RALEIGH, N.C.–It has not been an enjoyable couple of years for most of the nation’s governors. Facing large budget deficits, economic challenges, and plenty of angry voters, most incumbents in 2002 and 2003 either lost their reelection bids or didn’t run, with most open seats won by the party out of power (remember this the next time someone tells you that the democratic process is irreparably broken). As governors dominate the ranks of successful presidential candidates and help to set the nation’s agenda on such important issues as education, transportation, and health care, the eleven gubernatorial races coming up this November deserve more attention that they’ve been getting lately.
For a variety of reasons, governor problems have plagued Democrats more than Republicans in recent years. I suspect this trend will continue. In 2002 Republicans gained enough hard-fought victories to offset their expected losses, thus keeping a majority of governors’ offices, while essentially pulling even with the Democrats in state legislative seats for the first time in half a century. The off-year elections in 2003 pushed the trend line further as Republicans took over from Democratic governors in three contests–Kentucky, Mississippi, and the California recall–while losing the top spot only in Louisiana.
It is important, however, to temper some of the national GOP’s overheated rhetoric about the gubernatorial numbers. While the party does enjoy a 28-22 edge going into the 2004 elections, thus retaining a majority first achieved in the Republican Revolution cycle in 1994, there is obviously a big difference in national and public-policy significance between partisan control of the executive branch in large states such as Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania–all having reverted to Democrats in recent elections–and partisan control of governorships in less populous states where the GOP made the most gains in the 2002 cycle.
That’s one reason why three of the eleven seats up in 2004 are attracting so much attention from political professionals, activists, and observers. Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana are the biggest prizes and also happen to feature some of the most competitive statewide races this year. Interestingly, the contests also seem to be centering on the same set of high-profile issues: economic dislocation, budgets and taxes, state-local relations, and education spending. And all have Democratic incumbents.
In Missouri, Gov. Bob Holden is pursuing a second term after winning one of the closest statewide races in the country in 2000 against then-Rep. Jim Talent, who later went on to add the state’s second Senate seat to the Republican column in 2002. Holden is “undoubtedly the most vulnerable governor seeking reelection this year,” according to National Journal, and it’s not hard to see why. For one thing, this traditional swing state has been moving toward the GOP for the past several cycles: The congressional delegation is now slightly Republican (5-4) and the party picked up the state senate in 2001 special elections and the state house in 2002 for the first time since 1950. Another explanation for Holden’s precarious position is that the centerpiece of his legislative agenda over the past two years has been a failed attempt to raise taxes.
Self-styled progressives and good-government types no doubt continue to find this shocking, but advocating tax increases is not exactly proving to be good politics in most states right now. Republican Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama may well have ended his political career last year by advocating a massive tax increase–”for education and the children,” of course–that was rejected decisively by voters. Governors who have resorted to tax increases since 2001 to close the budget deficits plaguing most states tend to be those with the biggest political problems. On the other hand, those who have eschewed higher taxes in favor of significant budget savings are enjoying relatively high approval ratings, including Democrats such as Phil Bredesen in Tennessee (at 72 percent in the latest poll) and Republicans Bill Owens in Colorado, Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, and Bob Ehrlich in Maryland, all around 60 percent in their latest polls.
In Holden’s case, only 37 percent of Missouri voters in a recent media poll gave the governor an excellent or good performance rating. Another bad sign came when State Auditor Claire McCaskill announced plans to challenge Holden in the Democratic primary late last year, and then was essentially tied with the incumbent in the first match-up poll. On the Republican side, the nominee is already known: Secretary of State Matt Blunt, son of U.S. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt. His opponent won’t be known until the August Democratic primary.
Blunt and other Republicans blame Holden for mismanaging the state’s budget and departments and for stiffing local governments out of hundred of millions of pass-through dollars for schools. Interestingly, so does McCaskill, who as state auditor says she’s in a good position to know where the waste is. A sign of how contentious this debate has been came during Holden’s State of the State address back in January. Speaking to both houses of the General Assembly, the governor pitched his tax-increase proposal by telling lawmakers that projected revenues wouldn’t be “near enough to repair the damage you have done to Missouri schools.” This was rather damning rhetoric for such a ceremonial occasion, to put it mildly, and the speaker pro tem of the state house actually interrupted the governor in mid-speech to demand that he return $200 million withheld from local school districts.
It’s instructive to compare Holden’s predicament to that of Democratic Gov. Mike Easley in North Carolina, by far the most populous state with a governor’s race this year. Although Easley’s margin of victory in 2000 was larger and his public support is merely tepid rather than frigid, his controversial withholding of local dollars to help balance the state budget got more statewide attention than Holden’s and Easley’s tax-increase proposals in 2001, 2002, and 2003 were all enacted by state lawmakers–thus giving his Republican rivals actual tax hikes, rather than potential ones, to run against. Another key difference for Easley is that he faces no primary opposition, though he is not exactly loved by the state’s Democratic establishment, while the GOP has a crowded field of seven candidates with a primary scheduled in late July.
