Editor’s Note: Last week, Larry Sabato examined the 2009 and 2010 races for governor taking place in the Northeast and Midwest. This week, in part two of his analysis, he analyzes the Southern and Western races.
Counting New Jersey and Virginia in 2009, 39 of the 50 governorships will be decided in the next thirteen months. Twenty-one of these statehouses are currently held by Democrats, and eighteen by Republicans, as the map below shows.
There are 19 open governor’s races in 2010 without an incumbent running (plus one in Virginia in 2009), balanced almost evenly between the two parties (9 D, 10 R). See the chart below for the electoral status of all incumbent governors.
Without furter ado, a look at the current state of the Southern and Western gubernatorial races:
Alabama: Gov. Bob Riley (R) is term limited. This deeply conservative state, where Barack Obama did poorly, naturally tilts to the GOP. Congressman Artur Davis (D) hopes to change that, and this impressive African American is the probable Democratic nominee. But even Davis’s fervent admirers admit he’ll have an uphill climb against the Republican candidate that emerges from a large field of contenders. Davis has to hope that the GOP splits asunder in the nominating process, and one of the weaker candidates is nominated.
Arkansas: Gov. Mike Beebe (D) is all but reelected for his second term. The Republican Party cannot find a good candidate to oppose the very popular Beebe, despite John McCain’s Razorback landslide in November 2008.
Florida: Gov. Charlie Crist (R) shocked his state and decided against a second gubernatorial term, preferring to seek an open U.S. Senate seat. Crist, who has presidential ambitions, is the favorite in both his primary and, if nominated, the general election, even though former Gov. Jeb Bush and his supporters do little to hide their dislike of the more moderate Crist. But Crist’s departure from Tallahassee gives the Democrats a fair to good shot at the governorship for the first time since Lawton Chiles won his second term in 1994. State CFO Alex Sink, a mild-mannered banker originally from North Carolina, will be the Democratic nominee and might become the first woman governor of the Sunshine State. The GOP nominee, state Attorney General Bill McCollum, has the unified backing of his party, though he has already lost two U.S. Senate contests in Florida. There is little doubt this will be a closely fought, competitive election. Sink appears to project better than McCollum, but McCollum might be helped by the GOP nature of the 2010 midterms as well as Crist’s position at the top of the ticket, assuming he defeats conservative Mario Rubio in the party primary.
Georgia: Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is term limited. His Democratic predecessor, Gov. Roy Barnes, is the surprise early frontrunner to win his party’s nod for the second term that Perdue denied him in 2002. Barnes’ defeat was one of the great upsets that year, and he retains high name identification and Democratic support. Yet many observers wonder whether the arrogance Barnes showed in blowing his likely reelection is just temporarily under wraps. Barnes will be tested by several other candidates in the primary, such as state House Minority Leader Dubose Porter and Attorney General Thurbert Baker, and he’s not yet an absolute lock. The Republicans have a rich field of potential nominees that has not sorted itself out–which also means they could choose unwisely or split asunder in the process. The Peach State might be the site of an amazing Democratic comeback in 2010, but most state analysts still give the GOP the edge, with prominent Republican candidates such as Secretary of State Karen Handel, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, and Congressman Nathan Deal. No undisputed frontrunner has yet emerged on the GOP side.
Oklahoma: Gov. Brad Henry (D) is term limited. The Sooner State is so rock-ribbed Republican that it is always a surprise when a Democrat like Henry wins. Normally, we’d be safe in tipping an open seat to the GOP, and it may well go to Congresswoman (and former Lt. Gov.) Mary Fallin (R) in the end. Yet the Democrats have two potent contenders, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins. Either Fallin or Askins would the state’s first woman governor. This one should be competitive, though Sooners have turned more Republican in the Obama era–a reality that may boost any GOP nominee.
South Carolina: Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is term limited, and just about everyone is grateful for that. Sanford has become a tremendous embarrassment to the proud Palmetto State, and his cavalier abandonment of duty to pursue eye-popping adultery with an Argentine “soul mate” has made association with Sanford the kiss of death. He only remains in office because few appear to want Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R) to succeed to the governorship, even though Bauer has (more or less) pledged not to seek a full term if he succeeds to the top post. Whatever happens on succession, you can be sure that only a clean, upstanding, maybe even boring politician will win here in 2010. On the GOP side, Congressman Gresham Barrett (R) or state Attorney General Henry McMaster (R) may fit the bill, but for once, having an “R” next to one’s name on the ballot may prove at least a slight detriment. Democrats are pinning their hopes on Education Superintendent Jim Rex, who was elected statewide and is well regarded. Rex is only exploring a bid at this point. Youthful state Sen. Vincent Shaheen is definitely running. It’s possible to imagine a Rex victory, but it is always a giant upset when a Democrat wins in South Carolina. The added controversy involving Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), who shouted “you lie!” at President Obama recently, underlined the importance for South Carolinians of choosing candidates who will not embarrass the state. One certainty is that Mark Sanford will never be in major public office again. Incredibly, he was once viewed as a possible presidential candidate, which just goes to show how little we actually know about some people who seek the White House. John Edwards in next-door North Carolina proves the point anew in a bipartisan way.
