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2012 GUBERNATORIAL UPDATE: In Wisconsin, Walker hears footsteps

The four gubernatorial contests of 2011 have now passed, and despite some late drama — in the form of a closer-than-expected finish in the West Virginia special election — they all went as expected: Republicans retained seats in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Democrats kept control in West Virginia and Kentucky.

That leaves 11 races to be decided next November, in a decidedly light gubernatorial year — which makes life easier for the voters in most states, who will only have to make one executive decision (president) as opposed to two. Of those 11 races, though, none would perhaps be more interesting than if Democrats get their way in Wisconsin and add a 12th race: A recall of their nemesis, Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker, elected in the Republican wave of 2010, and his Republican allies in the Wisconsin legislature wasted no time earlier this year in exercising their new-found rights by restricting the rights of public sector unions, to the consternation of waves of protesters at the state capitol in Madison. Democrats and labor fought back by initiating recall elections against six Republican state senators; they defeated two of them, which was one short of the three they needed to remove in order to take control of the state senate.

Now they’ve targeted Walker; United Wisconsin, a group backed by Democrats and labor, is potentially on its way toward collecting the necessary 540,000 signatures to force a recall election on Walker.

In the event of a recall, Democrats would nominate a candidate to run against Walker. State Sen.Tim Cullen said he is interested, and bigger names such as recently retired ex-Rep. David Obey and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who Walker defeated for governor last year, are other possibilities. The best potential candidate, ex-Sen. Russ Feingold, has said he will not run.

Obviously, this would be a compelling and competitive race if it happens. For his part, Walker is taking the recall challenge seriously: He’s already running ads in his defense, and he made an ad buy during a Green Bay Packers game on Monday Night Football in November.

Walker, if he lost a recall election, would be only the third U.S. governor ever recalled: Gray Davis of California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921 are the other two. The recall was a product of the progressive movement in the dawn of the 20th century, which was a reaction to the political cesspool of the Gilded Age.

If Democrats and labor collect enough signatures, the recall will likely take place sometime in the spring.

While Republicans could be facing a challenge in the Badger State, their prospects are brighter in two major, competitive gubernatorial elections coming up in November: North Carolina and Washington. In both states, where Democrats have controlled the governor’s offices for years, Republicans appear to be in good shape to win. We have switched North Carolina, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue is looking for a second term, to “leans Republican,” and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna might ultimately be in good shape to capture the open seat in Washington, though we are keeping a “toss-up” rating there for now.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes

A full state-by-state breakdown of next year’s 11 gubernatorial races lies below Chart 1, which lists the different races, candidates and race ratings. As for the potential race No. 12, in Wisconsin, we’re leaving it off our chart — for now.

Chart 2: Updated 2012 Crystal Ball gubernatorial race ratings

State Incumbent Possible Primary Challengers Major Party Opposition Party Rating
DE Jack Markell
Safe D
IN Mitch Daniels
– Rep. Mike Pence
– Businessman Jim Wallace
– Ex-IN House Speaker John Gregg
– Businessman Thomas Lenfert
Likely R
MO Jay Nixon
– Packaging executive Dave Spence
– Businessman Bill Randles
Likely D
MT Brian Schweitzer
– AG Steve Bullock
– State Sen. Larry Jent
– Ex-Rep. Rick Hill
– State Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann
– Ex-State Sen. Corey Stapleton
– Ex-State Sen. Ken Miller
– National security consultant Neil Livingstone
– County Commissioner Jim O’Hara
– Ex-Transportation Director Jim Lynch
Leans R
NC Beverly Perdue
(Eligible for reelection)
– 2008 Gov nominee Pat McCrory Leans R
ND Jack Dalrymple
– 2010 Sen candidate Paul Sorum – State Sen. Ryan Taylor Safe R
NH John Lynch
Ex-State Sen. Maggie Hassan – 2010 Sen. candidate Ovide Lamontagne
– Conservative activist Kevin Smith
– Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas?
Toss up
UT Gary Herbert
– State Rep. Ken Sumsion
– 2010 UT-2 nominee Morgan Philpot
– Rep. Jim Matheson?
– State Sen. Karen Morgan?
Safe R
VT Peter Shumlin
– State Sen. Randy Brock Safe D
WA Christine Gregoire
– Rep. Jay Inslee – AG Rob McKenna Toss up
WV Earl Ray Tomblin
– Businessman Bill Maloney Leans D

Delaware: Similar to its Senate race this year, the Delaware governor’s race is a foregone conclusion. Given the state’s bluish hue and the fact that there is no opponent on the horizon, Gov. Jack Markell (D) should have no trouble winning reelection. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

Indiana: If anything, this Hoosier State contest would make for interesting fodder for a college course in political advertising. On the Republican side, likely nominee Rep. Mike Pence, in his campaign logo, is emphasizing his first name in cursive script. Surely, Pence would have no problem if voters who saw the logo mistook “Mike” for “Mitch,” as in Mitch Daniels, the popular two-term Republican governor and one-time presidential possibility who is retiring because of term limits. No doubt, Pence is effectively running for Daniels’ third term, and the more Pence can be seen as Daniels’ heir, the better. Meanwhile, the likely Democratic nominee, ex-state House Speaker John Gregg, has a logo that says “Gregg for Governor,” along with a big, bushy mustache to represent the mustached candidate. One thing going for Gregg: Election Day falls in November, which is otherwise known as “Movember,” when men across the country grow mustaches to raise awareness of prostate cancer and men’s health issues. Nonetheless, “Mike” remains heavily favored over “mustache” next November, especially because Indiana, a 2008 Obama state, is likely to go Republican next year. LIKELY REPUBLICAN

Montana: The Big Sky State will be the scene of a very competitive gubernatorial battle next year. The most likely combatants are Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) and ex-Rep. Rick Hill (R), and a poll released on Dec. 5 by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling shows Hill leading the race by one point, 39-38, which is consistent with PPP’s summer survey that found Hill up by two. Hill, however, faces a primary battle that, at this point, is quite crowded. Although this race will be close, there are two reasons to think the GOP has the edge. Montana is a fairly Republican state, which means that despite Bullock’s relative popularity, he will have to make inroads with the undecided Republicans in the race to have a chance of winning. Further aiding the GOP effort is the fact that outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) has held the office for two terms. Considering the state’s GOP lean, a third straight Democratic term might be a bridge too far, even though Schweitzer is very popular. In light of these factors, we rate this race as LEANS REPUBLICAN.

