2013-2014 Governor's Races: Who's Potentially Vulnerable?

In this installment, Louis Jacobson looks at the 10 governors on the hot seat. Plus, why the GOP has the early edge in the balance of power.
December 12, 2012
 

The nation may have just completed one election cycle, but it's already transitioning into the next one -- a cycle that will include 38 gubernatorial races.

In this installment, we are looking at the 10 governorships considered "potentially vulnerable." Seven of the seats are held by Republicans, and three are held by the Democrats.

As we indicated in our initial article, we are evaluating the 38 gubernatorial contests for the 2013-2014 election cycle. To gauge the state of these races, we reached out to several dozen political observers in the states, as well as reviewed recent polling data. We are categorizing no fewer than 22 of the 38 gubernatorial races over the next two years as "not currently vulnerable."

By contrast, we are calling just five governorships "vulnerable" and 10 more "potentially vulnerable." (We are not categorizing New Hampshire yet, since it is one of two states, along with Vermont, that elect governors every two years. Its governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, has not even been sworn in yet.)

As always in our handicapping, "vulnerability" refers either to the weakness of an incumbent governor's chances of winning reelection, or, if the governor is retiring, the weakness of the incumbent party's ability to hold the seat after his or her departure. Vulnerability, in our ratings, does not mean an incumbent governor is at risk of losing a primary contest, though this possibility is discussed in many of the state-by-state capsules below.

To put this all in context, just under two-thirds of the Republican-held governorships that are set to be contested over the next two years aren't rated as competitive, while about half of the Democratic-held seats are considered competitive. That's one reason the GOP can feel optimistic about its chances of maintaining its edge in governorships.

Another reason the GOP can feel good about its chances has to do with where the competitive -- and uncompetitive -- seats are located.

This cycle, there will be 11 gubernatorial contests in states where a Republican holds the governorship but the state was won by President Obama in 2012. Of these, about half are not considered competitive as of now -- the governorships of Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Wisconsin. That's a lot of governorships the Democrats might have a chance at winning that, for now at least, are off the table.

The GOP-held seats that we are rating "potentially vulnerable" in this article include four states Obama won and three others won by Mitt Romney that will be much harder for the Democrats to flip.

Only two GOP-held governorships are in the "vulnerable" category by our estimation -- Florida's Scott and Maine's LePage -- and both of these governors are in better positions today than they were just a few months ago. Scott and LePage have had approval ratings recently in the high 30s or low 40s.

This state of play gives the Democrats relatively few opportunities to go on offense over the next two years. There's also no guarantee that the Democrats will be able to hold all of their current seats.

Two Democrats in solidly blue states -- Malloy in Connecticut and Quinn in Illinois -- are vulnerable to a Republican takeover if the GOP nominates a credible candidate. In addition, three Democratic-held seats are categorized as potentially vulnerable. To take the lead in gubernatorial seats from the GOP, the Democrats would have to do three things simultaneously: seize the governorships in the six Obama-won states that currently have a vulnerable GOP governor, flip the Independent-held Rhode Island seat and avoid any losses of Democratic-held seats.

Pulling this off would require nearly a perfect campaign for the Democrats, despite running in a midterm election in which the party that holds the White House usually faces strong headwinds, and in which lower rates of turnout tend to give the GOP a leg up.

This suggests that while the Democrats could make incremental gains in 2013-2014, the GOP is likely to retain a national lead in governorships for at least another two years -- and quite possibly longer.

In alphabetical order, these are the 10 potentially vulnerable governors:

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R)

Brewer earned the ire of many Democrats for signing the hard-line immigration bill S.B. 1070 (and raised eyebrows for such unpredictable behavior as disappearing on a "secret" business trip, later revealed to be a visit to Afghanistan). She's weighing another run for the governorship, though since she inherited the post for a partial term when Democrat Janet Napolitano became Secretary of Homeland Security in 2009, it's unclear whether she will be legally allowed to seek a new term. If Brewer runs again, she will be a high-profile Democratic target in a state with many Hispanics -- a group that leaned heavily toward Obama in 2012. If she doesn't run, the GOP field could be crowded, led by Secretary of State Ken Bennett; the primary is likely to become a heated contest to see who can best appeal to the conservative base. The Democratic field could be large too, and while the Democratic nominee would probably start as the underdog, a more conservative GOP nominee could boost Democratic chances.