Tennessee: Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is term limited. This one is unquestionably leaning Republican, but which Republican? Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam may have the inside track, though Congressman Zach Wamp is fighting hard, among others. Democrats simply don’t have a top-drawer choice for 2010. The state voted heavily for McCain and will probably end the eight-year Democratic reign in the statehouse as well. Instinctively, most political observers believe the Volunteer State will be volunteering for the GOP in 2010.
Texas: Gov. Rick Perry (R) is trying for an unprecedented third four-year term. If he wins it, he will serve as governor for 14 consecutive years, having inherited half of George W. Bush’s second term from 2000-2002. After Perry’s paltry 39% in a multi-candidate race in 2006, few thought he could achieve his goal, especially since popular U. S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is challenging him for re-nomination in the GOP primary. Yet Perry has shrewdly moved well to the right, even mentioning possible secession for Texas from Obama’s America. In most states, this kind of extremism would have meant political termination, but this is Texas, where the Republican Party base is exceptionally conservative. Perry is leading Hutchison in some polls, though in recent samplings, Hutchison appears to have come back fully into contention. She has the financing and name identification to make this Perry’s toughest fight. Her best argument is that Perry might conceivably lose the general election to a Democrat, such as former Bush Ambassador Tom Schieffer (brother of CBS’s Bob Schieffer) or perhaps Houston Mayor Bill White (if he can be convinced to switch from the Senate contest). A Democratic upset is a stretch, of course. Many think Perry has worn out his welcome with a large portion of the Lone Star electorate, and an “anybody-but-Perry” effort might actually pull off a November win. Should Hutchison be the GOP gubernatorial nominee, though, she will win easily.
Virginia: Gov. Tim Kaine (D) is term limited after just four years in office. The general election is between Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell, and it is competitive. When Deeds and McDonnell faced off for state attorney general in 2005, McDonnell won by a mere 360 votes out of over 1.9 million cast. Deeds was the upset winner of a primary featuring former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, a native New Yorker who had little chance to win the general election. McDonnell has history on his side since Virginians have chosen the non-White House party for the governorship in every election since 1977. However, Deeds has two popular Democrats, Sen. Mark Warner and, to a lesser extent, Gov. Kaine, in his corner, plus a Democratic trend that saw the state give its electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2008. (You have to go all the way back to LBJ in 1964 to find another Democrat who carried the Old Dominion.) However, Deeds does not have former Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), who snubbed Deeds and refused to endorse him. (They disagree about gun control, taxes, and other matters.) So far McDonnell has maintained a lead in almost all the polls, due in large part to a drop in President Obama’s popularity in the state, which is due to a bad economy and the health care reform controversy. But McDonnell’s lead shrunk as he became mired in an unusual hullabaloo about his 1989 graduate school thesis at Pat Robertson’s Virginia Beach college. McDonnell expressed some highly conservative, even explosive social issue views about working women (he thought they hurt the family), contraception (he didn’t like the idea, even for married couples), and gays (lumped with fornicators and other sinners). McDonnell hints that he’s changed his outlook, at least on working women, though Democrats point to socially conservative bills sponsored by the Republican during his time in the state legislature. The thesis has hurt McDonnell considerably in vote-rich Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Deeds has essentially come out for raising the gas tax to pay for transportation, and no-tax-increase McDonnell is using that unpopular stand for all it is worth, and has re-built a more substantial lead. Given the GOP drift of the off-year, we believe McDonnell still has the edge, and a win by Deeds would count as an upset. In Deeds’ favor is the fact that he has been an upset-puller, both in finishing so close to the favored McDonnell in 2005, and in coming back from third place to capture the 2009 Democratic nomination in the June primary.
Alaska: Gov. Sean Parnell (R), who has recently succeeded the resigned Sarah Palin (R), is running for his first elective term. Parnell is a Palin ally, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that status. With Palin’s backing, he nearly dethroned long-time Congressman Don Young in a 2008 GOP House primary. No doubt, Parnell is grateful he lost that close one since he inherited a better job. But Palin has become much more controversial, even in Alaska, and Parnell will have to work hard to distinguish himself and establish his own record. Alaskans have an independent mind. For Parnell, so far so good. Not surprisingly, state legislators and the news media like Parnell far better than Palin, who was often inaccessible and unprepared. Parnell has the initiative and incumbency, and to this point he has utilized both effectively to achieve wide popularity. If he continues to make the right moves, he could nail down the 2010 election early. If he changes and becomes Palin-like, he will guarantee himself strong GOP and Democratic opposition. Right now, we’d bet Parnell will win his own term.
