GOP Could Sweep 2015 Governors Races

If Republicans do win in every state this year, it could be a bad omen for Democrats in 2016.
by | September 24, 2015

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

Republicans are hoping to achieve something this fall that they've never done: win each of the gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The odds are looking pretty good.

Democrats held 29 governorships when President Obama took office. Now, they're down to 18. Losses this year could be a bad omen for 2016, when governorships now held by Democrats in states including Missouri, West Virginia and Vermont look potentially vulnerable.

"This year's set of races are in place where you'd think the Republican Party would be pretty competitive," said Thomas Carsey, an expert on state politics at the University of North Carolina.

Republicans are likely to pick up one new position, in Kentucky. Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant has never appeared to be in danger in his re-election bid, while Republicans are expected to hold onto the Louisiana post being vacated by the term-limited Bobby Jindal. The risky state all along has been Kentucky, where Republicans have won the governorship exactly once over the past half-century.

The GOP-nominated businessman Matt Bevin, who won a contentious primary back in May by only 83 votes. Bevin alienated many party insiders with his unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell last year. The press in Kentucky has been critical of his inconsistent policy positions this year. In February, for example, Bevin said there was "no question" he would reverse the state's Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. In July, he told reporters, "I said I would address it. I didn't say I would end it."

But the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Jack Conway, may be even more flawed. He has never been considered a natural campaigner and his performance at a debate on Sept. 15 raised further questions.

"All people wanted to talk about was Conway's sweat-filled performance where he glistened in the television lights," wrote Louisville Courier-Journal political reporter Joe Gerth. "He seemed unsure of himself at times and his attempts at humor fell flat."

Despite the preferences of Kentucky voters for Republicans at the federal level, Democrats control most of the statewide offices and managed to hold onto their state House majority last year, even as Republicans swept state contests elsewhere. Conway has enjoyed narrow leads in nearly all the polls conducted in the race. A Bluegrass Poll released in July showed Conway up, 45 percent to Bevin's 42 percent.

But Republicans are increasingly confident that their voters will approve Bevin on Election Day. Kentucky has remained more Democratic than most of the South, but it's mostly a conservative state where the GOP is clearly gaining strength. Both the state GOP and the Republican Governors Association are trying hard to tie Conway to the unpopular Obama.

"If Bevin wins, it's confirmation of the state's transformation," said Kyle Kondik, editor of the Crystal Ball, a political newsletter from the University of Virginia. "The best thing he's got going for him is that there's an unpopular Democrat in the White House."

In Louisiana, most observers expect a Republican to win. They're just not sure which one it will be yet.

All candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the same primary ballot on Oct. 24. The top two finishers will proceed to a runoff on Nov. 21.

Everyone expects state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the only Democrat in the race, will do well enough to proceed to the runoff. On the GOP side, U.S. Sen. David Vitter has enjoyed polling leads and a huge fundraising advantage all year.

"He is better funded than all of the other candidates put together," said George Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "He's still sitting on a lot more money than any other candidate."

Lately, Vitter has put some of his money to use attacking his fellow Republicans. His recent ads deride Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne as a liberal and claim Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a former Democrat, has a lot in common with Obama.

Vitter himself was asked whether he had ever broken the law at a recent candidates forum at Loyola Law School. That was understood to be a question about his role in a prostitution scandal that broke in 2007. Vitter long ago admitted to having been indiscreet, but has never said whether he broke the law.

"It's a gotcha question, not a good public debate question for a discussion about the future of Louisiana," Vitter complained at the forum.

Vitter's favorability ratings have dropped since the spring and one poll back in July showed him narrowly trailing Angelle. But other polls that have consistently shown Vitter comfortably ahead of the GOP pack, said Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. "Really, it's pointing to Vitter and Edwards" in the runoff, he said.

If the Louisiana and Kentucky races remain unpredictable to some extent, there is no doubt about the likely outcome in Mississippi. Bryant had amassed a good-sized war chest and a poll in April showed his approval rating in the conservative state at a healthy 72 percent.

He would have been a heavy favorite against attorney Vicki Slater, the preferred candidate of Democratic officials. But in a stunning result in the primary last month, the nomination went to Robert Gray, a truck driver who had raised no money and didn't even have a campaign website.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Matt Bevin win the GOP nomination for governor of Kentucky by 82 votes. It was 83 votes.

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.