The Jam’s 2014 Election Extravaganza, Part 2: Gubernatorial Races

In my last post, I dug into the big picture of the race for control of the House of Representatives.  Today, I’m going to survey the landscape in the nation’s gubernatorial races.  Different states hold their elections at different times, but 2014 is an especially active year, with 35 of the 50 states determining the identity of their next governor.  Gubernatorial races are sometimes more interesting than House or Senate races because they typically hinge more on individual state-level factors than the national mood, and can thus be more idiosyncratic.  How else would you explain recent Democratic governors in Oklahoma and Wyoming and Republican governors in Rhode Island and Connecticut?  Anyway, without further ado, let’s dive in:

First, I want to identify the races where one party is likely to win.  I won’t delve too deeply into these, as the outcomes are not in a tremendous amount of doubt right now.  These are California, Oregon, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island for the Democrats and Alabama, Idaho, South Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Nevada, Tennessee, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas for the Republicans.  Pennsylvania falls into this category as well, but since it involves a party switch, I’m going to talk about it in a little more detail below.

Next, I’m going to go into a little more detail on the closer contests on the ballot this year.  I’m going to start with the races in which one party has a clear, if narrow, advantage (once again, *denotes incumbent).

Pennsylvania: Tom Wolf (D) vs. Tom Corbett (R)*- Rarely is an incumbent governor in so much danger as Tom Corbett is right now.  Wolf has anywhere from a 12- to 25-point lead in the polls, depending on whom you ask.  This probably has less to do with any of Wolf’s characteristics and more with voters’ desire to get rid of Corbett, which is rare in a state which typically gives its governors at least two terms.  But Corbett suffers from one of the worst perceptions possible in politics: the perception that he is letting down Pennsylvania’s children.  Corbett’s deep cuts in education spending were the start.  In addition, he has been criticized for waiting two full years between convening a grand jury to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse by Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky before finally indicting him (Sandusky was ultimately convicted).  During that time span, Corbett approved a $3M grant for his charity, Second Mile, where Sandusky is said to have preyed on many of his victims.  On top of all that, Pennsylvania’s electorate generally leans Democratic, though less so at the state level than at the national level.  Frankly, all Wolf has to do is not make a major mistake, and the statehouse is his for the taking.  Prediction: Democratic pickup

Tom Corbett (R) is in deep trouble in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race.
Governor Tom Corbett (R) is in deep trouble in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race.

Arizona: Fred DuVal (D) vs. Doug Ducey (R)– Generally, states whose electorates lean to one party or another will have a crowded primary field for the party with the edge.  That was certainly the case in Arizona, where State Treasurer Doug Ducey emerged from a field of no less than seven candidates to take on former President of the Arizona Board of Regents Fred DuVal.  What polling we do have in the race suggests a tie, however there’s too few polls to really tell us much about the race as a whole.  Republican incumbent Jan Brewer has had a tumultuous tenure.  Bills passed under her tenure include the controversial immigration bill SB 1070, as well as a bill allowing guns in bars.  She also vetoed SB 1062, a bill that angered many gay rights activists.  These actions had mixed effects on her approval rating.  If DuVal can tie Ducey to Brewer’s more controversial initiatives and increase minority turnout, he has a chance, but right now I’m predicting a Republican hold.

Arkansas: Mike Ross (D) vs. Asa Hutchinson (R)- Governor Mike Beebe (D) has governed Arkansas pretty much the only way a Democrat can: from the center.  This has helped maintain his popularity in an increasingly red state.  Mike Ross hopes to do the same.  When he was in the House of Representatives, he was a prominent member of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, and voiced several concerns with Obamacare as it was making its way through Congress.  This gives him some “street cred” in the state, but as of now, Asa Hutchinson has built a small lead in the polls.  Hutchinson has run largely as a mainstream conservative, which should be enough to get him elected here.  A change in the national mood could impact this race, but ever since the Republican Party retook control of the Arkansas House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans remain the favorites in a race where all else is equal.   Prediction: Republican pickup