Arizona: Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is the former secretary of state who succeeded Gov. Janet Napolitano when she resigned to become President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security. Brewer is now seeking her first elective term. Once considered far-right, Brewer has moderated as governor–both a strength and a weakness. Within the GOP, her support of some tax increases has raised the hackles of the party base, and a primary challenge is inevitable. State Treasurer Dean Martin, just 34 and no relation to the late crooner, may run, and multimillionaire businessman Robert Graham already is. On the other hand, Brewer’s new image could make her more acceptable in a general election environment, assuming she gets there and the economy improves by next November. The Democratic nominee will be state Attorney General Terry Goddard, and he will present a vigorous challenge. Goddard is leading Brewer in the polls, and it is clear she has a tough reelection contest.
California: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) cannot seek reelection, and he has probably run out his string anyway. The Golden State is badly tarnished–again–by a continuing deep fiscal crisis, the result of decades of profligacy. The voters have played a major role by passing initiatives that tied the state’s hands on taxes and spending. The largest state is a giant mess, and it’s a wonder anyone wants to be governor. But four major candidates have emerged. On the Democratic side, state Attorney General Jerry Brown is running for a third, definitely nonconsecutive term as governor. He was first elected to the post in 1974 and 1978, and if successful in 2010, Brown would attain the status of having been California’s youngest and oldest governor. His main Democratic opponent is Hollywood-handsome but controversial San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, recently endorsed by former President Bill Clinton–still sore at Brown for the attacks against Clinton during their 1992 Democratic presidential battle. Brown is seen as the early favorite in the Democratic primary, though there is a palpable lack of enthusiasm for either Brown or Newsom. The main Republican contenders are ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, with former Congressman Tom Campbell also in the race. The frontrunner once appeared to be Whitman, but she has showed again that candidates never before elected to public office are a risk. A Sacramento Bee investigation showed that Whitman was not registered to vote in California before 2002 and had no GOP registration before 2007; she also rarely cast a ballot in elections in any of the six states in which she has lived. These revelations have seriously damaged Whitman’s campaign, though maybe politics-averse California won’t care much about her lack of civic responsibility in the end. Poizner might benefit since he is a statewide elected official. It’s also possible that the wealthy Whitman and the rich Poizner will bombard each other with negative TV ads, creating an opening for the underfinanced but well qualified Campbell. With California appearing ungovernable, Golden State voters appear to be so disgusted with everyone that it is difficult to say where this contest will go. A heavily Democratic state should normally elect a Democratic governor, but is anything normal about California these days?
Update (December 2, 2009): San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he will drop his bid for California governor after a campaign marked by poor fundraising, leaving state Attorney General Jerry Brown (a former governor already) a clean path to the Democratic nomination.
Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) wants a second term, but votershave mixed views of his governorship so far. Even within his own party, Ritter has alienated organized labor with a series of vetoes of union-backed bills. Two major Republicans have lined up to oppose him, and either of them, former Congressman Scott McInnis or state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, might be able to make a race of this one. How Ritter fares in the next year matters, and so does the state of the economy and the popularity of President Obama, who won this usually Red state handily. This is no slam-dunk for the incumbent.
Update (November 9, 2009): Josh Penry has dropped out to endorse fellow Republican Scott McInnis. While Democrats crow that the GOP lost a star candidate, Republicans can breate a little easier with a high-profile primary seemingly avoided.
Hawaii: Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is term limited, and almost no one believes that her chosen successor, Lt. Gov. James Aiona (R), will win. Hawaii is just too Democratic a state in the age of its son, Barack Obama, and Lingle was lucky to get her two terms. Which Democrat will follow Lingle? It will be either Congressman Neil Abercrombie or Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
Idaho: Gov. Butch Otter (R) wants a second term, and in this overwhelmingly GOP state, it will be his. This one will be a snoozer.
Nevada: Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) says he’s running for a second term, but you can’t find odds even in Las Vegas that he’ll last beyond 2010. Many are betting the governor won’t run in the end. Gibbons has been involved in a soap opera sex scandal since he took office, with a divorcing first lady and tales of sexual harassment. Consistently and deeply unpopular, he could lose in the GOP primary to former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, the first Hispanic federal judge from Nevada who resigned the lifetime post to prepare for the 2010 election. The Democrats are set to nominate Rory Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who’ll also be on the 2010 ballot for reelection, which is awkward). Ironically, Harry Reid secured a judgeship for Sandoval to get him out of politics a few years back; now Sandoval may end up running against Reid’s son, and Sandoval is the favorite in both the primary and the general election. The dynasty factor and his father’s current unpopularity appear to be hurting Rory Reid’s chances. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman makes noises about running as a Democrat or an Independent but he probably won’t do it. It must be counted as remarkable that, with smarmy sex scandals weighing down both of Nevada’s top Republicans, Gov. Gibbons and Sen. John Ensign, the Republican nominee (if Sandoval) will be the initial favorite to win.
