I must apologize for the lateness of this update. I had intended to do it several days ago, but developments last week in my personal and professional life (all good ones, rest assured) forced me to defer it to the weekend.
With that noted, let us proceed to the first edition of these 2012 gubernatorial race ratings.
You will notice I have included the recall election in Wisconsin, to be held June 5, 2012 — as such, this will almost certainly be the first and last post to rate the likely outcome of that race — as well as the gubernatorial election in the island territory of Puerto Rico, home to nearly 4 million Americans.
Montana might be the truest Tossup of them all this cycle. The few credible polls done of this race have consistently shown Montana Atty. Gen. Steve Bullock, the likely Democratic nominee, and ex-Rep. Rick Hill, the likely Republican nominee, locked in a statistical tie, with neither breaking above the low 40s at the most. This race will likely come down to whether Bullock’s personal likability, as well as the support of popular, term-limited Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his would-be successor and the strength of Montana National Guard Brig. Gen. John E. Walsh as Bullock’s running mate, can rise above Montana’s natural Republican bent. Like the Senate race in Montana this cycle, this contest will likely be very, very close.
The gubernatorial race in New Hampshire actually has a lot in common with the race in Montana. The state’s popular, centrist Democratic governor is not running for reelection, and the race to succeed him is a Tossup according to the polls. While Montana usually votes for Republicans at the presidential level, though its two senators are both Democrats, New Hampshire is a generally blue state that is nonetheless prone to dramatic shifts in the mood of its electorate, resulting in a landslide victory for Republicans seeking to take control of the state’s enormous legislature in 2010.
Whoever the Democratic nominee, who appears likely to be one of two former state senators — staid Jacalyn Cilley, or unorthodox Margaret Hassan — she will face a close battle with unsuccessful 2010 Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne, who holds a wide lead over a field of Republicans vying to carry their party’s standard into November. Like Montana, the race could hinge on the well-liked outgoing Democratic governor, Gov. John Lynch, and how strongly he makes his presence felt on the campaign trail.
In the Tossup/Lean R category for now, though a recent Public Policy Polling survey was the first (in a while, at least) to show the race nearly tied, is Washington. Democratic ex-Rep. Jay Inslee resigned his seat in the northern Seattle suburbs earlier this year to focus on his run for governor. In Washington’s top-two primary system, Inslee and his Republican rival, Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna, appear all but certain to finish one and two in whatever order and advance to the general election in November. Those primary results could be instructive as to how the general election will play out, though it is often dangerous to extrapolate a general electorate from a primary electorate — even in a top-two state like Washington.
McKenna, who has strived to cultivate a “moderate” image while in Olympia, led in most, if not all, polls prior to the latest PPP poll. That’s why, gun to my head, I think McKenna will break Washington’s streak of Democratic governors off at 28 years and render neighboring Oregon, which has not has a Republican in the governor’s mansion since 1987, the state with the longest bout of consecutive Democratic governors.
At this point, I have to mention several caveats.
First, the Democratic candidate in Puerto Rico is running on the ticket of the territory’s Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which is identified with the color red in Puerto Rican politics, and the Republican candidate’s Puerto Rican party, the New Progressive Party (PNP) is linked to the color blue. Because the vast majority of my readership is in fact not Puerto Rican, for the convenience of a more general audience, I have shaded Puerto Rico light blue for Lean D, rather than light red for Lean PPD.
Second, Puerto Rico is not a state, but a territory. However, at the same time it elects a governor this year, voters will also participate in a two-part, non-binding referendum on whether the territory’s current status should be changed. Any change would have to be approved by Congress, and the most recent El Nuevo Dia poll suggested that the outcome of the referendum is entirely up in the air due to 45 percent of voters’ confusion as to what the options mean. While surveys have rendered a mixed judgment on statehood’s chances, with two polls last fall showing it with a plurality of voters’ support and the most recent poll this month showing it slightly behind, it seems at least possible that on July 4, 2013, a 51st star representing the Caribbean island will be added to the American flag, and the winner of this gubernatorial election will be the country’s 51st state governor.