Illinois: Pat Quinn (D)* vs. Bruce Rauner (R)- There’s really no reason Pat Quinn should win this race.  I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it in this space.  He’s got two political poison pills working against him: scandal and tax increases.  Fairly or not, Quinn is linked in people’s minds with Rod Blagojevich, whose lieutenant governor Quinn served as.  For those that don’t remember, “Blago” went to federal prison after allegedly attempting to sell President Obama’s old Senate seat.  Quinn also raised taxes across the board to make up a huge state budget shortfall, which he drew criticism for.  But the one thing Democrats are clinging to in this race is the sizable polling error that underestimated Quinn’s vote share in 2010.  It would probably take an even bigger polling error for Quinn to pull this race off, but stranger things have happened in the Land of Lincoln.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Georgia: Jason Carter (D) vs. Nathan Deal (R)*- Nathan Deal should probably be in more trouble than he is, but Georgia is a red state, so it will probably take more than 2 inches of snow or 10 feet of ethics violations to bring him down.  Deal’s approval rating has hovered above the 50% mark recently, so he still stands a decent chance of reelection.  Carter is betting that his name (former Georgia governor and US President Jimmy Carter is his grandfather), increased minority turnout, and Deal’s troubles will propel him to victory, but that’s a lot of factors that have to break just right for him.  Though most polls that have shown Deal with a lead have predicted a slightly smaller minority turnout than in 2010, the last midterm year.  If Georgia Democrats’ GOTV operation is as robust as they say it is, Carter may be able to pull this off.  But for now I’m predicting a Republican hold.

Jason Carter is hoping to knock off an incumbent in Georgia.
Jason Carter is hoping to knock off an incumbent in Georgia.

Ohio: Ed FitzGerald (D) vs. John Kasich (R)*- John Kasich is one of those politicians who, in the words of those old Choice Hotels ads, has been everywhere, man.  He served in Congress from Ohio’s 12th District for 18 years, during the last six of which he was chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee.  After a stint at Lehman Brothers, he decided to run for governor of Ohio in 2010 and ousted incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland.  Kasich suffered some flak over Senate Bill 5, which would’ve limited collective bargaining benefits for public employees.  Ohio voters repealed it in a referendum election, though, after a campaign by the state’s firefighters, police officers, and teachers against it.  Kasich has since governed from the center, seeking to cut taxes while accepting federal money for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.  FitzGerald had a good run as Cuyahoga County Executive, but his gubernatorial campaign never gained much traction.  Most of his campaign staff has resigned, and he is now mostly focused on helping downballot Democrats win.  He wasn’t helped by stories about how he went years without a driver’s license and was seen in a car late at night with a woman who was not his wife.  FitzGerald might have won this election if it had been held in 2012, but for now this looks like a Republican hold.

South Carolina: Vincent Sheheen (D) vs. Nikki Haley (R)*- This is another race where the Democrats are banking on a polling error helping them.  Sheheen surprised many by coming within 4 points of beating Haley despite polling that had her up by 10.  Haley is leading by similar margins this year (RCP’s polling average has her up by 15), but another polling error, combined with an effort by Sheheen to hammer Haley on controversies such as a hacking scandal in which 3.8 million South Carolina residents’ financial information was disclosed, and a high unemployment rate (despite the governor’s best efforts to create jobs) could produce a Sheheen win.  I’m not particularly bullish on his prospects, though, as South Carolina is a red state with a particularly inelastic electorate.  It’s hard to persuade most voters here to change their vote, which is why Haley has the advantage.  Prediction: Republican hold

Now let’s move on to the races where the leader is less clear, and are thus much harder to predict.