Missouri: Alas, we won’t have Peter Kinder to kick around anymore. To the relief of Republicans across the Show Me State, Kinder, the lieutenant governor, recently dropped his hapless gubernatorial challenge to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. A small sampling of Kinder’s gaffes includes questions about his visits to strip clubs and his having to repay the state tens of thousands of dollars for hotel stays in St. Louis that he originally billed to taxpayers. Stepping into Kinder’s place as the top Republican contender is packaging executive Dave Spence. Combined with businessman John Brunner, who might be the Republican choice to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, it’s possible that the top two Republican statewide candidates in Missouri next year will be first-time candidates. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse remains to be seen. In any event, the popular Nixon will be very hard to beat, although Spence’s ability to self-fund — he’s already dropped $2 million of his fortune into his campaign — could cause Democrats some headaches. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

New Hampshire: Democratic Gov. John Lynch, after winning a tougher-than-expected race for a fourth, two-year term last year, has decided to hang up his spurs, prompting us to call this race a TOSS UP. On the Republican side, conservative kingmaker Ovide Lamontagne (who has lost three previous races) and ex-state Rep. Kevin Smith are in the race, with Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas looming as a potential candidate. For the Democrats, ex-state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, who lost her seat in 2010, appears to be the top contender.

North Carolina: We now slightly favor likely Republican nominee Pat McCrory, an ex-mayor of Charlotte, to defeat incumbent Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Why? The big picture factors all favor McCrory. Perdue has had a rocky term in office and is unpopular; polling has consistently shown McCrory leading Perdue in trial heats; McCrory came within a few points of defeating Perdue in 2008, a big Democratic year; unemployment in North Carolina is 10.4%, according to the most recent figures available; and Democrats have controlled the governor’s office in North Carolina for the past two decades, which is a good Republican argument for change. LEANS REPUBLICAN

North Dakota: Now that former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) has decided to take a shot at the state’s open Senate seat rather than go after the governorship, Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s (R) chances for a full term are even safer than they already were. His likely opponent will be State Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, but we see Dalrymple as a strong favorite at this point. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Utah: The gubernatorial race in Utah almost assuredly will go Republican in 2012. Only Rep. Jim Matheson (D), a Democratic survivor in the deep Red Beehive State, could conceivably make the race interesting, but it’s unlikely he’ll enter this race. What Herbert should mainly be concerned with is a primary challenge, as Utah’s 2010 Senate race demonstrated how insurgent GOP challengers can successfully get to the right of incumbents. State Rep. Ken Sumsion recently decided to challenge Herbert, joining 2010 UT-2 nominee Morgan Philpot in taking on the incumbent. Of course, the more challengers face off against Herbert, the better chance the sitting governor has of winning a primary, though a convention would leave much more to chance. As it stands now, there is little doubt that this race is SAFE REPUBLICAN.

Vermont: While Vermont has become increasingly Democratic at the federal level, it has remained competitive in statewide contests. The previous governor, Jim Douglas (R), won handily in 2008 despite Barack Obama’s 37 percentage point edge in the state over John McCain. However, Democrat Peter Shumlin now holds the governor’s office and seems fairly certain to keep it, though he does have a challenger in the form of state Sen. Randy Brock (R). There are three reasons for this: First, Vermont only has two-year terms for governor and has not failed to reelect a sitting governor to a second term since the early 1960s. Second, Shumlin has a decent approval rating, and third, the President’s coattails in November can only help him in deep Blue Vermont. In light of these factors, we see this race as SAFE DEMOCRATIC

Washington: The Evergreen State’s gubernatorial election, along with North Carolina’s, are probably the marquee races in 2012 (barring Wisconsin joining this list). Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is stepping down after two terms, and the top competitors for the seat are Rep. Jay Inslee (D) and Attorney General Rob McKenna (R). Polling has shown McKenna with a slight edge, and there’s little doubt he’s a formidable candidate, as he showed in romping to reelection as AG in 2008, during what was otherwise a strong Democratic year. One odd wrinkle in this race is that a state law prevents state elected officials from raising money when the legislature is in session; that hurts McKenna but not Inslee, who is a federal official unaffected by the law. But we suspect both candidates will have plenty of cash to spend in this TOSS UP race.

West Virginia: What is Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s (D) reward for winning October’s special election? Having to run another race next year, likely against the same opponent, businessman Bill Maloney (R). The hard-charging Maloney nearly upset Tomblin, but he fell a few points short. Tomblin’s bid to remain master of the gleaming statehouse in Charleston, capital of a state with a statewide conservative Democratic ruling class and national Republican leanings, is likely to be a test of Democratic coattails: negative coattails from President Obama, who is likely to be crushed in the Mountain State next year, and positive coattails from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is a strong favorite for reelection. Tomblin, the weaker statewide candidate compared to his patron Manchin, should nonetheless be able to get over the finish line once again and win a full four-year term. But this is a race that bears close watching and, in the unlikely event that Manchin faces a real challenge next year, Tomblin will be in big trouble. LEANS DEMOCRATIC