Based on that latest El Nuevo Dia poll, as well as a poll earlier this year showing virtually the same result, I expect Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño will be defeated by Democratic/PPD state Sen. Alejandro Garcia Padilla. Although Garcia Padilla’s personal style is bland and he has yet to articulate a strong personal stance on many issues, the pro-statehood Fortuño has been dogged by scandals in his administration and faced criticism for taking an “austerity” approach to the recession. His personal following is strong, but it has dwindled considerably from his big 2008 win. While Fortuño could still pull out a win if the PNP runs a strong campaign and Garcia Padilla or his party stumble, right now I give Garcia Padilla the clear advantage.
While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Wisconsin Republican Party have become national lightning rods and the Badger State is sharply polarized heading into next month’s unprecedented recall election, poll after poll is showing Republicans are enthusiastic to go to the polls in defense of their union-busting, government-slashing, take-no-prisoners governor.
Democrats are fired up as well, but between unions wanting to bash Walker over his controversial restrictions on collective bargaining rights for public servants, Democratic strategists wanting to make the recall election a referendum on Wisconsin’s severe decline in job creation under the Walker administration and a divisive primary between representatives of the two sides, the party has struggled to seize upon a clear strategy. Unions spent $2 million trying to boost former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in this month’s primary, only for even Falk’s home county to vote overwhelmingly for a rematch between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to the now-governor in 2010.
With Republicans appearing to have the enthusiasm edge and a stronger grasp on messaging, it is no real surprise that polls have produced a consensus around Walker topping Barrett by around five points. Conditions here are highly volatile and could change rapidly over the next couple of weeks before Election Day, but I do expect Walker to become the first governor in United States history to survive a recall election next month.
In November, Indiana and North Carolina look to elect Republican governors, but their Democratic opponents are not likely to give either race away easily. Indiana’s popular Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is term-limited, and the Republican nominee to replace him, Rep. Mike Pence, is a far more outspokenly partisan conservative with strong ties to the Christian right. Pence is thought to have an edge over the generally disorganized Indiana Democratic Party’s nominee, ex-House Speaker John Gregg — but without public polling in this robopoll-banning state, it is hard to know for sure.
Like Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Indiana, Gregg is ideologically closer to Indiana’s median than Pence, but Pence is a savvier and more experienced politician than Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Donnelly’s Senate opponent. I expect Pence to outperform Mourdock by about five points on Election Day, which is why I think this race is Lean R while the Senate race is a Tossup.
North Carolina is in an opposite situation from Indiana, as well as New Hampshire and Montana, wherein the retiring governor, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, is deeply unpopular — similar to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, whose lack of public approval is likely contributing to Inslee’s apparent deficit in that state. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Perdue’s number two, is set to face Republican nominee and 2008 gubernatorial nominee Patrick McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte.
McCrory has yet to trail in a poll. He was up comfortably against Perdue before she announced she would not seek another term, and he is still up by a somewhat smaller margin now that Dalton is the Democratic nominee instead. Dalton still has time to pull ahead, much as he did to top ex-Rep. Bob Etheridge in the Democratic primary, but for now, McCrory looks likely to take the governor’s mansion for the Republican Party — especially with how disorganized the North Carolina Democratic Party is. So, I guess it has one similarity with Indiana.
Just one race belongs in this column, and because it is so close to being a Safe D race the likes of which I see no reason to write up, I will spend little time on it. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the Democratic incumbent, narrowly overcame Republican businessman and frequent candidate Bill Maloney to win the right to serve out the term of former governor and current Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., last year. Since then, a couple of polls have shown Tomblin’s approval rating much higher than it was when he was still acting governor, while Maloney was tarnished by a poor 2011 campaign. A rare recent head-to-head poll showing this year’s scheduled rematch being close to a blowout for Tomblin makes me think this year will be a lot less close than last time — even with President Barack Obama, who scraped up less than 60 percent of the vote in the West Virginia primary against a prison inmate earlier this month, on the ballot.