Still, the Republicans correctly see Easley as vulnerable, particularly if the nominee gets the benefit of strong showings by the Bush-Cheney ticket and the U.S. Senate candidacy of Richard Burr against former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Easley’s opponent in 2000, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, leads in name recognition but may lack the enthusiastic grassroots support and fundraising dollars of candidates such as former congressman and party chair Bill Cobey and Patrick Ballantine, currently the minority leader in the state senate. One factor in Vinroot’s favor in a close race may be two competitive congressional primaries on the same day in the traditionally Republican western part of the state where Vinroot’s support is disproportionately to be found.
The other big gubernatorial prize in November lies in Indiana, where President Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, is seeking to unseat a Democratic governor who has been in the office for less than a year. Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan had been widely expected to run for the top job until he took himself out of the running in 2003. Then later in the year, incumbent Gov. Frank O’Bannon died suddenly and thrust Kernan into the job. He then decided to run in 2004 after all. Some Democrats hoped that he could enjoy the advantages of incumbency without inheriting the opprobrium attached to O’Bannon’s policies, which included increases in state sales and excise taxes. But this seems unlikely, at least in part because Kernan had headed the Department of Commerce under O’Bannon and is thus vulnerable to complaints about the state’s lackluster economy. Daniels, the likely winner of a GOP primary in May, has already been running TV ads critical of the Democratic administration on taxes and wasteful spending and calls for regulatory relief to help revitalize job creation in the state.
I don’t mean to suggest that the gubernatorial contests in these three states are the only ones worth watching in 2004. In fact, this may be one of the most competitive cycles in recent years. Here’s a brief rundown of the remaining races:
‐ Delaware. Incumbent Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is arguably the least-threatened Democrat this year, in part because she appears to have escaped a potential primary challenge. Her likely Republican opponent is former judge Bill Lee, who ran for governor in 2000. An independent candidacy based around opposition to a statewide smoking ban could play a role if the race tightens.
‐ Montana. Republican Gov. Judy Martz is not running for reelection, thus setting up an open-seat contest that appears competitive. The June primary fight will be rougher among the Republicans, with business consultant Pat Davison and Secretary of State Bob Brown as the leading contenders, than on the Democratic side, where former senatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer is the likely pick even though he’s running against a former speaker of the state house.
‐ New Hampshire. Here the Republican incumbent, Craig Benson, is running for reelection. While holding firm against tax hikes, Benson has been criticized by Democrats and others for a perceived lack of openness about volunteer advisors to his administration. But he has not yet drawn a high-profile Democratic challenger. A former congressman and former attorney general are among four Democrats considering the race.
‐ North Dakota. Republican incumbent John Hoeven will face either Merle Boucher, the leader of the Democratic minority in the state house, or state Sen. Joe Satrom. But he probably won’t face defeat.
‐ Utah. Another GOP open seat, because Mike Leavitt left to become President Bush’s EPA chief, the Utah contest is competitive in part because former Lt. Gov. Olene Walker must survive a potential eight-person primary before facing Democrat Dean Scott Matheson Jr., son of a former Utah governor and brother of a Utah congressman.
‐ Vermont. As in New Hampshire, governors in Vermont face voters every two years. Republican Jim Douglas took the post away from the Democrats in 2002 and will run against the Democratic mayor of Burlington, Peter Clavelle, who until recently was a member of the Progressive party. Douglas drew the right–that is, left–challenger in this potential competitive race.
‐ Washington. Here the Democrats are trying to retain an open seat vacated by outgoing Gov. Gary Locke. Few states have seen the reversal of economic fortunes that Washington (and Oregon) have since 2000, so voters seem likely to want a change. Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi will have to wait until September to find out which of three Democratic candidates he’ll face in November.
‐ West Virginia. Again, a retiring Democrat leaves an open seat where the GOP has a shot at a pick-up. Gov. Bob Wise has been mired in scandal, but it may not attach itself too closely to one of the eight aspirants seeking the Democratic nod in a primary next month, who are currently “whacking” each other with TV ads, as one state pundit recently put it. Republicans have even more primary candidates, nine, though the field looks less “whacky.”
Overall, the 2004 gubernatorial field presents Democrats with a similar challenge to the one they face in Senate seats: Most of the key races lie in states already in the Democratic column. Assuming a modest tailwind blowing in from the national ticket, Republicans have a better-than-average chance to gain governorships, particularly from among the biggest prizes.
–John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and a syndicated columnist and radio host.