In 2010, a Repeat of the Wacky 2002 Elections?

Finally, with the presidential race behind us, it's time to start talking about the 2010 governor's races. The first question: Will the results be ...
by | December 19, 2008

Finally, with the presidential race behind us, it's time to start talking about the 2010 governor's races. The first question: Will the results be as wacky as they were eight years ago?

November 5, 2002, must have been Opposite Day. Republicans won governorships in Democratic bastions, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Maryland and Hawaii. Democrats returned the favor by scoring wins in Republican redoubts including Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona and Tennessee.

One big reason for these surprising results was the sour economy at the time. New leadership seemed like a good idea, even if it meant Republican voters supporting a Democrat or vice versa.

But, it's also important to note that in gubernatorial politics there isn't really such a thing as a surprising result. National political affiliations haven't often matter much for governor's races over the past few decades.

We think of Massachusetts as a Democratic state because it votes for Democratic for Congress and president. Wyoming is a Republican state because it favors Republicans in federal elections. But, Massachusetts has a long history of electing Republican governors. Wyoming has a long history of electing Democrats governors.

And that gets at why the question of whether the 2010 elections will look like the 2002 elections is on my mind. Over the past eight years, we've heard a lot about how the country has become more polarized, mainly because of perceptions of federal politics (the nation is divided into red states and blue states, etc.). The 2002 gubernatorial elections clearly defied that polarization. But have partisan divisions become more severe since then?

It's too early for predictions for the 2010 races that are more than educated guesses (although I'm going to try in subsequent posts). However, I've looked back at the last four years of governor's races to see whether the trend from 2002 continued.

Why the past four years? Every governorship in the country has been up since then, so that's a full cycle of races. Two have been up twice (Vermont and New Hampshire with their two-year terms).

First, though, I need to categorize the states as having a Democratic or Republican lean in federal elections. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to categorize them based on presidential voting -- that's the biggest way that states get their partisan reputations.

So, any state that was won by both John Kerry and Barack Obama and that they won by at least an average of five percentage points between the two elections, I'm calling a Democratic state. If George Bush and John McCain won a state by an average of five points or more, it's a Republican state. If the average is less than five in either direction or if the state switched parties in the presidential vote between 2004 and 2008, I'm calling it a swing state.

Let's start by looking at incumbent governors. Over the past four years, 37 governors have sought reelection. Thirty-four of them won. The three who lost were Ernie Fletcher in Kentucky (a Republican in a Republican state), Bob Ehrlich in Maryland (a Republican in a Democratic state) and Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (who Sarah Palin defeated in a Republican primary).

Seven Democratic incumbents won reelection in Republicans states. Five Republican incumbents won reelection in Democratic states. In others words, despite all of the talk about how polarized voters are these days, incumbent governors have been extremely successful at winning reelection in states where their party's presidential nominees have been getting walloped.

However, the situation starts to get more complicated when you look at open-seat races. The way a state leans in presidential voting has mattered a lot more in who wins those contests.

Democrats have won all four of the open-seat races held in Democratic states. Democrats have won six of the eight open-seat races in swing states. Republicans have won two out of the three open-seat races held in Republican states.

To put it a bit differently, only two new governors have been elected in states that, based on my presidential voting standard, lean against their party. Those are Kentcuky's Steve Beshear, who beat scandal-plagued incumbent Ernie Fletcher, and Arkansas' Mike Beebe, a Democrat elected in a state where the congressional delegation, statewide elected officials, state legislature, and local officials are all overwhelmingly Democratic -- Arkansas is only a Republican state when you're talking about presidential voting.

That only two new governors fit in this category seems to suggest that governor's races are becoming nationalized -- presidential and gubernatorial voting patterns appear interrelated. Perhaps the states are becoming more polarized into partisan camps after all.

In that context, the 2009-2010 governor's races represent a fascinating test. We'll have open seat races in eight Republican states (Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota Tennessee, Wyoming) and six Democratic states (California, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island).

Will Republicans win the Republican states and Democrats the Democratic states? Or, will we see a repeat of 2002? The answer will go a long way toward demonstrating whether the lines between state and national politics are blurring -- or whether that red and blue presidential map still doesn't matter much when you're talking about gubernatorial politics.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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