RALEIGH, N.C.–The post-convention, post-Rathergate momentum for George W. Bush and the national Republican cause could spell bad news for Democrats in key statewide contests, particularly in places where the Bush-Cheney ticket appears to have bounced back from its weakness earlier in the summer. These contests include several significant races for governor, and represent an increasingly good chance for the GOP to retain and possibly add to its current 28-22 edge in gubernatorial posts.
Since a previous analysis of the eleven governor’s races to be decided in 2004, several states have held party primaries, including Saturday’s balloting in Delaware. The states of New Hampshire and Washington will select their Democratic candidates today (Tuesday). In addition, recent polling, fundraising reports, and other factors have helped to define the electoral landscape and allow for some early prognostications.
The “big three” races–North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana–all feature Republicans trying to wrest control of a populous state from the Democrats. The best chances lie in Missouri and Indiana, in part because the Democratic nominees there do not enjoy a clear incumbency advantage and the states are trending more heavily Republican elsewhere on the ballot. Democrats do have some openings to take Republican-held governorships in smaller states, most notably Montana, but again their candidates could be up-ended if the current GOP advantage in voter intensity nationwide lasts until November 2.
Here’s how things look in early September:
‐ Delaware. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner could well be the safest Democratic incumbent in the country this year. As expected, former Superior Court Judge Bill Lee won the Republican nomination on Saturday, but faces a significant challenge in assembling the cash and issues necessary to make the race competitive. He previously ran for governor in 2000.
‐ Indiana. Mitch Daniels, the former business executive who headed up the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration, appears to be well positioned to accomplish what several impressive Republicans have failed to do in the past: eject a Democrat from the governor’s office in this GOP-trending state. A flash poll taken for an Indianapolis TV station Sept. 7-9 gave Daniels a twelve-point lead–53 percent to 41 percent–over Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, who assumed the office a year ago following the death of Democrat Frank O’Bannon. Kernan has tried to blunt Daniels’s challenges on fiscal issues and ethics, but with only limited success. After former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s heartbreaking loss in 1996 and former U.S. Rep. David McIntosh’s trouncing in 2000, state and national conservatives are hoping that this time one of their political favorites will make it over the finish line.
‐ Missouri. Faced with a potential disaster in the reelection bid of unpopular Gov. Bob Holden, Missouri Democrats took the reasonable step of ending it early by selecting State Auditor Claire McCaskill as their standard-bearer on August 3. It was the first primary loss by an incumbent U.S. governor in many years. Republican nominee Matt Blunt would have had an easier time challenging Holden’s unpopular proposals on taxes and other issues; McCaskill is running as a centrist and a foe of wasteful spending. On Friday, Blunt and McCaskill met for their first face-to-face debate, and Blunt aggressively challenged McCaskill’s family finances, her positions on crime and her record in getting her audit recommendations adopted by state government. A flash poll taken for two TV stations last week showed the race to be essentially a dead heat. The best news for Blunt is that Bush appears to be surging in the state and the Kerry campaign surprised many by leaving Missouri off the list of 14 states where it will run its first post-Labor Day TV blitz. “If this were October, I’d be nervous,” a McCaskill advisor told the Kansas City Star. No, Missouri Democrats are nervous now.
‐ Montana. Retiring Republican Gov. Judy Martz is not well liked among state residents, giving GOP nominee Bob Brown, the secretary of state, some baggage to carry in his race against Democrat Brian Schweitzer, a former Senate candidate. Mid-summer polls had Schweitzer leading Brown by a ten-point margin, but with many voters undecided. Brown has made some headway against Schweitzer’s sizable fundraising advantage, and now has $221,000 in cash on hand versus the Democrat’s half-million. Schweitzer has tried to neutralize the fiscal issue by supporting Martz’s previous tax cuts, while Brown is calling for spending caps and further property-tax relief. Clearer distinctions are found on natural resources and the environment, where Brown advocates more oil and natural-gas exploration on the Rocky Mountain Front and Schweitzer opposes it.
‐ New Hampshire. Republican Craig Benson was elected governor in 2002 and is running for reelection this year to the post, which has a two-year term. Voters on Tuesday will decide whether businessman John Lynch or State Rep. Paul McEachern will be the Democratic candidate against Benson (who is expected to defeat a Republican challenger). Benson’s staunch position against new taxes has angered some of the political establishment, but probably not the New Hampshire electorate. Faced with continuing controversy about property-tax funding of schools, Lynch favors a tobacco-tax increase and McEachern the creation of a state income tax. Benson’s foes point to ethical improprieties by some members of his administration as a key issue.
