Govs Races Kick It Up a Notch
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
In this column's latest assessment, each of these three governorships moves up a notch in vulnerability, from "Worth Watching" (the middle category) to "Vulnerable" (the highest). Meanwhile, the other eight 2008 gubernatorial races stand much as they did in August, although there are indications that strong candidates from the out-of-power party could enter races in North Carolina, Delaware and Vermont, potentially shaking up those contests.
All told, if the election were held today, the Democrats would stand to gain one or two seats, adding to their current lead of 28 governors to 22 Republicans.
Here is a rundown of the 11 gubernatorial races on tap this year:
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is the most vulnerable governor seeking re-election, with even some Republicans conceding the race now leans to Attorney General Jay Nixon (D). Blunt's biggest problem has been the fallout from his decision to cut roughly 100,000 people from the Medicaid rolls early in his term. Blunt has been further battered by the complicated, but slowly unfolding story of Scott Eckersley, a state lawyer who clashed with his superiors over how long to retain e-mails under the law. Eckersley was fired and now accuses the administration of smearing him.
As recently as a few months ago, it seemed Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) had moved past some of the biggest problems from early in his term, including an unpopular toll-road lease and a complicated change in time-zone policy. But anger over rising property taxes and growing pessimism about the state's economy have made all incumbents in Indiana targets, Daniels first among them. On Election Day 2007, voters stunned political observers by tossing out Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, a result blamed on the tax issue. Mayors were also booted in nine other Indiana towns, even though many of these locales boasted factories built or expanded in recent years - "an all-too-real reminder that big economic gains are not enough to power the presiding executive to further terms," the Indiana-based Howey Political Report wrote, in a clear reference to Daniels' re-election strategy.
The big development in Washington state is that Republican Dino Rossi, after a long period of indecision, is now officially challenging Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), who beat him after two recounts by 133 votes in 2004. Rossi has come out of the gate quickly, raising well over $1 million in the weeks following his announcement. That's still several million short of Gregoire's cash account, but Rossi will be able to add to his haul early in 2008, whereas Gregoire will be barred from fundraising when the Legislature is in session. Rossi's message has been to blast cumbersome state government - using Gregoire, a career government official, as exhibit A - and 23 consecutive years of Democratic governors.
Democrats have won five straight gubernatorial elections in otherwise red-state North Carolina , and with two strong primary contenders duking it out to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Easley - Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and state Treasurer Richard Moore - the winner would be well-positioned to become the next governor. However, the possible candidacy of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory would shake up what even Republicans concede has been an unexciting GOP field that for now includes former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, state Sen. Fred Smith and lawyer Bill Graham. In McCrory's favor would be his name identification in the sizable Charlotte media market and his ties to business leaders, some of whom have tended to give generously to Democratic governors for pragmatic reasons. The big downside is that North Carolinians outside of Charlotte tend to view politicians from the state's biggest city with suspicion; in 2000, former mayor Richard Vinroot lost the open-seat governorship to Easley. If the two Democrats can avoid damaging each other in the primary, either one would be a favorite in the general - but McCrory alone would make it competitive.
As Delaware Democrats try to retain the seat held by term-limited Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the primary battle between Lt. Gov. John Carney (D) and state Treasurer Jack Markell (D) is heating up. Polls are scarce, but Carney is thought to be ahead, albeit by a decreasing margin. Republicans hope for two things: a rough Democratic primary that leaves the loser's supporters dejected, and the entry into the race by Alan Levin (R), a moderate former U.S. Senate aide who last year sold his family's Happy Harry's drug store chain to Walgreens. Analysts think Levin is 80 percent likely to run. Either Democrat would be favored, especially in a presidential year, but Levin would be a credible challenger.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) remains a strong favorite to win a second term, thanks to a charismatic, populist approach that sells in Big Sky country. But while his popularity remains high - 63 percent in a recent Montana State University-Billings poll - his take-no-prisoners style has made some enemies. Now he has a genuine opponent: Roy Brown, a GOP state senator, former state House majority leader and an oil-and-gas businessman. While his voting record is conservative, Brown has often outperformed other Republicans in his district. Schweitzer led Brown, 55-30, in a December Mason-Dixon poll, but that gap could narrow as the race progresses.
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) hasn't given his opponents many openings as he seeks his fourth two-year term in one of the nation's bluest states. However, Democrats hope Douglas could be vulnerable in a presidential year, given recent trendlines: Vermont was the only state that gave U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a bigger margin for president than it did Democrat Al Gore (20 points, up from 10). The biggest obstacle will be finding someone who can unite liberal voters. Former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (D) is considering a bid, but unless Progressive Party candidate Anthony Pollina defers to him, which is considered unlikely, the center-left vote could fracture, leaving Douglas with an open path to re-election.
As he grapples with challenges in school funding and the state retirement system, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) may not duplicate his stunning 74 percent share of the vote as he runs for his third two-year term in 2008. But he's got a big margin for error, and he benefits from the continued disorganization of the state GOP, which lost both chambers of the Legislature and both U.S. House seats in 2006.
Highly popular North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) is aiming to become the first person in state history to win three four-year terms. He should have little trouble, particularly given his likely fund-raising edge, though state Sen. Tim Mathern (D) is running an aggressive campaign and another Democratic legislator or two are weighing a bid.
Republicans and Democrats alike agree that West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III - the newly installed chairman of the Democratic Governors Association - will cruise to re-election.
None of the limited pool of rising-star Democrats in Utah is foolhardy enough to take on the Beehive State's wildly popular governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), as he seeks a second - and reportedly final - term.