New Mexico: Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is term limited. With his luster dimmed after an unsuccessful run for president in 2008 and a brush with a lobbying scandal, Richardson may not have much influence on the choice of his successor. Yet his lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, is in a good position. Denish nearly became governor when Richardson agreed to become the Obama Commerce Secretary before withdrawing, and was actually preparing her “administration.” Finally, she may get to put those plans in motion. Partly because of a growing Hispanic voting population, New Mexico has become an increasingly Democratic state after decades as one of America’s most competitive bellwethers. (People forget that New Mexico was even closer than Florida in 2000; Gore won it by a mere 366 votes compared to Bush’s 537-vote squeaker in the Sunshine State.) Obama captured New Mexico by 15% in 2008, and Democrats control the entire congressional delegation. The only real obstacle standing between Denish and the governor’s office is former Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R), if the GOP is willing to give her its nomination despite her moderate tendencies. Denish would probably be favored over Wilson, too.
Oregon: Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is term limited. His two-term predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), could be his successor now that Kitzhaber has indicated he wants another term. Not all Democrats are vacating the field, though. Secretary of State Bill Bradbury wants to joust with Kitzhaber, and it is possible (if unlikely) that Congressman Peter DeFazio will run, too. While Oregon is the last two-party competitive state on the West Coast, it clearly leans Democratic. In fact, a Republican last won the governorship of Oregon in 1982. As for the Republicans, now that former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith has refused to enter the race, Congressman Greg Walden is probably the party’s best hope. But he has to give up his safe U.S. House seat if he makes the run, and he appears to be disinclined. Businessman Allen Alley may end up as the GOP nominee. He’ll need a big national Republican sweep to win.
Utah: Gov. Gary Herbert (R) just succeeded Gov. Jon Huntsman, the new U.S. Ambassador to China. Herbert is much more conservative than Huntsman, who is very moderate by Utah standards. But that will help Herbert secure the GOP nomination in next year’s GOP convention–which, for all practical purposes, is the election. Utah normally elects its governor in the presidential year, but vacancies like this one require a special election for a two-year term. There have been rumors of an intra-party challenge to Herbert, and that’s possible in the deeply factionalized Utah GOP. As long as Herbert gets the party nod, though, he’ll likely be governor for many years to come. This state reelects its chief executives with regularity. The last Democratic governor, Scott Matheson, Sr., won long ago, in 1980. Democrats can save their money and time in 2010. The only Democrat with a real shot, Congressman Jim Matheson (son of Scott), won’t run. The Democratic nominee will probably be Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, an able fellow who can’t overcome the lopsidedness of Utah’s one-party system.
Wyoming: Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) may or may not be term limited. You read that right. The Wyoming law says two terms and out, but the law was all but overturned by a recent judicial order. Freudenthal probably cannot be stopped from seeking a third term, and he is a heavy favorite if he does. Should he not run, Republicans are almost certain to take over this 70% GOP state with one of many aspiring candidates. What a difference a court ruling can make!
To sum up, three states already look very likely to switch party control: Hawaii to the Democrats and Kansas and Tennessee to the Republicans.
Eighteen other states are the sites of highly competitive gubernatorial races where a party switch is a distinct possibility. For the Democrats, their best shots for takeovers are in Arizona, California, and Minnesota. For the Republicans, the highest current odds for takeovers are in Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, with New Jersey still very much on the radar screen. The Crystal Ball guarantees you that we’ll be adding to both parties’ likely takeover lists once the gubernatorial picture becomes clearer in many states.
Other statehouse changes could easily occur via party primaries. For example, the incumbent Democrat, Gov. David Paterson, could lose the Democratic primary in New York. Republican gubernatorial incumbents in Nevada (Jim Gibbons) and Texas (Rick Perry) could lose GOP primaries for re-nomination. And Rhode Island could conceivably vote for an Independent candidate, Lincoln Chafee. Other oddities are likely to emerge as the months pass.
With about a year to go, there is still great fluidity here. The initial readings by the Crystal Ball strongly suggest that a considerable number of statehouses will see a change in party control.
Of course, not all statehouses count the same. In an Orwellian sense, all states are equal but some are more equal than others. Larger states and two-party “purple” states count for more–so a mere numbers game is a superficial way to analyze the 2010 match-ups. Nonetheless, since this is the first midterm of a Democratic administration, history tells us to expect Republicans to pick up several more governorships, net, than the Democrats.
We shall see whether early expectations prove to be accurate as we move closer to November 2010. But election watchers have nothing to complain about as they eye the gubernatorial cornucopia just around the bend.