Still, the Tomblin vs. Maloney race was a hard-fought scrape last year. Maloney ran strong in usually Democratic Monongalia County, his home county, and ran up solid margins in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, which was relatively friendly to then-Sen. Obama in 2008. He was overcome by Tomblin’s strength in southern West Virginia, from whence the governor hails, and Democratic turnout in other population centers in the largely rural state. The same thing will likely happen this year, though if Obama can repeat his respectable showing in Jefferson County — technically part of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and Obama’s best county in this month’s primary — Tomblin may actually get a rare boost from the president there, at Maloney’s expense.
Both of these states really fit the same mold. In both Utah and North Dakota, the local state affiliate of the Democratic Party is heading into this cycle with a vengeance, full of gumption and radiating confidence that they can notch major wins despite being in deep red states during a presidential election year.
North Dakota is where Democrats — or Democratic-NPLers, as they are locally known — probably have their best chance of the two. An unanswered Democratic internal recently gave Heidi Heitkamp, their likely Senate nominee, a significant lead. (A rare public poll showed her down a few points last week, but that poll was of the likely primary electorate and contained enough truly bizarre numbers that I am disinclined to give it much credence.) They have a strong candidate for North Dakota’s at-large House seat in the form of Pam Gulleson.
But while North Dakota has a tradition of sending Democratic-NPLers to Congress, Republicans have historically dominated its state government. That is why Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor likely faces a significant uphill battle to unseat Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who is seeking a full term over succeeding now-Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., last January.
Taylor, who likes to wear a large cowboy hat in public appearances and speaks with a generous Midwestern drawl, has a folksy and disarming personal style. If Democratic-NPLers really want to win the governor’s mansion, he is exactly the man to do it, and with such strong candidates in all three of the state’s major races this year, it is small wonder the party seems so rejuvenated and optimistic about its chances. But Dalrymple still has to be considered the favorite, and in the absence of polling, my hunch is that Taylor has a lot of ground to make up here.
In Utah, Democrats also landed a great candidate in the form of Utah National Guard Gen. Peter Cooke. He will take on Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who has struggled to hold down his right flank against charges he is too soft on illegal immigrants. Herbert’s difficulty with some conservatives, though, has helped to formulate an image of the governor as a respectable moderate in the mold of his predecessor, failed 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. And Cooke, by floating the possibility of retiring Latter-day Saints Church Elder Marlin Jensen as his running mate, inevitably disappointed with his eventual choice of lawyer Vincent Rampton to join the ticket.
To Utah Democrats’ credit, though, both Cooke and Rampton received wildly enthusiastic welcomes at the party’s convention, and Democrats in the Beehive State maintain that with Cooke, they have their best possible chance to beat Herbert. The party has also lined up surprisingly strong candidates in difficult races like U.S. Senate, UT-02, UT-03 and Utah attorney general.
Ultimately, with Mormon and former Utah resident Mitt Romney on the ballot, Republicans will probably make out very well in Utah despite local Democrats’ enthusiasm and bullishness. But for their sheer pluck and for Cooke’s surprisingly strong profile for what should be an unwinnable race in an impossibly red state, I have to rate this a notch below Safe R. They must be seeing something that makes them smile here.
Overall, it does appear Republicans will do quite well in gubernatorial races this cycle. But it is notable that while I rate three races — Missouri, Vermont and Delaware, all of which have exceedingly popular Democratic governors running for reelection against weak Republican opponents — as Safe D, I rate none as Safe R at this point. Republicans hold advantages in many of the battlegrounds and potential battlegrounds this cycle, including the looming Wisconsin recall, but I think that in a worst-case scenario for them, they could lose every gubernatorial contest this year. I just think that is really unlikely.
I am not going to bother “forcing” the single Tossup/Tilt R on the map, because a majority of governors does not give a party any special level of control or victory beyond mere bragging rights. Besides, while I am tracking the Puerto Rico race, there is an “apples to oranges” issue that doesn’t seem necessary to get into. For what it is worth, I will predict Republicans retain a majority of state governorships after this cycle.