Arkansas: Open seat; held by Gov. Mike Beebe (D)

Beebe remains highly popular (a 65 percent approval in a Hendrix College poll in October) despite the state's strong pro-Republican lean in recent years. Can another Democrat win the office? The current attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, gives his party its best possible shot -- he's considered pragmatic and has a record as AG to run on. He's announced his intention to run, and his early fundraising has been solid. He's also from conservative Northeast Arkansas, an area where the Democrats must perform better than they did in 2012 and where McDaniel has shown strength in the past. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is a potential primary opponent on the Democratic side. As for Republicans, possibilities include 2006 gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and several GOP members of the congressional delegation. The question is whether the Democratic nominee can separate himself from his party's national image, or whether Arkansas voters have turned a corner and will go for any Republican over a Democrat.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D)

Hawaii may be a solidly blue state, but Abercrombie has had a rocky two years. An October Hawaii Poll found his approval rating at 41 percent, well below the 68 percent approval for Obama, a Hawaii native. Abercrombie could get a primary challenge from Colleen Hanabusa, who holds Abercrombie's old seat in Congress, and a general election challenge from Republican Charles Djou, who held the House seat briefly between Abercrombie and Hanabusa.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R)

Brownback has spearheaded a staunchly conservative administration. But is it too conservative even for red-state Kansas? A July poll by SurveyUSA gave him just a 36 percent approval rating. The combination of tax cuts starving revenue and the possibility of socially conservative measures emerging from the equally conservative Legislature will put Brownback's envelope-pushing approach to the test. In recent years, Democrats and moderate Republicans have sometimes been able to muster a popular alternative to hard-line conservative governance, but it remains to be seen whether that alliance has enough bodies left standing to be re-established, not to mention whether any Democrat has the statewide stature to challenge Brownback.

Massachusetts: Open seat; held by Gov. Deval Patrick(D)

Deval Patrick, a two-term Democrat, remains reasonably popular in this solidly blue state -- a 48 percent approval rating, compared to 38 percent disapproval in an October Public Policy Polling survey. But he's been clear about not seeking re-election. On the Democratic side, the two most prominent names are Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and state Treasurer Steve Grossman, neither of whom has the profile of the leading Republican -- former Sen. Scott Brown. If Patrick leaves office early to join the Obama administration, that could leave Murray as governor, boosting his profile. Other possible Republicans include Patrick's opponent from 2010, Charlie Baker, and state Rep. Dan Winslow. The stars would have to align for the GOP to pick off the Massachusetts governorship, but the fluidity of the race, combined with a historic affinity for Republican governors, suggests that this seat is potentially vulnerable for the Democrats.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R)

Snyder, a self-styled pragmatic conservative, pledged to reinvent Michigan through fiscal responsibility and business tax cuts. Two years in, the state's economy is better and Snyder's approval ratings are up. But after the 2012 election, he agreed to sign a right-to-work bill in a lame-duck session -- a move that marred his centrist image for many voters and led to fierce protests by the the state's significant labor union base. Either way, Michigan's Democratic lean, demonstrated again in the 2012 presidential election results, means that Snyder can't relax too much. The shortage of standout Democratic candidates limits his current vulnerability; the Democratic candidate garnering the most interest is state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. Also, it remains to be seen how resonant the right-to-work issue will prove for voters: A ballot measure that would have added the right to collective bargaining to the state constitution failed in 2012 with a resounding 57 percent "no" vote.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

Kasich's fortunes have improved since his defeat on a 2011 ballot measure that would have eliminated collective bargaining for government workers. Due in part to the state's improving economy, Kasich's approval ratings have risen to 52 percent in a Washington Post poll and 48 percent in a CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac University poll. An obvious opponent would be former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost his reelection bid narrowly to Kasich in 2010. Strickland has kept his profile high by serving as a surrogate for Obama, and Democrats -- and their union allies -- are encouraged by the president's ability to win the hotly contested Buckeye State in 2012. Another Democratic possibility is Ed Fitzgerald, the Cuyahoga County executive.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R)

