In a political year like 2008, what difference do gubernatorial elections make? The presidential race promises to be earth-shattering and history-making. Continuing their retreat on Capitol Hill, Republicans assume they will again lose seats in both chambers (they’re right) and simply pray that they’ll have enough power left to block the initiatives of an Obama administration. With only eleven governors’ races on the ballot in November, mostly in small and mid-sized states, you might think the Democrats and Republicans will devote scant attention to them.
You’d be wrong.
This year’s crop of match-ups boasts some truly compelling stories. In Washington, for example, Democrat Christine Gregoire edged Republican Dino Rossi in 2004 by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history, 129 votes, after two controversial recounts. Gregoire and Rossi will face off again this year. In Missouri, the GOP’s Matt Blunt won a tough race in 2004 but announced early this year that he wouldn’t seek re-election, saying he had accomplished pretty much everything he wanted to in one term. Meanwhile, a succession of ethical storms has pounded his approval ratings down into the low 40s. His father, Roy Blunt, has endorsed a fellow Republican congressman for the gubernatorial nomination. The other major GOP primary candidate is essentially running against both Blunts and the Republican Congress, from the right.
Beyond making for great political theater, governorships matter to the nation’s politics. They can determine the fate of fiscal restraint, tax reform, school choice, and even environmental regulation. Gubernatorial elections groom future candidates for Senate and president — witness the current veep punditry this year about governors Kathleen Sebelius (D., Kan.), Ted Strickland (D., Ohio), Tim Kaine (D., Va.), Ed Rendell (D., Pa.), Bobby Jindal (R., La.), Sarah Palin (R., Alaska), Mark Sanford (R., S.C.), and Tim Pawlenty (R., Minn.).
Also, these contests could affect the federal races. Any reasonable plan for stopping Obama requires keeping Missouri, North Carolina, and West Virginia in the GOP column without spending a lot of money. McCain also wouldn’t mind reclaiming New Hampshire, a Kerry state in 2004, while the Obama team is making a play for improbable Western states such as Montana and North Dakota. All will elect governors this year. As the Wall Street Journal reported July 3, Republican fundraisers are now telling key donors that giving (without legal restrictions) to the Republican Governors Association can help McCain’s cause by routing funds into these battlegrounds for voter registration, turnout drives, and other expenditures that help the whole GOP slate.
Here’s a rundown of the eleven state gubernatorial races:
‐ Delaware: Primary voters will pick the major-party nominees in September, but right now it seems likely that they’ll also pick the general-election winner — if they use the Democratic ballot. Lt. Gov. John Carney and State Treasurer Jack Markell are running a spirited, expensive race to replace Ruth Ann Minner, who is term-limited and none too popular. Republican candidates include former judge Bill Lee, who lost to Minner in 2004 by five points, and Michael Protack, who’s already been nominated by the Independent party. Sound confusing? It is, but don’t bother trying to figure it out.
‐ Indiana: Mitch Daniels, President Bush’s former budget director, pulled the governorship of Indiana back into the GOP column in 2004. Much of his first term was rocky, and in 2006 Democrats took the state house of representatives partly by criticizing Daniels for privatizing a toll road and adopting Daylight Savings Time (both defensible moves, but hard to explain in sound bites). Throughout 2008, his prospects for reelection have brightened. He championed property-tax relief, a popular cause, and the state’s economy is outperforming the national average. The Democrats have aided Daniels by waging a costly primary battle that concluded in May with former U.S. Rep. Jill Long Thompson beating architect and activist Jim Schellinger by a tiny margin. The Obama campaign says it will contest Indiana, which might help Thompson overcome her financial and polling deficit with Daniels, but that’s surely either a head fake or extreme overconfidence on Obama’s part.
‐Missouri: Incumbent Republican Blunt helped his party immensely by deciding not to run. It remains no small challenge, however, for either of the August 5 primary candidates, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof or State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, to hold the Missouri governorship against Democrat Jay Nixon, the current attorney general. Nixon has more cash and will benefit from a big Obama investment in voter registration and turnout in this swing state. Indeed, Obama made two visits to Missouri just during the week of July 4. That’s why those pushing the aforementioned Republican Governors Association strategy so often talk about Missouri, where an influx of out-of-state resources could help Republicans up and down the ballot.
Hulshof and Steelman are both running for governor as fiscal and social conservatives, but their approaches are vastly different. Hulshof is the candidate of the state GOP apparatus and the more polished politician. Steelman is rougher around the edges but admirably willing to buck the establishment. She opposes an ethanol mandate that Blunt championed and both Hulshof and Nixon support. She’s also blasted Hulshof for his congressional votes on federal budgets and earmarks, promising not to bring “Washington values” to Jefferson City. Not hard to figure out that remark’s target, since the Democrat Nixon has been AG in Jefferson City since 1993. In the fall, St. Louis and Kansas City will favor Nixon, and the GOP nominee will win the rural swath between them. But what of the suburbs? It’s a toss-up.