‐ North Carolina. This is the most populous state with a gubernatorial election this year. Although the situation is extremely fluid, the GOP’s chances here to pick up a Democratic governorship appear to be less than in Indiana and Missouri. Gov. Mike Easley enjoys a huge fundraising advantage over Republican nominee Patrick Ballantine, the former minority leader in the state senate, and plans to offset the disparity with money from the Republican Governors’ Association were partially blocked by a last-minute move in the state legislature to ban corporate money from flowing into the state for advertising or phone calls within 60 days of the election. Still, Easley’s three straight years of tax increases and North Carolina’s lackluster economic performance since 2000 give Ballantine an opening. Two other factors are working to the Republican’s advantage: 1) He won the GOP nomination outright in July, contrary to predictions of a bruising August runoff, and 2) He won a surprising endorsement from the state employees’ association, which is upset with paltry pay raises and Easley’s dismissive attitude. Still, in most polls Bush has only a modest lead over Kerry in North Carolina, not enough to represent a solid GOP surge, and recent public and private polls have shown Easley ahead by between seven and 15 points.
‐ North Dakota. Voters chose Joe Satrom as the Democrat to face incumbent Republican Gov. John Hoeven in the fall. One hopes that Satrom, a former state legislator, enjoyed his primary victory as it is likely to be his only one of the year.
‐ Utah. In an intriguing turn of events, Republican incumbent Olene Walker–who as lieutenant governor assumed the top job when Mike Leavitt left Utah to become Bush’s EPA chief–came in fourth out of eight Republican candidates in the first cut for the 2004 nomination, held at the state GOP convention in May. The eventual nominee, Jon Huntsman, has a large lead in campaign cash over Democratic nominee Scott Matheson Jr., whose own assets include a storied name in Utah Democratic politics (his father served as governor and his brother is a congressman). In another twist, Republican Mayor Nancy Workman of Salt Lake County was charged last week with two felonies and put on paid leave pending a trial. Much of the political oxygen in the state’s largest community is being sucked up in the Workman scandal.
‐ Vermont. Incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas, a moderate Republican who replaced Howard Dean in 2002 and is running for reelection, faces Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, whom one supporter called a “moderate” within the Progressive party he recently left to join the Democrats. This race may be tops in the casting-aspersions department: The Douglas campaign is circulating a 15-year-old news clipping that shows Clavelle marching in support of the Marxist Sandinistas of Nicaragua. The Clavelle campaign has resorted to dirty politics in response by daring to allege ties between Douglas and a certain President George W. Bush.
‐ Washington. Tuesday’s Democratic primary pits Attorney General Christine Gregoire against King County Executive Ron Sims. Republican State Sen. Dino Rossi, who has little primary opposition, would benefit greatly from the nomination of Sims, who wants to institute a personal income tax, favors a $1 billion sales-tax increase, and says that same-sex marriage should be a “constitutional right.” Rossi will likely face Gregoire, however, and she doesn’t support the new taxes or same-sex marriage (though she opposes a federal amendment banning the latter). The Republicans haven’t won the Washington governor’s race since 1980, but many political analysts assess the 2004 contest as a toss-up. Most polls currently show Kerry with a clear lead over Bush in the state.
‐ West Virginia. Speaking of the presidential trend, Bush’s continued solid numbers in the previously Democratic stronghold of West Virginia are good news for Republican Monty Warner, who faces a bit of an uphill climb in the gubernatorial race against Democratic Secretary of State Joe Manchin. Current Democratic Gov. Bob Wise is leaving office this year after an extramarital affair with a state employee and an ensuing scandal, but Manchin challenged him in the primary (chasing Wise out of the race) and thus inherited little of the damage. In keeping with the state’s tradition of hard-hitting politics, Warner said at a business gathering in Charleston last week that Manchin was close to State Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, whose anti-business rulings have driven executives to distraction. “Let me assure you Joe Manchin is in bed with the lions, and you are the lambs,” Warner told the business leaders. Manchin responded with: “The only lion I’ve laid down with is my wife of 34 years, Gayle Manchin.”
That’s just too much information.
–John Hood is a syndicated columnist, radio host, and president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in North Carolina.