Few Incumbent Governors Likely to Fall

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh, the Associated Press

Complaints about lost jobs and higher taxes follow Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, all over his state. His Republican rival, Charles Baker, says Patrick's record as governor shows that it is time for the incumbent to go. A new Baker ad drives the point home. Its message is simple: "Want change? Change governors."

Baker claims that Governor Patrick has no real plans to grow jobs and turn the state's economy around. A recent jobs report provided more grist for Baker's mill. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the Bay State lost 21,000 jobs in September, the worst monthly total in nearly two decades.

There are other reasons why Patrick is an obvious target. Once, he benefited from his alliance and longtime friendship with Barack Obama; but now, being close to the president is at best a mixed blessing. It was, after all, Massachusetts that rebuked Obama and handed the first major victory to the Tea Party movement this year, electing Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years.

But for all those advantages, Baker has not managed to break through. The race between him and Patrick is still close, but Patrick has a small lead in most recent polls. It is just one more reminder that knocking off incumbent governors is no easy task.

In fact, only three of the 13 governors asking voters for a new term on Tuesday are behind in the polls. All three of those are Midwestern Democrats: Chet Culver of Iowa , Pat Quinn of Illinois and Ted Strickland of Ohio. They seem to be caught up in a larger Midwest shift that could sweep Republicans into governorships from Des Moines to Harrisburg. For the rest of the incumbent crop, though, a variety of factors has helped them maintain a lead.

Only one governor — Republican Jim Gibbons of Nevada — was ousted in a primary this year. The other 13 who wanted re-nomination got it. Those sitting governors are split almost evenly between parties, seven Democrats and six Republicans.

A tough term

During their time in office, the group of 13 has been a beleaguered bunch. All but three of them took office in 2007 or later, meaning the vast majority of their time at the helm has been during the national recession or the slow recovery from it. But forces other than the economy have buoyed many of their incumbent candidacies.

Arizona Republican Jan Brewer is one governor who has used the power of incumbency to keep challengers at bay. Brewer rose from secretary of state to governor  in early 2009 when her predecessor left for a job in the Obama administration. She looked vulnerable at the beginning of the year. Three Republicans lined up to challenge her in the primary and one of the best-known Democrats in the state, Attorney General Terry Goddard, set his sights on her for the general election.

But after finally brokering a budget deal that included a voter-approved tax hike, Brewer solidified her standing by signing — and then vigorously defending — an immigration enforcement bill that earned her national attention. Two of her primary opponents backed off before the election, and now she appears to be in the driver's seat for Tuesday's face-off against Goddard, too.

Meanwhile, Arkansas' popular Democratic incumbent Mike Beebe is cruising comfortably toward reelection, even as fellow Democrat Blanche Lincoln trails badly in polls in her bid to keep her U.S. Senate seat in the same state. Data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows Beebe has amassed nearly $4.2 million in his campaign war chest, compared to his Republican opponent's $350,000. In fact, Beebe has collected more just from lawyers and lobbyists — $422,000 — than GOP challenger Jim Keet has raised in total. A poll by the Arkansas News Bureau/Stephens Media this month showed Beebe with a 26-point lead over Keet.

Even without the money of his Republican challenger, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch started with the advantage of high approval ratings as he seeks an unprecedented fourth two-year term. Republican John Stephen is giving Lynch his most formidable challenge yet, but Lynch still leads in the polls.

Friendly turf

The political landscape of the states with incumbents seeking new terms is also a key factor. All six Republican incumbents trying to keep their seats are west of the Mississippi River, in some of the most Republican states in the union, such as Idaho, Utah and Alaska. In Nebraska, Democrats had to scramble at the last minute just to find a challenger to Governor Dave Heineman.

The partisan makeup of Texas is working in favor of incumbent Rick Perry, a Republican. The state's unemployment rate is at 8.1 percent — lower than the national average but high enough to fuel political attacks in similarly situated states, such as Iowa and Massachusetts. "There is no doubt that the partisan make-up of the state is shielding Rick Perry from a fairly devastating critique on the unemployment rate," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

Democrats, on the other hand, are benefiting from a friendly partisan tilt in Maryland. There, Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley faces a rematch with his predecessor, Republican Robert Ehrlich, in an electorate whose better than 2-to-1 Democratic registration advantage gave O'Malley a big head start, regardless of the economy. Ehrlich initially gained ground on O'Malley, but now it appears that the incumbent is pulling away .

A similar dynamic is playing out in Massachusetts. "The biggest factor in this race," explains Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry, "is that there are more Democrats than Republicans in this state, by a 3-to-1 margin ."

But the victory of Brown, the Republican who won the U.S. Senate seat in a special election last year, was possible because of abysmal turnout by Democrats. Half of all Massachusetts voters are not affiliated with either party, compared to one-third who are Democrats and one-tenth who are Republicans. Baker would need to win almost all of the independents to beat Patrick, Berry says.

Another major consideration is that Massachusetts has fared better than the nation as a whole during the recession. Its unemployment rate of 8.4 percent is significantly lower than the national figure of 9.6 percent. Patrick has touted job creation throughout his governorship, especially in the areas of life sciences and Cape Wind, the project to produce electricity with offshore wind turbines.

That may mean that despite the job losses, Massachusetts voters are in a better mood than those in Florida, Nevada, California or other states hit harder by the recession, Berry says. "We see a bright future ahead. There's a lot more optimism in Massachusetts than in the rest of the country."


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