Primary Season Starts, and Governors Could Fall
Holding on to their jobs will be hard enough for all incumbents in the general election this November, when three quarters of the nation's governors will be elected. Unemployment is high. Many state coffers are empty, forcing officeholders to cut services or hike taxes. Voter unrest seems to be growing.
But governors in Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Nevada, Texas and possibly New York face serious primary fights for their own party's nomination. Five governors, including four with primary challengers, are in an even more precarious position, because they took over for their predecessors mid-term, having never been elected governor in the first place.
That's the tough spot Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is in. Quinn could be the first incumbent to lose his bid to be re-seated if he fails to fend off a strong challenger in the state's Democratic primary Tuesday (Feb. 2). Quinn took office little more than a year ago, after the impeachment and removal of Rod Blagojevich.
"There's 700 days or so until the next swearing-in," Quinn said , after taking the oath of office. "I certainly hope that all of us can work together, band together and believe in the principle that 'Together We Can.'"
But talk of unity is long gone, and now Quinn is clinging to the governor's seat.
Quinn inherited a tough situation when he took over for Blagojevich, who was arrested on federal corruption charges in December 2008, accordng to Chicago political analyst Thom Serafin. The state budget was in shambles.
"It's like flying a plane without gas and trying to land it, and all of a sudden the pilot takes a parachute and bails," Serafin said.
Quinn quickly came under fire when he proposed hiking the state income tax to close the ballooning deficit, a proposal that died in the House. He also vetoed an ethics bill passed in the wake of the Blagojevich scandal, even though he earlier supported it.
A strong primary opponent emerged in Dan Hynes, the third-term state comptroller who finished a distant second in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary to Barack Obama.
Hynes has questioned Quinn's ability to govern effectively. The attack started to stick after The Associated Press reported that more than 1,700 prisoners were released after just a few weeks' incarceration, a program Quinn later called "a big mistake."
Hynes' campaign also released an ad showing decades-old video ( YouTube ) of the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington, an icon in the city's black community, explaining why Washington fired Quinn from a post in city government. Hiring Quinn, Washington said, "was perhaps my greatest mistake in government."
Quinn has fought back. He accused Hynes of sitting on the sidelines during last year's contentious budget negotiations and repeatedly referred to the comptroller as an "ankle-biter." He attacked Hynes, whose duties long included cemetery regulation, for failing to discover that hundreds of remains were dug up and their plots resold at an historically black cemetery.
Quinn will be the first governor this year to take on a formidable challenger from his own party, even before thinking about the general election against a Republican. (The crowded GOP primary for governor is also Tuesday.)
But several other intraparty fights lie ahead. "It's the second-hardest thing to do in American politics. The first is to unseat a sitting president. The second is to take out a sitting governor in a primary," said Jennifer Duffy, the senior editor at The Cook Political Report .
Ambitious challengers "smell blood in the water" this year, especially because so many of the new governors haven't been elected to the state's top spot, Duffy said. Assuming the governorship on short notice also means that the incumbents often haven't had a chance to build political or fundraising operations to keep them in office.
"The worst part of it is that it's really tough to do it in this economy. They didn't inherit a budget surplus. They didn't inherit low unemployment. They just inherited things that are hard to deal with and not very popular," she said.
Quinn certainly took advantage of his position as governor in the closing days of his primary campaign to bring his constituents good news. He announced a new Ford plant in Chicago. He traveled downstate to highlight new high-speed rail projects. And he went to Northern Illinois University to promise millions of dollars to renovate a building where a gunman killed five students two years ago.
He also claimed a few victories during his tenure, too. Lawmakers approved the state's first public works bill in a decade. On the one-year anniversary of Blagojevich's arrest, Quinn signed a revamped ethics bill that, for the first time in Illinois, limits the size of campaign donations.
But he still found himself talking about tax hikes and the state budget on Sunday (Jan. 31). During a radio show he said he had "cut all the frills out of state government."
"But the bottom line is we still need more revenue to pay for fundamental things like health care and education, and I don't want to lose a generation of children. So I proposed a tax reform that would get more revenue for Illinois," Quinn said, according to the Chicago Tribune .
Many other recently installed governors face similar pressures. Several, like Quinn, called for big tax increases that could hurt them on Election Day.
In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is taking heat for supporting a sales tax increase. Brewer, the former secretary of state, moved up after Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, left to join President Obama's Cabinet in early 2009. The shift put the GOP firmly in control of Arizona state government, but the Republicans have been fighting with each other ever since. The biggest point of contention has been how to close the state's yawning budget gaps.
Brewer called for a three-year sales tax hike, drawing attacks from the strong anti-tax faction of Arizona Republicans. Her plan to ask voters to approve the increase failed to get out of the Senate. Now Brewer faces a crowded field in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, including State Treasurer Dean Martin. The winner will likely run against Attorney General Terry Goddard (D) in November.
New York Gov. David Paterson's popularity with New Yorkers has plummeted, partly because of his handling of state budget negotiations, which raised taxes and fees by $6 billion last year, and also because of his stumbling appointment of a U.S. senator to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Paterson, a Democrat, has struggled to find his footing since taking over in 2008 for Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a sex scandal. Many insiders expect Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, to jump in the race for governor this year.
Paterson has trailed in polls pitting him against Cuomo, who many observers, including the White House, have indicated would be the stronger candidate. The governor recently criticized Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo and a member of President Clinton's Cabinet, of hiding in a "candidate-protection program" and called on Cuomo to "stop ducking the hard questions," the New York Post reported .
In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin's surprise resignation last summer after her failed run for the vice presidency thrust Sean Parnell into the governor's office. He, too, could face a nail-biter in the Aug. 24 Republican primary against two other candidates.
Primary defeats are rare for governors , but it happened in the last Alaska Republican primary. In 2006, Palin ousted then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.
One of the country's hottest gubernatorial primaries, however, involves the nation's second-longest-serving governor.
Next month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry faces off against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary in his bid for an unprecedented third four-year term. Perry first became governor in 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency.
Debra Medina, a conservative former head of the Wharton County GOP, also is running a campaign for Texas governor that has drawn in national Republican figures, including Palin and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons' hold on the governor's office also is in jeopardy, even though he won the office in an election four years ago. The worst budget crisis in state history competes for voters' attention with Gibbons' messy divorce and other personal controversies. The governor will face Brian Sandoval, the first Hispanic federal judge and a former attorney general, in a June Republican primary along with Mike Montandon, former mayor of North Las Vegas.
Nevada voters may not remember or care that the governor rejected lawmakers' $781 million tax increase, because the Democratic-controlled statehouse overrode his veto.
In Utah, though, a replacement governor hasn't yet drawn a primary opponent.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) took office last August after President Obama tapped former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) as U.S. ambassador to China. Herbert will run for office in his own right this fall in a special election.
"This is going to be one of these unusual cycles where the history books will show us that a number of governors lost in primaries. But I'm not sure there's anything huge we can read into it," Duffy said.