Colorado: John Hickenlooper (D)* vs. Bob Beauprez (R)– Many Republicans viewed Hickenlooper’s 2010 victory as the product of unusual circumstances.  The party’s nominee for the office, Dan Maes, despite being involved in several scandals, refused to drop out of the race, spurring immigration hawk Tom Tancredo to enter under the Constitution Party label.  Maes’ vote share slipped so low that the Republican Party was almost designated as a minor party by the state heading into the next election cycle.  Lost in those headlines is the fact that Hickenlooper won a majority of the vote (51.1%) in that election in his own right.  Hickenlooper has suffered a drag on his approval rating due to his support of a gun control bill in the wake of shootings at a theater in Aurora.  Whatever your position on gun control, such a bill does not play well in a sportsman-heavy state like Colorado.  Beauprez comes in with some legislative experience, having served in Congress for two terms.  Polling shows Hickenlooper ahead, but the race has tightened considerably as it has dragged on.  I’m going with a Republican pickup here as well.

Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) signs a controversial gun control bill.
Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) signs a controversial gun control bill.

Connecticut: Dan Malloy (D)* vs. Tom Foley (R)– Connecticut has a history of electing moderate Republican governors.  Jodi Rell, who served two terms in the office, was regarded as an effective one.  So effective, in fact, that Tom Foley, the former US Ambassador to Ireland, nearly rode her coattails to a 2010 win in this deeply Democratic state.  Foley is trying for a rematch, and this time, the fundamentals favor him.  Voters suffered buyer’s remorse almost immediately after Malloy’s election, when his budget proposal contained what many viewed as containing too many tax increases, as well as his cancellation of a $55/person tax refund he had initially promised.  Foley has opened up a polling lead, so I think this race also looks ripe for a Republican pickup.

Florida: Charlie Crist (D) vs. Rick Scott (R)*- This race may be one of the few where the voter’s decision comes down to, “Which candidate do you hate less?”  Both Crist and Scott have spent a fair amount of time in the public eye, and the public isn’t particularly fond of either of them.  The disdain for Scott appears centered around his signing a bill that forced those applying for Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to undergo drug testing, as well as his rejection of federal money to develop a high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando.  Both of these happened in Scott’s first year as governor, however, so he should be able to distance himself from them somewhat.  Crist’s messy divorce from the Republican Party, in which he declined to run for reelection as governor in 2010, ran for a Senate seat, fumbled away a huge primary lead, and left the party to run as an Independent before finally losing, probably acts as a drag on his popularity as well.  Crist cemented his break from the Republicans when he endorsed President Obama for reelection in 2012, then officially joined the Democrats soon after Obama won.  Many party-switchers are viewed with suspicion regarding whether their switches represent real changes in belief, or whether they are simply made out of political expediency.  Polling shows Scott narrowly ahead due to a recent successful ad blitz, but I don’t quite believe the hype.  Prediction: Democratic pickup

Hawaii: David Ige (D) vs. Duke Aiona (R) vs. Mufi Hannemann (I)- If we’re looking to give out an award for “most chaotic race” for this post, Hawaii would win in a landslide.  Ige scored the biggest primary win over an incumbent governor ever in knocking off Neil Abercrombie, but now faces an uncertain path to a general election win, even in true-blue Hawaii.  It’s very hard for a Republican to crack 50% of the vote here, but Aiona may not need to in order to win.  He served as Lieutenant Governor under popular Governor Linda Lingle, and both are generally well-regarded in the state.  Hannemann, the former Democratic Mayor of Honolulu, decided to enter the race as an Independent and will likely siphon votes away from Ige, as his ideology is not that much different from Ige’s.  Hanneman probably expected to be facing Abercrombie, but has shown no signs of exiting the race at this point.  Polling here has been sparse, as is frequently the case in Hawaii races, and there is precedent for a Democratic vote split producing a Republican win here.  I’m just not sure that Hanneman is a strong enough candidate to do that, having been trounced in every statewide election he has run in.  Prediction: Democratic hold

