Just a few months ago I would have never contemplated writing this post. Polls of Governor’s races across the country showed what one would typically expect according to states partisan leans. In red and blue states, Republican and Democratic candidates/incumbents were almost uniformly polling well. In swing state races the polls were fairly even. But in the last few months the polls have shifted, sometimes significantly, against the party in power, regardless of the state’s lean.
Just look at National Journal’s latest list of Governor’s mansions most likely to flip. The top four races are what you would mostly expect. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s 1st term has been embroiled in scandal. Tom LePage is a fire-breathing conservative sitting in light blue Maine. Arkansas has turned ruby-red under Obama and popular Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is retiring. The Democrats replacement, former Congressman Mike Ross, is predictably being dragged down by the President.
Get beyond these three races and the list does not fit into the red/blue mold. In blue Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner is thought to have an advantage. Deeply blue Connecticut is seeing its Democratic Governor see a serious threat from 2010 Republican nominee Tom Foley. In Kansas, former Senator and current Governor Sam Brownback is struggling. Perhaps most surprising, Hawaii, one of the most Democratic states in the country by PVI and voter registration, is contemplating backing former GOP Lt. Governor Duke Aiona. In red Georgia and South Carolina, voters seem to be having second thoughts about their 2010 choices.
Most likely many of these states will revert to form in the end and back the incumbent Governor or act according to the state’s lean. Swing states such as Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin could go either way (though the GOP Governors are slightly favored in each). But the current closeness of these races captures an interesting phenomenon resulting from the country’s unique electoral system.
Because the US only has a single countrywide federal election (Presidential) every four years political parties hold less sway in our political system. Unlike in Europe, where candidates must swear fealty to the party platform, partisan candidates here can break from their party’s positions. Candidates are more powerful and valuable than the political parties they affiliate with.
Yet, candidates running for President or Congress are more ideologically defined to voters because of how voters perceive the national party. For example, a Democrat running for Congress in Idaho could be conservative but still lose because voters assume he shares the values of Nancy Pelosi. Federal candidates are more closely tied to the national party even if they try to differentiate themselves from it.
State level politics and office are quite different. Take the case of West Virginia Senator and former Governor Joe Manchin. Manchin overcame this obstacle to win an open Senate seat in 2010. Manchin won the Senate seat largely because voters knew he was a different kind of Democrat than Obama. As Governor, Manchin governed as a conservative Democrat in an ever reddening state. This was characterized by an ad he ran in his 2010 campaign shooting a gun through the then pending Cap and Trade legislation.
The above encapsulates a fascinating aspect of our federalist system. Voters evaluate state/statewide candidates differently than federal officials. Where federal candidates are linked to the national party, state/statewide candidates are not. That is why a Democrat could be elected Governor in Arkansas in 2010 even when two Democratic Congressmen and a Senator lost, why many Southern legislatures stayed Democratic even as their states were voting red at the federal level and why Republican and Democratic candidates are defying expectations in several states.
Of course, in state/statewide races candidate qualities and money matter. But so do state issues. Abortion and gay marriage, issues that tend to dominate in federal elections, have less salience in state races. Notably, while endangered Democrats Congressmen/women and Senators are running ads attacking their opponents as extreme on social issues, endangered state officials are touting their successes and experiences. State issues such as roads, transportation, spending, taxes and education matter more. Of course these issues matter as well at the federal level. They just matter less.
Consider the cases studies close races provide to highlight this phenomena. In Pennsylvania, Corbett has not only been embroiled in scandal but he also cut education. In Illinois, Pat Quinn doubled the state income tax, failed to rein in the state pension shortfall and is seen as incompetent. In Connecticut, Dannel Malloy is struggling after hiking taxes and failing to balance the state budget. In Hawaii, Governor Neil Ambercrombie was defeated in his primary by David Ige. Ambercrombie’s legacy of cutting education, raising taxes and siding with business interests over the environment is haunting Ige. In Kansas, Brownback’s massive reduction in the income tax has led to a state budget shortfall and cuts to education. In all these cases voters are weighing their vote on a different criteria than they do at the federal level.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention some races feature special circumstances. Maine and Hawaii feature three-way races helping the GOP. Pennsylvania is gone for the GOP because of Corbett’s numerous corruption scandals. The President’s weak approval ratings will also play in many races. But just how much is unclear. Voters can send a clearer message of disapproval to the President by sending a GOP Senator or Congressperson to DC to oppose the President than electing a GOP Governor.
Almost every single race mentioned in National Journal seems to be acting immune to the federal environment which is firmly against Democrats. Races with endangered Democratic Governors exist because of the failings of the Governors. Their saving grace may be the number of competitive Gubernatorial contests across the country shows voters are willing to split their ballots for state and federal offices under the right circumstances. Just not for federal office.