‐ Montana: In 2004, rancher and Democratic activist Brian Schweitzer ran his first campaign for elective office and won the top job even as the state voted solidly to reelect President Bush. Four years later, Schweitzer looks to be in even better shape for reelection. Enjoying a three-to-one advantage in campaign cash over Republican nominee Roy Brown, a state senator, the governor is moderate and popular. There’s also a good chance that Obama, leading McCain in one recent Montana poll, will boost Democratic turnout. Only an influx of external GOP funds can change this dynamic.
‐ New Hampshire: McCain might be the one Republican nominee capable of competing for New Hampshire’s four electoral votes, but otherwise the state seems unlikely to reverse its blue trend. Both legislative chambers went Democratic in 2006, former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen is leading incumbent John Sununu in the U.S. Senate race, and current Democratic governor John Lynch won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2006 (governors in New Hampshire and Vermont are on two-year cycles). His support doesn’t seem to have dropped since then. Republican state senator Joe Kenney will fight valiantly, to no avail.
‐ North Carolina: Outgoing Democrat Mike Easley had a fairly smooth ride in North Carolina politics until 2008, when a series of embarrassing stories about public-records destruction and expensive foreign junkets tripped him up. But Easley is term-limited, fortunately for his party, and the gubernatorial race between Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, promises to be the most competitive in 20 years. Both are talented and experienced politicians — Perdue as a powerful state legislator, McCrory as a longtime city councilman and six-term mayor — and capable of raising significant sums from inside and outside the state. Polls have the race essentially tied.
Much as was the case for Republicans in Congress, North Carolina Democrats have been in power long enough for corruption to fester. Major Democratic politicians convicted and sentenced to prison in recent years have included the speaker of the house, a congressman, a lottery commissioner, and an agriculture commissioner who was the daughter and granddaughter of famous N.C. governors. McCrory is using the corruption theme to sharpen his campaign messages on wasteful spending, crime, and immigration, while Perdue is emphasizing education, health care, and economic development while distancing herself from the various scandals. She’ll certainly outraise McCrory and enjoy favorable media. As in Missouri, however, an investment of RGA money is expected and will help McCrory (as well as the McCain and Elizabeth Dole campaigns). He’ll run best in the Charlotte media market and western N.C., while Perdue’s political base is in the coastal plain and the Triangle area. The Triad region (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point) may prove the king- or queen-maker.
‐ North Dakota: Obama says he’s serious about fighting here. That seems unlikely, but even if the presidential campaign does goose Democratic turnout, Republican governor John Hoeven will have little reason to fear. He’s one of the most popular governors in the country and enjoys a huge advantage in cash and organization over his Democratic opponent, state senator Tim Mathern.
‐ Utah: Another popular Republican incumbent, John Huntsman, doesn’t even have to worry about Obama setting up shop in his state. Perhaps the Democratic nominee, Bob Springmeyer, should get together with Mathern and Kenney to start a Society for the Promotion of Quixotic Rivals (SPQR).
‐ Vermont: Jim Douglas is one of those few New England Republicans to have found the secret of running red (or, actually, a sort of fuzzy magenta) in a blue state. A three-term incumbent, Douglas will face a challenge from Gaye Symington, the Democratic speaker of the house, and the Vermont Progressive party’s Anthony Pollina, who won ten percent of the vote in 2000. As long as the Left remains divided, Douglas is a good bet for reelection.
‐ Washington: The Democratic incumbent, Gregoire, was attorney general when she came out on top of the disputed 2004 balloting. Rossi, a real-estate broker and former state senator, is running again on the conservative themes he emphasized four years ago, pledging not to raise taxes and to fund the state’s transportation and education priorities without new borrowing. Republicans are also questioning the governor’s dealings with political groups that helped finance her recount efforts in 2004. For example, state Indian tribes gave $50,000 to help defray legal expenses during the recount, and have been allowed to expand reservation gambling operations. The state teachers union gave $25,000 and saw big pay raises. The union president said the donation was “money well spent.” The Gregoire camp has responded by pointing to Rossi’s support from construction and development interests, though a state Democratic party attack ad backfired when it used the theme song from The Sopranos to link Rossi, not so subtly, to the Mob. Embarrassing apologies resulted.
Rossi’s strongest following is in the Republican east, while Gregoire does best in the traditionally Democratic Seattle metro. Counties to the west and south are swing. Most of the polling shows Gregoire with a slight statewide lead, but Rossi’s fundraising has been competitive, so the race will remain a toss-up until Election Day — or, if history repeats itself, even after Election Day.
‐ West Virginia: Moving West Virginia into the GOP column helped Bush in both 2000 and 2004. But otherwise, the state remains friendly territory for Democratic candidates. Incumbent Gov. Joe Manchin, the former secretary of state, is seeking reelection against former Republican state senator Russ Weeks. Manchin has a massive fundraising advantage, though he also has some vulnerabilities in a state where economic performance has been dismal and a grade-fixing scandal at West Virginia University embroiled some of his board appointees in controversy. Manchin is also one of the defendants in a lawsuit Weeks filed that challenges the constitutionality of a controversial pay raise for state lawmakers.
In sum: One certain and three likely Democratic retentions; two certain and two likely Republican retentions; three toss-ups. The results won’t lead the news on Election Night, but these races could profoundly affect the nation’s course.
– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.