Maine: Mike Michaud (D) vs. Paul LePage (R)* vs. Elliot Cutler (I)- Speaking of vote-splitting producing weird outcomes, that’s precisely what happened in Maine in 2010.  Maine is a fairly idiosyncratic state politically, having a fairly deep independent streak.  It mostly votes Democratic at the federal level, but for awhile had two Republican Senators.  They’ve also elected two Independent governors in the last 35 years (one of whom, Angus King, is now in the Senate).  Tea Party darling LePage was probably too conservative for his state; he has made many controversial comments since assuming office, and has his own budget woes to worry about.  He won the governorship narrowly with about 38% of the vote over Cutler’s 36% after support for Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell deteriorated (she only finished with 19.12%).  Congressman Mike Michaud is a stronger candidate this time around, and if he can keep his supporters from defecting to Cutler, he should be able to pull this one out over a damaged incumbent.  Polling shows a close race, as Cutler’s politics are mostly left-of-center, and like the independent candidate in Hawaii, he is probably draining more votes from Michaud than LePage.  Prediction: Democratic pickup.

Maine Governor Paul LePage (R)
Maine Governor Paul LePage (R)

Kansas: Paul Davis (D) vs. Sam Brownback (R)*- Kansas is another state where a Republican incumbent governor shouldn’t be in a lot of trouble, but Sam Brownback is, as his approval rating has sunk into the 30s in some polls.  Brownback is in a similar situation as Pat Quinn and Tom Corbett: linked to a tax plan that was roundly unpopular despite including deep cuts.  Many Kansans believe it overly shifted the tax burden from higher-income Kansans to the middle class.  They also do not care for Brownback’s proposed cuts to education funding as well.  Brownback’s Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, got a huge boost when over 100 current and former Republican elected officials came together to endorse him.  Polling has also shown Davis opening up a decent-sized lead.  Davis is going to need to fight until the very end, but the race is trending in his direction.  Prediction: Democratic pickup

Wisconsin: Mary Burke (D) vs. Scott Walker (R)*- Scott Walker, that darling of the anti-union right, survived a quixotic recall attempt by Democrats just two years into his term after he tried to limit the ability of public employee unions to undergo collective bargaining and force them to contribute more of their paychecks to their health care plans and pensions.  This caused massive protests during the early days of his governorship and is responsible for his lagging approval ratings.  Former Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce Mary Burke is looking like a stronger candidate than Tom Barrett, whom Walker defeated both in the 2010 general election and the recall election.  Polling here has been surprisingly stable, with Burke staying within 1-4 points of Walker.  In those cases, I tend to favor the incumbent holding on.  Especially in this case, since Walker reportedly may have designs on a 2016 presidential run.  Those dreams would be destroyed if he loses here, so you can bet he’s taking this race seriously.  Prediction: Republican hold

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) is caught in a tight race for reelection.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) is caught in a tight race for reelection.

Michigan: Mark Schauer (D) vs. Rick Snyder (R)*- Snyder, who ran probably my favorite political ad of 2010, is another governor that faces an underwater approval rating.  Snyder passed a law making Michigan a right-to-work state, which like drew the ire of labor groups as in Ohio and Wisconsin.  He also passed a law replacing Michigan’s sliding tax scale with a flat tax, and one that disallowed same-sex domestic partners of public employees from receiving health benefits.  These measures have not proven popular in a Democratic state, and have created an opening for former Congressman Mark Schauer.  Schauer was a reliable Democratic vote in the House, and held on for awhile despite hailing from an R+3 district.  Snyder has a slight polling edge, but I’m going to call him the favorite in the race due to his incumbency advantage.  Schauer is closing the gap, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a race of this.  Prediction: Republican hold

So, as you can see, we’ve got many great races worth following over the next few months.  I’ll let you know either on Facebook or here if there are any significant developments, and I’ll recap them in a future post after Election Day.  To summarize my predictions, I am forecasting that the Democrats will net one governorship, increasing the number they control to 22, with the Republicans controlling 28 statehouses.  Not a huge shift as far as the big picture is concerned, but significant shifts could happen in individual state races to change that forecast.  One significant variable could completely scramble the playing field: the dearth of high-quality polling in these elections.  I’ve tried not to rely too much on polling when making my predictions as a result of this, but I’ll be interested to see how close the pollsters come in predicting the outcomes in these races.

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