats, and Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming to the Republicans. In addition, the GOP column can boast three more big states as leaning in its direction: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
A baker’s dozen other states are the sites of highly competitive gubernatorial races where a party switch is a distinct possibility. All of these states must now be counted as toss ups: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Seven are currently Democratic controlled, and six are run by Republican governors, so there is rough parity in this category. Note that Rhode Island is certain to slip from the GOP column, but it is unclear whether the new governor will be a Democrat or an Independent.
Overall at the moment, we foresee a Republican net gain of 6 or 7 governorships. This number will change as the dozen-plus toss-ups begin to settle into one party’s column or the other.
As we always do, we want to stress that not all statehouses should count the same. In an Orwellian sense, all states are equal but some are more equal than others. Larger states and two-party “purple” states count for more—so a mere numbers game is a superficial way to analyze the 2010 match-ups. But with the five most critical months of the campaign to go, a quick count of statehouses is the soundest path to take.
Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato
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