Control of the Pennsylvania governorship has shifted between the two parties like clockwork every eight years since World War II, and no Keystone State governor has lost reelection since 1970, when the state's governors were first allowed to run for a second term. If Corbett were to lose in 2014, it would break both of these ironclad patterns -- but his chances of losing currently seem higher than they were for recent incumbent governors. Corbett is not considered an especially good salesman for his agenda, which tends toward small government. He has also irked educators more than his Republican predecessors have, and his party controls the Legislature, reinforcing a policy agenda that's ideologically to the right of many voters in this blue-leaning state. Corbett, already saddled by the recession and budget challenges, will also need to defend his handling of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal while he was attorney general, a line of inquiry that will be pushed by an ambitious, newly elected Democratic AG, Kathleen Kane. For the moment, Corbett's ratings are up modestly, due to his response to Hurricane Sandy -- 40 percent approval, 38 percent disapproval in a November Quinnipiac poll, compared to 28 percent approval in an August Franklin & Marshall poll. But the bump may not be enough to scare off credible Democratic challengers. Former state environmental protection Secretary John Hanger became the first to officially join the race, but other potential candidates have higher name recognition, including state Treasurer Rob McCord and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost a Senate race to Republican Pat Toomey in 2010. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz would be a strong contender and has been making some moves that suggest she's thinking about it; another possibility is Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro. Meanwhile, Corbett could be vulnerable to a primary challenge. Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor is publicly mulling a bid, and a self-funding candidate to Corbett's right -- such as Tom Smith, who just lost a U.S. Senate race to incumbent Democrat Bob Casey Jr. -- could pose problems for the incumbent as well.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)

Haley came into office as a national star -- a telegenic Republican woman of Indian ancestry governing a solidly Republican state -- but her term so far has been a disappointment, even to Palmetto State Republicans. She's had various squabbles with the GOP-controlled Legislature, including a House Ethics Committee probe into allegations that she had used her office for personal gain -- charges she was eventually cleared of. More importantly, Haley has taken heat for her handling of a case that involved foreign hacking of sensitive personal data about virtually every adult in the state, which has tarnished her claims of transparency and accountability. Prior to the hacking, Haley might have faced a primary opponent, but now she almost certainly will, with possible contenders including state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, state Sen. Paul Campbell, state Sen. Tom Davis or, less likely, state Attorney General Alan Wilson. Despite the state's partisan drift in recent years, she could also get a credible Democratic opponent -- state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who surprised almost everybody by only narrowly failing to derail Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial race. The resignation of GOP Sen. Jim DeMint is a wild card. Haley has ruled out appointing herself or a caretaker to the seat, but could she run for Senate rather than governor in 2014?

Virginia: Open seat; held by Bob McDonnell (R)

Virginia's unique one-term-and-out rule for governors usually prompts a competitive race, and coming on the heels of a close, hotly contested presidential race in the state, 2013 should be no exception. Indeed, Virginia's gubernatorial race is expected to become one of the marquee contests of the cycle, as well as one of its loudest and most expensive. Staunchly conservative state AG Ken Cuccinelli is expected to square off against Democratic moneyman and strategist Terry McAuliffe. Illustrating the importance of the race, Obama has already golfed with McAuliffe since the election. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello took a pass on challenging McAuliffe in a primary. Cuccinelli and his supporters, meanwhile, effectively cleared a path to the nomination by switching the method of selecting a nominee from a primary to a convention at which the party base would have a bigger say. This shift pushed Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling out of the race; he's now talked about as a possible third party contender who could stake out the ideological middle. McAuliffe's connections to the state have always been tenuous, but it's unclear how much that will matter in swing (and relatively footloose) areas of northern Virginia. Meanwhile, even Cuccinelli's critics acknowledge that he's a smart politician and tough competitor, and he could benefit from buyer's remorse about Obama a year from now. Turnout will be critical, and all bets are off if this becomes a three-way contest.

Tomorrow: Governors who aren't considered vulnerable now - and how they got that way.

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