Monday, December 23, 2013

Still Much Uncertainty in Midterm Gubernatorial Races

So far, the 2014 midterms seem to present to Democrats in gubernatorial races what the GOP is facing in the Senate; Democrats are likely to gain governorships as the GOP is likely to gain Senate seats.  Unlike the Senate, there is no practical necessity for controlling a “majority” of the governorships like there is in the Senate.  However, it could certainly be argued that control of the governor’s mansion is more important than having control of the upper chamber. 

Governors arguably have more control over policy that affects their constituents than do Senators.  Further, they have the resources to be able to help elect Congressmen, Senators, and most importantly, Presidents.  Finally, Governors have the ability to implement (or stand in the way of) federal policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.  There are currently many states that are choosing to not implement all or parts of Obamacare, which obviously makes it more difficult to implement nation-wide.  These are the places Democrats most need to win next year.


Republicans currently hold 30 governorships.  Using current polling trends, state voting history, and some personal input on the ‘feel’ of a race, I have developed a model to predict the number of governorships the GOP will likely hold after the 2014 midterm elections.  Looking at the model, above, we can see they are most likely to hold only 26 after the midterms.  Overall, the GOP still has a 77% chance to keep 25 or more seats and a 57% chance to keep more than 25.  What we can also gleam from the model is that gubernatorial races seem to be more competitive than Senate races. 

In the Senate model, there were only two seats I rated as a tossup (Georgia and Arkansas) as well as six seats I rated as only leaning one way or another (Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina).  In the Gubernatorial model, there are four seats rated as a tossup (Arkansas, Illinois, Maine, and Wisconsin), and there are again six seats only leaning one way (Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, and Ohio).

Below, I have grouped the races based on seven categories: safe Republican, likely Republican, leans Republican, toss-up, leans Democratic, likely Democratic, and safe Democratic.

There are eight states that qualify as “safe Republican”, according to the model.  All of these states are currently governed by Republicans who are running for another term.  Additionally, with the exception of Nevada (in which there isn’t yet a credible Democratic challenger) and Iowa (in which there is an extremely popular GOP governor and also not a credible Democratic challenger), all of these states were handily carried by Mitt Romney in 2012.  The state to watch is Alaska, where Independent candidate Bill Walker could shake up the race if he gets traction, giving the Democrat challenger a possibility to win with less than 50% of the vote. 

There are five states in the “likely Republican” category.  Again, all of these states are currently governed by Republicans, but there are three retirements in this camp.  In Nebraska, Republicans have a very strong shot at holding the seat, despite them having their top two recruits already drop out of the race due to scandals.  The Democrats will look to Chuck Hassebrook to pull off the unlikely victory.  In Texas, the high profile race between the likely Republican nominee Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis is much less competitive than made to seem in the media.  Current polls have Davis down by double digits in the deeply conservative state.  Despite the huge Latino population in the state, Democrats are at a huge disadvantage and will have a tough time turning Texas blue.

The same applies for Arizona.  While the Grand Canyon State has elected Democratic Governors recently and is trending bluer as the Latina population increases, it is still a state the GOP has won in every Presidential election since 1996.  Democrats have a chance if Democratic candidate Fred DuVal can consolidate support early and if the GOP primary is a bloody one.

In New Mexico, a state President Obama carried twice, Susana Martinez is running for re-election.  Her approval numbers are fairly high, and unless she makes any large mistakes or the Democratic nominee can rally the Hispanic voters to the polls, Martinez will likely prevail.

Polls in South Carolina show Governor Nikki Haley with a modest lead on her rematch challenger, Vincent Sheheen.  Haley’s approval rating, while not great, has been on the rise, it is still under 50%, and her state’s unemployment is among the highest in the nation at 10.8%.  Sheheen definitely has an opening if he can get a majority of independents to support his bid, but for now, Haley is the favorite.

The states that are leaning Republican are, again, all currently governed by Republicans.  However, the main difference is that those GOP governors’ approval ratings are not especially high, and Democrats have been able to recruit fairly strong challengers.

Beginning in Georgia, Governor Deal faces not just a primary challenge, but also the presence of the likely Democratic nominee, and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, Jason Carter.  If Deal is pushed too far to the right in the primary or if Carter can rally a base of liberals as well as independents, this may turn out to be a toss-up come the fall.

In Kansas, it is much the same story.  Governor Sam Brownback’s approval ratings are in the low 40s, which is pretty low, considering he is a Republican governor of a bright red state.  Furthering his problems are that Democrats have recruited Kansas House minority leader, who has selected a female running mate, something that could help him win the support of women in the state.  The Fix rated this as the 2014 “dark horse” race, and I certainly expect it will be.

