Politics

A Rundown of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor Races

All eyes may be on the gubernatorial seats up for election this fall, but there are a handful of competitive LG contests in the works.
by | July 21, 2014
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, Republican candidate for Arkansas Lt. Governor, right, appears via video at a debate with Libertarian Chris Olson, far left, and Democrat John Burkhalter.
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, Republican candidate for Arkansas Lt. Governor, right, appears via video at a debate with Libertarian Chris Olson, far left, and Democrat John Burkhalter. AP/Danny Johnston

Among state-level races this year, the marquee contests -- as one might expect -- largely involve the governor's mansion. But the office that's always in the governor's shadow, the lieutenant governorship, is proving to be no slouch in producing interesting races.

There are a half-dozen lieutenant governor (LG) contests worth paying attention to this fall. We ruled out any races in which the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket in November, since LGs rarely sway the result of such contests. This means we'll be excluding states that have competitive LG primaries in advance of joint-ticket general elections. In Connecticut, for instance, Republicans are having to undergo an unruly, three-way primary before a competitive fall gubernatorial election.

That leaves us with the list below, which is organized -- rather subjectively -- in descending order by how interesting the contests promise to be.

Texas

While the gubernatorial candidacy of Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis has attracted national attention due to her lengthy filibuster on an abortion bill, many observers see the LG race as more important -- and more competitive.

In the GOP primary, Tea Party-aligned state Sen. Dan Patrick easily defeated incumbent LG David Dewhurst, who had been seen as the candidate of the party establishment. To win, Patrick ran hard to the right, leaving an opening for a mainstream Democrat in November.

The Democrats got the credible nominee they wanted in state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. "Van de Putte is not a polarizing figure, and unlike the remaining statewide candidates, she has a long and impressive political track record," said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist. "The policies and rhetoric that served Patrick so well in the primary may very well come back to haunt him in November, particularly some statements that are seen as being anti-Hispanic by most Texas Hispanics."

If Patrick does win in November, the impact on state politics could be dramatic. Texas' LG is famously powerful -- controlling the Senate's agenda, its committee structure and its rules, as well as playing a major role in crafting the state budget. But the chamber has historically been an institution where compromise and consensus are the norm, said Jones, and where legislation is often passed by a center-right Republican-Democratic alliance.

If he's elected, Patrick is expected to boost the leverage of the Tea Party-aligned legislators he's been most closely affiliated with. "He's expected to make the Senate a much more partisan institution, where the center of gravity shifts from the median senator to the median Republican senator -- that is, much further to the right," Jones said. He added that Patrick is also likely to water down such practices as proportional appointment of Democratic committee chairs and a rule during regular sessions that requires two-thirds of senators to support a motion for a bill to reach the floor.

It will be a tough race for Van de Putte, as Patrick has the edge with voters. This is Texas, after all, and a midterm election to boot. Republicans should have an edge in voter turnout.

Arkansas

It's a big year: Not only is the governorship and lieutenant governorship up, but so is a U.S. Senate seat and some congressional seats. All of these races are competitive, especially the LG contest between GOP Rep. Tim Griffin and Democrat John Burkhalter, a state highway commissioner and real estate developer.

Griffin is considered a slight favorite. He has "campaign experience and an electoral base; he enjoys greater name recognition; and the Republican label is arguably in greater favor within the Arkansas electorate these days," said Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University.

Still, Burkhalter is well-connected and has deep pockets. Either way, both candidates are tied to their parties' gubernatorial nominees. Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson are locked in a very competitive race. "But the races are operating independently," said Hendrix College political scientist Jay Barth, "and there's some possibility that the winners of the two races could come from different parties."

Nevada

The gubernatorial race in this Western state is a total snoozer, with incumbent Republican Brian Sandoval a shoo-in for a second term. But the LG race is far more evenly matched.

The contest pits Republican state Sen. Mark Hutchison against Democratic state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores. It's being seen as something of a shadow fight between Sandoval and Nevada's other political heavyweight, Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Hutchison should get a leg up from Sandoval's popularity, but Flores has a winning profile, too. She is a Hispanic woman who has garnered respect in the legislature.

Right now, Hutchison "is a slight favorite" over Flores, "but it could be an interesting race," said Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston.

Alaska

Alaska leans strongly Republican, but the contest for lieutenant governor could end up being competitive.

The frontrunner in the Republican primary is Anchorage Mayor Daniel A. Sullivan. (Confusingly, Daniel S. Sullivan, a former state attorney general and commissioner of natural resources, is a leading Republican in this year's U.S. Senate contest.) The Democratic frontrunner is state Sen. Hollis French.

Alaska's LG has more influence than those in many other states, since the position oversees the state elections division and has a role in certifying ballot measures.

South Carolina

This will be the last time South Carolina elects an LG separately from the governor; a constitutional amendment enacted in 2012 changes the rules to a ticket system beginning in 2018. Nevertheless, this last race will be a good one.

The contest pits Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general and ex-state GOP chairman, against Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers. Both are notable figures. McMaster, who won a competitive primary, has spent years in the public eye and is considered a favorite of the establishment. Sellers, in addition to serving in the legislature, is the son of a prominent civil rights activist who now serves as president of historically black Voorhees College. (The younger Sellers was one of Governing's 2012 state legislators to watch.)

Given South Carolina's strong Republican lean, "Sellers is the clear underdog in the race," said Jack Bass, a College of Charleston political scientist, "but his presence on the ballot is likely to increase black turnout, perhaps significantly, which would be a plus for Democrat Vincent Sheheen in the campaign for governor."

The LG in South Carolina is a part-time post without much authority, although one aspect of the portfolio -- serving as director of the state Council on Aging -- has risen in profile under the leadership of outgoing Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell.

Vermont

Despite the fact that the LG position has little authority, Vermont makes the list because the leading candidate for LG is a virtual throwback to another age -- a moderate Republican who's been able to win a substantial number of crossover votes in a solidly blue state.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, is the heavy favorite to win another two-year term, as well as a strong candidate to succeed Democrat Peter Shumlin as governor whenever Shumlin steps down.

Scott has a construction company and drives a race car, making him well-known statewide. Following Tropical Storm Irene, Scott "was locked at the hip with Shumlin, traveling together everywhere during the relief and recovery efforts," said Chris Graff, a longtime political reporter who now works for National Life Group, a Vermont-based financial services company.

While Scott is strongly favored, he is expected to get a credible challenge from Dean Corren, a former state representative from the left-leaning Progressive Party. Corren is poised to receive $200,000 in public financing, which is a significant amount for a down-ballot race in a small-market state. Plus, "a small number of vocal conservatives in the Vermont GOP aren't particularly keen on Scott, because they see him as too moderate and not willing to be the national Republican party's spokesperson in Vermont," said Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis.

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