Bumpy Ride for Incumbent Govs
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Voters this year already have dumped one governor in the primaries, and political experts predict the electorate is only warming up for the November elections.
At least three of the 26 governors running for re-election are showing up on political endangered lists that successfully predicted the demise of Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) in Alaska 's Aug. 22 primary. The incumbents most often listed as vulnerable are Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, both Democrats.
"If you're looking for turbulence, look at the governors' races," said Rhodes Cook, founder of The Rhodes Cook Letter, a bimonthly subscription newsletterthat tracks state and congressional races. "Governors tend to be more vulnerable. … They are the ones voters identify as the CEOs of their states," he said.
Of the 36 governors' races this November, 10 are open seats — largely because of term limits. Alaska's Murkowski became only the second governor in the nation in more than a decade to lose renomination when he was overwhelmingly defeated in the GOP August primary. The only other governor to hold that distinction in the last decade was Missouri's Gov. Bob Holden (D), defeated in a 2004 primary.
Currently, Republicans hold 28 governorships to the Democrats' 22. However, GOP governors are vacating nine of the 10 open seats this year, leaving the Republican Party more exposed in a year when its prospects nationally are being pulled down by President Bush's low approval ratings.
"You'll see an incumbent or two lose" in the Nov. 7 election, predicted Jennifer E. Duffy, editor and political analyst who specializes in gubernatorial races for The Cook Political Report , which despite its similar name is not affiliated with The Rhodes Cook Letter.
Historically, governorships have a higher turnover than congressional races. Twenty of 36 governorships changed parties in 2002, Cook said. In the 2002 campaign, four incumbent governors lost: Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, all Democrats, and Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum. Compare that to the last congressional election when only U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and seven U.S. House members lost their re-election bids in 2004, Cook said.
Duffy and Lou Jacobson, deputy editor and a state politics columnist at Roll Call , a newspaper that covers Congress, both say incumbent governors in Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin are most embattled and here's why:
- Maryland - Ehrlich is a Republican defending his post in a very Democratic state and has trailed in recent polls behind his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Ehrlich is simply an 'R' in a very `D' state with a strong opponent," said Jacobson.
- Michigan - Granholm is being battered by a weak economy and high unemployment and faces a wealthy Republican opponent, Dick DeVos, the former president of Amway who has spent at least $10 million of his own money on the campaign. "This is a governor who came in with high expectations and hasn't really met them," said Duffy.
- Wisconsin - Doyle has a strong opponent in Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Green, but is in trouble primarily because of a succession of ethics scandals in "ordinarily clean-government Wisconsin," according to Jacobson. A state procurement official, for example, was convicted in a case involving a campaign contributor to Doyle. "The ethics bar is just higher in Wisconsin," said Duffy, who adds: "If some of these things had happened in New Jersey, it wouldn't be an issue." The state ethics board Sept. 1 cleared Doyle and a former deputy of allegations they used their positions to help a major campaign donor get state work.
Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri (R) is another incumbent facing a tougher battle than expected simply because he is a Republican in a blue state at time when President Bush's popularity is low. Carcieri's Democratic challenger is the state's lieutenant governor, Charles Fogarty, who has opened a slight lead over Carcieri, the national independent pollster Rasmussen Reports said in results issued Sept. 5.
Democrats in red states, on the other hand, may have an edge. Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Brad Henry of Oklahoma and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming all have approval ratings above the 60 percent mark in recent polls in states that overwhelmingly voted for Bush in the last election. (For a list of all the candidates in this year's gubernatorial races, check out Stateline.org's interactive elections guide).
Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career had appeared to be sinking, particularly after voters there rejected all four ballot measures backed by the governor in a 2005 special election. However, a tough Democratic primary that weakened his challenger, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, and Schwarzenegger's move to the middle has helped the governor regain his standings in the polls.
"Schwarzenegger gives proof to the adage that there is a second act in politics," said Duffy. In recent weeks, Schwarzenegger endorsed hiking the state's minimum wage and signed a measure forcing pharmaceutical companies to provide discount drug plans to the uninsured, issues that win wide approval, including from Democrats.
Not all incumbents are in trouble. CQ Politics.com rate New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as "safe" Democratic seats. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is listed as a safe GOP seat, according to CQ's governors' scorecard. The Cook Political Report agrees, but adds a few in its 2006 governor race ratings , naming Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and Wyoming Gov. Freudenthal as "solid" Democrats and Connecticut Gov. R. Jodi Rell, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds and Texas Gov. Rick Perry as "solid" Republicans.