Michigan and Ohio are two very similar states in regard to the midterm election.  They are both Midwestern states that voted for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012 (though each by a smaller margin in 2012).  They both elected GOP governors in the 2010 midterms, and they both have governors with modest, but not great, approval ratings.  Further, Democrats will likely have strong candidates to go up against each governor.  The reason these races are still in the “lean Republican” category is because both Rick Snyder and John Kasich have turned around struggling economies in their respective states, and they seem to be reaping the political benefits from those turnarounds.

The four states in the “tossup” column really don’t have much in common with one another.  In Wisconsin, the electorate is deeply polarized after Governor Scott Walker’s crackdown on unions, among other things.  Democrats are hopeful that their likely nominee, Mary Burke, can match the fundraising and enthusiasm levels that Walker is sure to bring to the race.  Wisconsin has traditionally been a swing state, though it has voted for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. 

In Arkansas, popular Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is retiring, giving the GOP a good opportunity for a pickup, as Arkansas has trended more and more conservative since Beebe was first elected.  The Democrats have recruited a strong candidate in Mike Ross, a conservative, ‘blue-dog’ Democrat.  Still Arkansas has become deeply conservative in the past few years, and whichever Republican gets the nomination will likely attempt to tie Ross to Obama.  Current polls have this race as a dead heat.

Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is one of the least popular governors in the entire country, and despite Illinois being a deep blue state, he will have a very competitive race on his hands with whoever wins the GOP nomination.  Four Illinois GOP heavy hitters are vying for the Republican nomination: Bruce Rauner, Dan Rutherford, Kirk Dillard, and Bill Brady, who was the party’s nominee in 2010.  In that year, Brady lost by only a few thousand votes to Quinn, and Governor Quinn is no more popular today than he was four years ago.

Finally, in Maine, Governor Paul LePage, a Tea-Party Republican, is an odd fit for Maine.  In 2010, he won with less than 50% because of a third party Independent candidate, and in 2014, he is again facing an Independent on the ballot.  Polls consistently show both LePage and his Democratic challenger, Mike Michaud with approximately 35 percent of the vote and Independent candidate Eliot Cutler not far behind.  Right now, the race is anyone’s guess, but it certainly seems as if LePage is benefiting from Cutler’s entrance into the race, as he is broadly unpopular throughout the state.

With any other challenger, Democratic Governor Dan Malloy would likely skate to re-election.  However, the Governor will have a re-match against former Ambassador to Ireland, Tom Foley.  Foley is very popular in Connecticut, and this could prove to be another sleeper race for 2014.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott’s problems have been fairly well documented.  Since his election, he has had middling approval ratings, and his state has not had the kind of economic turnaround other states have experienced.  To further complicate his bid for re-election, he will likely face former Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democratic Governor Charlie Crist.  Crist left office with high approval ratings, and despite losing a long-shot Independent bid for Senate in 2010, he remains well known and liked in the state.  Polls currently have Crist leading by mid-to-high single digits.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is the only Republican incumbent in the “Likely Democratic” column.  He remains deeply unpopular in Pennsylvania with both Democrats and Republicans.  Democratic candidate Allyson Schwartz is the likely Democratic nominee (though the primary could turn ugly and become more competitive) and will have the upper hand going into the general election.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was once one of the most popular governors in the nation, but after he failed to stop the legalization of marijuana and implemented gun control measures in his state, his approval ratings have taken a hit.  Former Congressman Tom Tancredo is the likely GOP nominee, and despite being a product of the far right, Hickenlooper will still have a fight on his hands.

Both Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee are retiring, giving the GOP a shot at picking up their seats.  However, in the Bay State, Attorney General Martha Coakley, should she prevail in the primary, will likely face a Republican with little-to-no name recognition in the state.  That isn’t to mention that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one.  However, Coakley was also expected to have an easy path to the Senate to succeed Senator Ted Kennedy, but we all know how that worked out…

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Independent-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee has decided to retire after having terrible approval ratings over the past year or so.  Both the Democratic and Republican nominations are currently wide-open, but Democrats clearly have the edge in this northeastern state.

All of the seats in the “Safe Democratic” section are currently held by Democrats, and that likely will not change.  The only retiring member is Governor Martin O’Malley, whose Lieutenant Governor is running to replace him.  All of these incumbents are either very popular in their state or they do not yet have a GOP challenger, or both.  The state to watch is Maryland, as Democratic candidate Doug Gansler, who is challenging Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown for the nomination, has recently spoken out against the Affordable Care Act.  This could be an issue that divides Democrats in the primary, giving the GOP an opening to present a strong challenger.

In the end, it doesn’t appear (yet) as if 2014 will be a wave year for either party in the governors’ races.  Instead, it will be more of an equalizing year in which states which likely would have voted for Democrats in 2010 (if it had not been for the tea party tidal wave) will revert to being blue.  Democrats still have a chance, especially if they pick up seats in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and yes, even Georgia, to make sweeping gains, but the reverse is also true; the GOP could keep its 30+ seat advantage.  We have more than ten more months to see how things will shake out, and I will continually update the predictions as time goes on.

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