The gubernatorial landscape is best described as a mix bag. While it is clear Republicans hold an edge in Senate and House races (unclear how big) nobody can say the same for many Governors races.
Today, Republicans hold 29 of 50 gubernatorial mansions. They are moving heaven and earth to keep it that way. But considering the breadth of competitive seats they have to defend, MI, WI, FL, ME, AK, AZ and KS of all places, this is no easy task. Polls are neck and neck in many of these races.
But just because Democrats control a mere 21 Governor’s mansions does not mean they are in the clear. Just as Republicans are defending reliably red states like AZ and KS, Democrats are fighting to hold a number of reliably blue states; IL, MA, MD, RI and CT top this list with Hawaii looking like more of a long-shot for the GOP. Democrats are also struggling to hold swing CO.
Considering the national climate and mood one has to ask what is causing such a phenomenon? The answer is as simple as it is complicated. Voters are responding to unpopular/popular policies unique to each state and their evaluation criteria in gubernatorial races are different from federal elections.
Consider Michigan. It is all but certain the state will send Democratic Congressman Gary Peters to the Senate but they might retain GOP Governor Rick Snyder. In other states the dynamic might reverse. Alaska might replace Senator Begich (D) with Republican Dan Sullivan but replace Governor Parnell (R) with a Unity ticket of a Democrat and Independent (formerly a Republican).
Primarily. many of these races are competitive not solely because of their split electorate but because of the controversial policies that have been pursued by outgoing or incumbent Governors. In WI and MI, controversial CBA reforms have made GOP Governors the target of unions. In FL, Rick Scott’s refusal to expand Medicaid and his funding or lack there of education has made the public split on his reelection. In ME, Governor Paul LePage’s controversial style has him statistically tied in a three-way race. Alaska is competitive because of an ongoing National Guard scandal and Parnell’s unpopular reform of the state’s oil and gas taxes.
Then we come to Kansas. Kansas is unique because Governor Sam Brownback implemented one of the most expansive conservative agendas in the US. He eliminated numerous taxes, knocked out many Republican moderates in the legislature and aided in the passage of strong voter ID laws. The result has been the Governor being in a dead heat against his Democratic opponent and if he holds on it will not be considered a ratification of his policies. Rather, it will be because the state is so overwhelmingly Republican.
Democratic policies have led to problems for the party, albeit for different reasons. While many GOP Governors pursued policies to cut government and save money, Democratic Governors went the opposite direction. In the open Maryland seat, Governor Martin O’Malley’s legacy of over 40 tax increases weighs heavily on his potential Democratic successor. In Massachusetts former Governor Deval Patrick’s tenure is not aiding Martha Coakley. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy is struggling in a rematch against 2010 opponent Tom Foley. Malloy has passed over $1.8 billion in tax increases since 2011. Illinois, despite its blueness is competitive because Governor Pat Quinn hiked the state’s income taxes and now wants to make the hike permanent. His saving grace may be Cook County’s turnout. In the perennial swing state of CO, Governor Hickenlooper’s decision to pass restrictive gun control measures, new energy efficiency requirements and increase taxes has made his race a dogfight.
Other states such as RI, HI and AZ are marginally competitive. However, despite the outgoing Governor’s policies lingering the incumbent parties look likely to hold each seat.
Even in my home state, Idaho, the public is unhappy with the majority party’s policies. Governor Butch Otter has had to fend off attacks on his record of not expanding Medicaid and inadequate funding of education. Ironically, he is being hit from the right for being to moderate in establishing a state health exchange.
The restive mood of the public in gubernatorial races reflects an overall unsettled and unhappy voting bloc. Indeed, a new CNN poll found 7 out of 10 voters were angry and an astonishingly high number of people felt the nation was on the wrong track. It is not a stretch to say these feelings are bleeding into statewide constitutional elections.
So when the dust settles after November 4th individuals should not be surprised to see Republicans having dominated Senate and House races in states Romney won. But, individuals should also not be surprised to see both Republicans and Democrats occupying Governor’s mansions in typically red and blue states.
The lesson such an occurrence teaches is clear. Partisan polarization at the federal level is clear and undiminished. But, at the state level, policies and their impacts can have surprising consequences.
Addendum: I exclude Arkansas and Pennsylvania from this list because Pennsylvania is gone for the GOP and Arkansas is likely Republican for partisan reasons not necessarily related to state policies. As for New Hampshire, only a single New England poll has shown the race competitive.