Tea Party Could Sway Key Governors' Races
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Carl Paladino, the controversial Republican running for governor in New York, may be the most high-profile gubernatorial candidate from the Tea Party movement, but his race is far from the only one in which the Tea Party is playing a role in determining the nation's governorships.
In at least six other states, Tea Party support was instrumental in deciding the GOP nominee for governor. And unlike Paladino, who trails by a large margin in recent polls, most of these candidates are running competitively against the Democratic candidates, most notably in the important presidential battleground states of Ohio and Florida.
In Ohio, Republican candidate John Kasich openly touts his Tea Party credentials in his bid to defeat incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland. "I think I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party," Kasich told a Columbus crowd earlier this year.
A former congressman, Kasich earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as a budget hawk. According to Mack Mariani, a political science professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Kasich's persona "is earning him the overwhelming majority of the votes from people who are strong supporters of the Tea Party."
Winning the Ohio governorship is critical for Republicans. They need to gain only four seats to take control of the Ohio House. If they can do that, hold their majority in the state Senate and elect Kasich, Republicans will have the upper hand when it comes time to draw new congressional and state district lines in 2011
But can they win?
A number of Tea Party candidates got this far by upending primary opponents who had the support of the GOP establishment. So one of the biggest questions for next week's general election will be whether they can pull off another upset to become governor. While Tea Party candidates for other offices, such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, have been faltering in recent polls, several Tea Party candidates have a good shot at winning at the gubernatorial level.
In Florida's Republican primary, Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, ran as a Tea Party outsider to defeat Bill McCollum, the state attorney general and a long-time congressman. Charles Zelden, a history professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, says Scott's Tea Party supporters became "invisible" once he won the primary. According to Zelden, they've made a strategic decision to let Scott build his own case for lowering taxes and cutting state spending. "By keeping quiet," he says, "they are not making themselves the story."
Polls show Scott essentially tied in his race against Democrat Alex Sink to succeed Governor Charlie Crist, who opted to run for the U.S. Senate. Crist famously quit the GOP this year to run as an independent, when it became clear he would have a difficult time winning the GOP primary against Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio.
The Palin factor
Sarah Palin's endorsement helped Tea Party candidates win the GOP nominations in Minnesota and South Carolina. A key question to be answered next week is whether the backing of Palin, a former governor herself, will help or hurt those candidates when they stand before a broader electorate.
In Minnesota, Republican state Representative Tom Emmer ran as a Tea Party outsider and cruised to an easy victory in the GOP primary. Emmer is running close in polls with U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and is outpacing independent candidate Tom Horner.
In South Carolina, Republican state Representative Nikki Haley has seen a narrowing of her lead over Democrat state Senator Vincent Sheheen in some polls. She hopes to succeed her mentor, Governor Mark Sanford, who is term-limited. Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, survived a nasty primary in which a state senator called her a "raghead." With Tea Party support, Haley bested four-term congressman Gresham Barrett in a runoff when neither secured enough votes in the primary.
The Tea Party candidate in Maine, Republican Paul LePage, has made national headlines on multiple occasions. Once, he told President Obama "to go to hell." Another time, LePage walked out of a press conference after reporters pressed him for details about his wife's homestead exemptions on real estate in both Maine and Florida. Despite these outbursts, or perhaps because of them, polls show LePage leading Democrat Libby Mitchell and well ahead of independent candidate Eliot Cutler. LePage prevailed over six other candidates to become the Republican candidate for governor of Maine, a win that surprised even him.
The GOP is downplaying any infighting with the Tea Party activists, but just like in Delaware, there are tensions. Polls in Colorado show that Republican Dan Maes, a businessman with no political background, is trailing Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Maes also is behind third-party candidate Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman who jumped into the race because he didn't think Maes could win.
Maes beat former U.S. Representative Scott McInnis in the August primary thanks to Tea Party support. But since then, some Tea Party activists have backed away from supporting Maes. Among Maes' missteps: suggesting a Denver bike-sharing program is part of a U.N. conspiracy to control American cities and embellishing his former career as a Kansas police officer on his resume. It turned out that Maes was not an undercover officer, as he had claimed.
Likewise in New York, Paladino, probably the best-known Tea Party gubernatorial candidate, has a slim chance to win, if recent polls are to be trusted. Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo businessman, surprised many when he won the GOP nomination over Rick Lazio, a former congressman. But since then, Paladino has come under fire for making anti-gay marriage remarks, threatening to "take out" a reporter and forwarding racist and pornographic e-mails.
Last week, a Siena College poll found that Democrat Andrew Cuomo had extended his lead over Paladino by a margin of 63-to-26 percent among likely voters. "It's going to take more than a minor miracle by the Paladino campaign to turn the gubernatorial race around," says Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg. Respondents to the poll viewed Paladino more unfavorably than embattled Governor David Paterson, who opted not to run.
Mariani, the professor at Xavier, says Tea Party activists have shown they can make a big impact on fundraising and in primary elections. "But Election Day," she says, "is an important test of the Tea Party's ability to deliver votes in a general election."