At-Risk Gubernatorial Seats Increase
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
Since January, the last time Out There assessed the 11 governorships up in 2008, the contests are swinging to extremes - either getting hotter than ever, or snoozier.
The likelihood of a switch in partisan control of the top spot has grown in at least three states - Missouri, Washington state and North Carolina - and remains high in Indiana, making these races the most vulnerable for the party in control, according to an analysis by Out There.
Meanwhile, depending on who chooses to run, Delaware and Vermont could find themselves breaking out of the "Safe" rating (for a likely win by the controlling party) into the currently vacant "Worth Watching" category. And the other five states? Let's just say the incumbents remain well-ensconced.
Here is the latest rundown of the gubernatorial races on tap this year.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), besieged by low approval ratings, faced such an uphill climb to reelection against Attorney General Jay Nixon (D) that he decided earlier this year to forgo a second term, leaving voters to decide an unexpected open seat.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman are competing for the GOP nod to run in the Aug. 5 primary. Either one would start as an underdog, since Nixon, a veteran campaigner, has been running and raising money for the better part of four years. And whoever wins the GOP spot, after already starting from scratch late in the cycle, won't be able to focus his or her fire on Nixon until after the primary.
The two Republicans seem evenly matched, with the main difference being Hulshof's six terms in Washington, which actually insulate him from the voters' disappointment with Blunt.
In Washington state, Dino Rossi (R) who lost in 2004 to Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) by 133 votes after two recounts, is running again, and over the past few months, he's been gaining ground. According to the independent Elway Poll, Rossi reduced her lead from 13 points in January to five points in April, and in the latter poll, he won independents, 39 percent to 35 percent.
In state, Dino Rossi (R) who lost in 2004 to Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) by 133 votes after two recounts, is running again, and over the past few months, he's been gaining ground. According to the independent Elway Poll, Rossi reduced her lead from 13 points in January to five points in April, and in the latter poll, he won independents, 39 percent to 35 percent. In state, Dino Rossi (R) who lost in 2004 to Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) by 133 votes after two recounts, is running again, and over the past few months, he's been gaining ground. According to the independent Elway Poll, Rossi reduced her lead from 13 points in January to five points in April, and in the latter poll, he won independents, 39 percent to 35 percent.
Both candidates will be well-funded - the race could break state fundraising records by the time it's over. But while Gregoire is playing up her ability to deliver effective governance, she continues to have problems in connecting with voters personally.
Running in a presidential year in this Democratic-leaning state helps Gregoire, especially given the surge in Democratic registration caused by the presidential contest. But that could be neutralized by the Supreme Court's imposition of a top-two, "Louisiana-style" voting system, where the two candidates with the most votes get to run for office, regardless of their party affiliation. That will keep the Libertarian Party, which has shaved a few percentage points from GOP totals in recent elections, out of the final round.
In Indiana, Jill Long Thompson's exceedingly close win in the May 6 Democratic primary matters little: The gubernatorial race is a referendum on Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' turbulent first term.
The governor and the mixed-control Legislature have now enacted a fix to a festering property-tax situation, but it's unclear whether voters will trust it and move on, or whether they will use the election to express their frustrations over taxes and the economy.
The biggest advantage for Daniels will be his sizable fundraising advantage. This spring, the polls have been all over the place, from a neck-and-neck general election contest to a double-digit lead for Daniels.
With North Carolina’s pair of rough primaries finally decided on May 6, voters now face an open-seat gubernatorial matchup: Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) against Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R). Based on history, Perdue should have the edge: The GOP has not won a North Carolina governor's race since 1988, and Perdue is a political moderate with experience.
But McCrory was the Republicans' best bet in the primary field: he, too is moderate (despite some tough rhetoric on immigration), and he should be able to peel away some of the business support that has gone to Democratic gubernatorial candidates in recent elections. But to win, he'll have to exorcise a longstanding bias against Charlotte mayors running for governor.
In Delaware , the sudden drafting of retired Superior Court Judge Bill Lee, after a succession of other Republicans took a pass, could save Republicans from leaving an open governor's chair virtually unchallenged - if Lee accepts before the July 25 filing deadline.
Lee narrowly failed to unseat outgoing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (R) four years ago. But Lt. Gov. John Carney (D) and state Treasurer Jack Markell (D) have been on the trail for more than a year building familiarity with voters, and unless their campaigning gets nastier, either would be favored.
Vermont voters tend to like their incumbents, even if, as in the case of Gov. Jim Douglas, they're Republican. Douglas, a moderate, has played it safe and remained popular. A strong Democratic challenge, in a presidential year in this deep-blue state, could materialize if state House Speaker Gaye Symington runs. But Douglas' political skills leave him favored to earn him a fourth two-year term, especially with Progressive Party candidate Anthony Pollina poised to split the left-of-center vote.
Although recent Montana polling has been scarce, Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) appears to as popular as ever, with his charismatic, populist approach boosted by a strong economic landscape.
Roy Brown, a state senator, former state House majority leader and an oil-and-gas businessman, is joined on the GOP ticket by Steve Daines, a technology executive and founder of a grassroots group that sought to refund the state's billion-dollar tax revenue surplus. But even Republicans concede that Schweitzer hits enough notes with conservatives to make it hard to knock him off.
Defeating New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) won't be easy; as recently as February, he scored a 73 percent approval rating. Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, a Republican elected twice in a Democratic-leaning city, and state Sen. Joe Kenney are potential GOP challengers.
The state GOP is recovering from massive losses in 2006, but they'll get a boost from Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who will make a big November push in the Granite State.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) has boasted sky-high popularity during his first two terms. State Sen. Tim Mathern and House Minority Leader Merle Boucher make a credible Democratic ticket, but the well-funded incumbent remains a heavy favorite.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) has recently been embarrassed by a scandal over West Virginia University's questionable awarding of a master's degree to his daughter. But the flak seems to be hitting the university harder than Manchin, and the state GOP will be hard-pressed to take advantage.
Utah's popular governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), is a virtual lock for a second and reportedly final term, buoyed by strong economic growth. Bob Springmeyer (D), a Salt Lake City management consultant and skeleton athlete (it's a kind of bobsledding) is challenging Huntsman. But while he has some policy experience, his candidacy is the longest of long shots.
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive. He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .