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

The 2012 election may have just ended, but the contests for governorships are heating up. At least five governors have reason to worry.
December 11, 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.

Taking into account the GOP's net gain of one seat in 2012, Republicans are set to begin 2013 with a wide lead in governorships -- 30 Republicans, 19 Democrats and one Independent.

Governing's initial look at the 2013-2014 gubernatorial election cycle suggests that the Democrats are going to need to run the table in competitive races if they are to even the score with Republicans.

Based on interviews with several dozen political observers in the states, as well as a review of 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.

The format of this handicapping differs with our efforts later in the election cycle. Here, we are not numerically ranking the governorships by the likelihood that they will be won by one party or another. Nor are we ready to use the labels "safe," "likely," "lean" or "tossup." Once these races come into sharper focus, we'll revert to those formats.

In the coming days, I'll look at each of these categories in three separate articles. In this installment, I'll look at the five governorships we're currently considering vulnerable. They include two Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent. In each category, the states are listed in alphabetical order. The five governors who are vulnerable are:

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)

Malloy has tirelessly implemented a bold agenda -- a tax hike, concessions by unions, economic development programs, higher education restructuring and K-12 education reforms. But economic growth in the state has lagged, unemployment is higher than the national average, and now there's a significant revenue shortfall that is already forcing $170 million in spending cuts and the possibility of additional tax increases. Malloy's approval ratings have been weak for well over a year; a September poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found he had 32 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval. Connecticut is a blue state, and the GOP bench isn't very deep. But the Republican Malloy beat in 2010 -- Tom Foley, by a narrow margin -- could be a plausible opponent in 2014, especially now that he can run against Malloy's record in office. Others possible candidates are state House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, former state senator and unsuccessful congressional candidate Andrew Roraback. A Democratic primary is possible but considered unlikely.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)

Approval ratings for Scott -- a Tea Party-aligned Republican -- remain low. A poll by Public Policy Polling in October showed 36 percent approval; in August, it was as high as 41 percent in a Quinnipiac University-CBS-New York Times poll. Both ratings are up a bit from Scott's dismal numbers a year ago, thanks to some more moderate moves on education policy, a charm offensive and a slowly improving economy. But they are still low enough to make him vulnerable, particularly in the wake of the 2012 election results in which President Obama won Florida just two years after the Republicans shellacked the Democrats in the state's midterm elections. The highest profile potential challenger would be former Republican, former Independent and newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist, who served one term as governor before losing a Senate bid. Other possibilities are the Democratic nominee Scott narrowly beat in 2010, former state CFO Alex Sink; Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; and former state Sen. Nan Rich, who is officially in the race. If Republican state CFO Jeff Atwater decides to run against Scott in a primary, that could heighten the incumbent's vulnerability.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D)

Despite the strong Democratic tilt of Illinois, Quinn is vulnerable. Quinn was elevated to the governorship after corruption charges torpedoed then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Quinn went on to win a full term over Republican Bill Brady in 2010, but only by 31,834 votes. Since then, things haven't gone so well for the governor. He faces about $96 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, he's making $1.6 billion in Medicaid cuts and he's raised (temporarily) the state income tax on individuals from 3 percent to 5 percent. An October Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll found Quinn with a miserable approval rating of 26 percent. Former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley would be a formidable primary opponent if he were to run, but that seems unlikely for now. Several Republicans are interested in a race, with the possibility of a crowded primary field. State Sen. Kirk Dillard came within less than 300 votes of Brady, a more conservative state senator, in the 2010 GOP primary; Dillard's already made his gubernatorial intentions known and could be a plausible challenger.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

LePage won the governorship in 2010 with less than 38 percent of the vote, which makes him vulnerable almost by default. Thanks to his hard-line conservative approach and a penchant for outspoken remarks, most polls show that his approval rating hasn't risen much higher than that. The Maine GOP just lost big in the 2012 state legislative, presidential and congressional races, reinforcing the state's moderate-to-liberal lean -- at least in presidential years. LePage will have an extensive record to run on, but a Public Policy Polling poll showed him trailing a generic Democrat for re-election, 48 percent to 40 percent. A wild card is whether Independent Eliot Cutler will run again -- and if he does, how will the Democrats respond? Cutler's participation in the 2010 race made it a three-way contest, which is how LePage managed to win in the first place.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I)

Everything from the state's weak economy to a Fox News-stoked controversy over not calling the statehouse tree a "Christmas tree" has gone against Chafee. An October Brown University poll had his approval rating at 29 percent, and a poll the same month by WPRI-TV found just 18 percent saying they would definitely vote to reelect him. There's speculation that Chafee could leverage his campaign support for Obama into a presidential appointment, but even if he remains in Providence, the knives will be out in 2014. The most prominent Democratic names are Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, both of whom are serving their first terms in office. Raimondo won plaudits for passing pension reform legislation, but that could cost her in a Democratic primary since unions are suing to stop the bill. Taveras helped the city avoid bankruptcy by cutting pay, laying off workers, raising taxes and reforming pensions through union negotiations -- a record that gives him pragmatic credentials. Raimondo and Taveras are the state's most popular politicians, with the WPRI poll showing a 58 percent approval rating for each. Ernie Almonte, an affable former auditor general, is also in the Democratic mix; his best shot may be a nasty primary between Raimondo and Taveras. On the GOP side, possibilities include John Robitaille, who almost beat Chafee in 2010; Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, who's perceived as a pragmatist; and a former state police colonel, Brendan Doherty, who tried but failed to unseat U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. As for the state's Moderate Party, Ken Block ran in 2010 and garnered a small percentage of the vote. He could run again to make the point that the state needs a third party. The more candidates running, the lower the threshold Chafee would need to win a second term.

Tomorrow: The governors in the "potentially vulnerable" category, plus a look at the big picture of which party has the edge going into the 2014 elections.

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