The Week in Politics: GOP Governors Lose Allies, Novice Pulls Off Stunning Upset and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | June 17, 2016
Tech billionaire Doug Burnum is the favorite to be North Dakota's next governor. (AP/Dave Kolpack)

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GOP Governors Lose Legislative Allies in Several States

Governors continue to have a mixed record endorsing candidates in this year's legislative primaries.

In Nevada on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval saw four of his GOP allies defeated. Last year, Sandoval convinced the legislature to sign off on a billion-dollar tax increase to fund education. Conservatives angered by the tax hike fielded a total of 11 candidates to challenge its supporters.

Seven candidates backed by Sandoval did prevail, including state House Speaker John Hambrick and state House Majority Leader Paul Anderson. But the collective share of the vote won by GOP incumbents who were challenged Tuesday was an unimpressive 51 percent.

Nevada Democrats, quick to trumpet their sense of lingering divisions within Republican ranks at a post-election news conference, are optimistic about taking back the two legislative chambers in November that they lost in 2014.

"In our state House, I think the expectation is that the Democrats will win it back," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "The Senate will come down to a few seats."

In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley targeted several GOP incumbents with whom she has clashed on issues such as ethics reform and raising the gas tax.  Her effort was backed by more than $500,000 spent by A Great Day SC, a political action committee run by the governor's former chief of staff.

Haley succeeded in taking out state Sen. Wes Hayes, who had served in the legislature since 1985. But two of her other targets, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and Senate Ethics Chair Luke Rankin, beat back their challengers.

Haley-backed candidates in two other Senate races are heading to a runoff in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, Maine GOP Gov. Paul LePage's efforts to elect a more cooperative legislature were also mixed.

Guy Lebida, a retired builder who had the governor's backing, unseated Republican state Sen. Linda Baker. But William Howard, a member of the City Council in Calais whom LePage also endorsed, lost a Senate contest to GOP state Rep. Joyce Maker.

Political Novice Pulls Off Stunning Upset

It's the biggest upset of the year in state politics so far this year. On Tuesday, former Microsoft executive Doug Burgum defeated state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who started the year as the heavy favorite in North Dakota's GOP gubernatorial primary.

In the end, it wasn't even close.

Burgum took 59 percent of the vote to Stenehjem's 39 percent. In a state that hasn't elected a Democrat for governor since 1988, Burgum is now expected to easily defeat the Democratic nominee, state Rep. Marvin Nelson, in November.

Stenehjem, who has held state office since the 1960s, started the year with a huge polling advantage over Burgum, a longtime GOP donor but novice candidate. Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple opted not to seek a second full term.

Burgum was able to appeal to voters as an outsider, embracing Donald Trump and castigating "runaway spending" by the "good old boys' club" in Bismarck. He spent millions of his own money to spread his message, managing to win over both conservatives happy with his pro-business, anti-tax stance and Democrats who saw him as more moderate on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

North Dakota primaries are open to all voters. But only 13 percent of the votes were cast for Democratic gubernatorial candidates on Tuesday, compared with 35 percent in 2012, suggesting many Democrats decided to cast their votes in the GOP primary.

"Burgum won because he was able to build an unlikely coalition between the extreme right and the extreme left, working both ends of the political spectrum against the middle," wrote Rob Port, editor of the Say Anything politics blog. "Burgum’s wink wink, nod nod campaign for Democrat support, even as he ran as a Trump-loving conservative to Republicans, flat-out worked."

Burgum quickly turned his attention to fence-mending. After railing against their "runaway spending" throughout the campaign, Burgum praised legislators for "smart spending" on roads, schools and other public works at his victory news conference on Wednesday.

But legislative leaders didn't appear ready to forgive -- at least not yet.

Alabama Speaker Convicted of a Dozen Felonies

Republican Mike Hubbard of Alabama has become the latest in a spate of state House speakers who have been convicted of crime.

Last Friday, a jury deliberated for seven hours before convicting Hubbard on 12 of the 23 felony ethics charges that he faced. His conviction triggered his automatic removal from office. A judge will sentence him on July 8.

Hubbard was found guilty of soliciting and receiving money from lobbyists, as well as using his office as state party chair to steer money toward businesses he was involved in. Hubbard continues to insist that the transactions fell under a friendship exemption and is expected to appeal.

As state party chair, Hubbard was credited with engineering the GOP's takeover of the legislature in 2010. He promised to clean up the state's culture of corruption and pushed through ethics laws that ultimately helped bring about his conviction.

Alabama continues to reel from a scandal involving GOP Gov. Robert Bentley. The House on Wednesday began an investigation into questions of whether Bentley had an affair with a top aide and interfered with law enforcement. The investigation could lead to impeachment.

Separately, Chief Justice Roy Moore is awaiting word of whether he will be removed from that post for a second time because of his refusal to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage.

"Instead of cleaning up corruption, Mike Hubbard and the Republican leadership in all three branches of our government have embraced corruption," said House Democratic Leader Craig Ford in a statement after Hubbard's conviction.

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*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that, "As state party chair, Hubbard was credited with engineering the GOP's first takeover of the legislature since 2010." It now reads, "As state party chair, Hubbard was credited with engineering the GOP's takeover of the legislature in 2010."