GOP Gaining in Govs Races, Too
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
As goes the presidential race, so goes the battle for governorships - at least in a number of the key contests this year.
The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the second slot on the Republican ticket has enabled GOP presidential nominee John McCain to erase the lead held by his Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama, in national polls. Similarly, in two states - Washington state and North Carolina - the Republican gubernatorial candidates have eaten into, if not erased, the modest lead held for most of the year by their Democratic rivals. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates for governor in Indiana and Missouri also have gained ground.
Some of the shift has to do with the natural tightening of races that happens around this time of year. And part has to do with Palin's energizing of a once-blasé GOP base.
In a cycle in which Democrats have long expected to make modest gains in governorships, the balance of contested seats is now entirely up in the air. Here is a rundown.
Missouri: Jay Nixon (D), Missouri's attorney general, is still favored in the race to succeed the unpopular, and retiring, Gov. Matt Blunt (R). Nixon faces U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who won a bitter GOP primary against state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
The good news for Nixon is that he entered September with $2.4 million in the bank, compared to $1 million for Hulshof. Also, Steelman has been tepid about backing Hulshof, whom she labeled a member of the Washington establishment during the primary.
But Nixon's biggest worry is the Republican presidential ticket's gains in Missouri. McCain was improving in Missouri even before he named Palin to the ticket, and she now looks likely to further energize the rural, conservative and Christian base that Hulshof needs if he is to neutralize the boost that Obama is expected to get from black voters in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Republicans still see it as an uphill race, but it is no longer a lock for Nixon.
North Carolina: The Democrats entered this year's gubernatorial contest with a modest advantage, having maintained an edge in statewide and legislative races even as North Carolina has become more Republican in federal races. But that edge appears to have evaporated.
The recent polling trend shows Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) as - at best - neck and neck with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R). A few Democratic polls even have McCrory modestly ahead. McCrory has gotten a big boost from a clever Republican Governors Association-funded ad that paints Perdue as a status-quo politician. (The Democratic Governors Association has been advertising through an affiliate.) McCrory has also made a good impression in debates.
Obama has maintained a major presence in the Tar Heel State even as he's pulled personnel from neighboring Georgia. A surge in Obama voters is considered vital to a Perdue victory, while the continued popularity of Palin is seen as crucial to McCrory's chances.
Washington state: In the rematch of an exceedingly close 2004 contest, challenger Dino Rossi (R) out-raised and out-spent Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in August. The impact is clear. An automated SurveyUSA poll in early September found Rossi, once consistently trailing in the race, ahead, 48 percent - 47 percent. The shift was most noticeable among women - a potentially alarming trend for a female governor.
The SurveyUSA poll underscored Gregoire's underwhelming two-point primary win over Rossi on Aug. 19. (Under the state's unusual primary system, the top two finishers, regardless of party, face off in the general election.) And while Obama is doing well in Washington state, Republicans contend that Rossi - running as a candidate of change against someone he dismisses as a lifelong politician - might be able to pick off a few change-minded Obama supporters.Democrats blame Gregoire's slippage on technical issues, notably that the primary elections in King County (Seattle) were unusually inconsequential this year, depressing turnout on Aug. 19 in a region that is a major Gregoire base.
Indiana: In Indiana, incumbent GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels once looked vulnerable, but he's so outpaced his Democratic challenger in recent months that it's no longer fair to call him vulnerable.
Former U.S. Rep. Jill Long Thompson (D), who narrowly won a tough primary against architect Jim Schellinger, finds herself down by 18 points to Daniels in an Aug. 29-30 poll from Howey Gauge. Daniels even managed to win 24 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of African Americans in that poll.
Long Thompson has undertaken a major house-cleaning of staff and campaign outposts - never a good sign this late in the campaign. She also earned mediocre marks for her early negative ads, even as Daniels' positive spots have won plaudits. The incumbent, who consolidated his support as Long Thompson was battling Schellinger, has now embarked on another RV listening tour of the state. The initial tour four years ago was seen as crucial in humanizing the former Bush administration number-cruncher and making his victory possible.
Vermont: Aided by an edge in money and name recognition, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, a moderate, is still favored to keep his seat despite a likely surge of support for Obama this fall. Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington is running a credible campaign, but her biggest problem is that a third-party candidate of the left, Anthony Pollina, is running. Pollina has the endorsement of key labor groups and is poised to split the liberal vote, lowering the bar for Douglas.
In a poll commissioned by WCAX-TV conducted Sept. 11-14, Douglas received 48 percent of the vote, Syminton got 33 percent, Pollina garnered 7 percent and 12 percent of those responding were undecided.
A quirk that could benefit Symington is that under Vermont law, a gubernatorial race ending in a plurality goes to the House - the very House that Symington presides over.
Delaware: After a long, spirited but generally clean primary season, the Democrats now have a candidate - state Treasurer Jack Markell, who beat the establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. John Carney, by a little over two percentage points on Sept. 9. Markell will face retired Superior Court Judge Bill Lee (R) and independent Mike Protack, who lost overwhelmingly to Lee in the GOP primary. While Markell's high-spending and somewhat insurgent campaign got a few Democratic noses out of joint, analysts do not expect any rift to hamper the party's outlook for the general election. Democrats were already well positioned to retain the governorship being relinquished by Democrat Ruth Ann Minner even before Delaware Sen. Joe Biden was named as Obama's running mate.
Montana: Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) was already a phenomenon in Montana, and his brass-knuckled Democratic convention speech in August put an exclamation point on it. He's far out-pacing his Republican challenger, state legislator and businessman Roy Brown, in fundraising, and most analysts expect Schweitzer to prevail without too much trouble. If so, his outsized personality will carry the day even as a couple of developments threaten to take the shine off, including a $750 fine for violating a campaign ethics law and a boast that he tampered with 2006 election results in the state. His camp now says the election-tampering comments were made in jest.
New Hampshire: New Hampshire may be a presidential battleground, but the gubernatorial race should be a breeze. Even Republicans concede that Gov. John Lynch (D) should easily defeat state Sen. Joe Kenney and Libertarian Susan Newell.
North Dakota: The Obama camp may consider North Dakota in play, but you couldn't tell from the gubernatorial race, in which Gov. John Hoeven (R) is expected to trounce state Sen. Tim Mathern (D) on his way to a third term.
Utah: In what has been the cycle's least competitive gubernatorial race since day one, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) is skating to reelection victory over Bob Springmeyer (D), a Salt Lake City management consultant.
West Virginia: Not even a scandal over West Virginia University's questionable awarding of a master's degree to his daughter is hurting the re-election prospects of Gov. Joe Manchin (D). Republicans acknowledge that he will easily defeat ex-State Sen. Russ Weeks (R) in November.
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.