The big question staring down the political world right now is whether the Democrats will recapture control of the House and Senate in November. The focus of most of this year's political reporting has been on the big Senate races; coverage of the Senate races in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana, and (obviously) Connecticut has far outstripped coverage of any Governor's race.
The focus on the federal races is understandable. The biggest political media outlets are the national news sources, which drive the coverage of other political news services, and gubernatorial races rarely have the same national impact as Senate and even House races, since the scope of any governor's influence largely ends at the state border. The national environment is usually far more interesting than that of any state, and it's much easier to nationalize Senate and House races.
But the same factors which make the gubernatorial races less interesting to the national media also makes them more intriguing to me. Local issues tend to dominate gubernatorial races, which gives gubernatorial candidates some insulation against the effects of the national environment.
Michigan is the perfect example of this dynamic. Incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm
is easily the most vulnerable Democratic governor in the country this year. Polls have showed even or slightly behind her GOP challenger, Dick DeVos
, who is far from a perfect recruit (he is the heir of his father's fortune from Amway
, which is not exactly a greatly loved corporation).
But in the Senate race, incumbent Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow has led her GOP opponent by blowout margins in most polls, despite repeated GOP efforts to talk up the race's potential. GOP nominee Mike Bouchard is one of the GOP's top recruits, but he still trailed by 17 points in the latest poll by Strategic Vision - a GOP polling firm. The same poll had DeVos leading Granholm by 4 points.
Michigan is probably the best example of this, but there are plenty of other races with similar situations. In the Minnesota Senate race, polls show first-tier Republican recruit (Congressman Mark Kennedy
) trailing Democrat Amy Klobuchar
by double digits, despite the fact that Klobuchar has never held statewide or federal office. But in the gubernatorial race, GOP Gov
. Tim Pawlenty
holds an equally solid lead over each of his potential Democratic opponents - including incumbent Attorney General
), who was considered the prime recruit for the race when he first entered. In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen
is a safe bet for reelection while Congressman Harold Ford
, perhaps the Democrats' most eloquent and charismatic Senate candidate of this cycle, is struggling to stay competitive.
There are perhaps a dozen potentially competitive Senate seats this cycle, but there are nearly twenty gubernatorial races which could ultimately swing either way - even in states as blue as Massachusetts and as red as Georgia. Democrats are currently 6 seats short of a majority in the Senate, 15 seats short in the House, and 4 short in the nation's gubernatorial race. It's not difficult to envision a scenario where Dems fail to gain a majority in either house of Congress while taking control of the governor's mansions of 8 more states (if they can pull off upsets in states like MN, GA, or NV).
It's even possible to envision a scenario where Democrats do gain majorities in both houses of Congress, but come up short in the gubernatorial races (if potentially vulnerable Dem governors fall in MI, WI, and OR).
With that in mind, I'm going to emulate Chuck Todd, Kos, and others by ranking the 20 gubernatorial races where control of the Governor's mansion is most likely to switch parties. Feel free to comment on where you disagree:
1. New York - George Pataki (R) is retiring
This is the one race that's already in the bag. Unless they find a few hundred thousand dollars in Spitzer's freezer, he'll win by 30 points.
2. Ohio - Bob Taft (R) is retiringThis is a case where national politics may actually help the GOP candidate, while the state environment overwhelmingly favors the Dem. Blackwell hasn't caught fire the way the GOP hoped, and Strickland seems to have run a seamless campaign so far. Taft is acting like a 4-ton anchor on every Ohio GOPer.
3. Maryland - Bob Ehrlich (R) is running for re-election
Martin O'Malley is so well-known in MD that this is almost like a race with two incumbents, and O'Malley's negatives are amazingly low for someone with his name ID. Ehrlich actually doesn't have any glaring vulnerabilities (besides his party), but it's tough to see how he closes the gap at this point.
4. Massachusetts - Mitt Romney (R) is retiringThere actually hasn't been a Democratic governor in this bluest of states since Michael Dukakis retired more than 15 years ago. It looks like that streak is about to end, but Kerry Healey can't be counted out yet. Deval Patrick looks like the likely Dem nominee, but I'd actually peg Chris Gabrieli as the strongest of the Dem candidates.
5. Arkansas - Mike Huckabee (R) is retiringHuckabee is a very popular outgoing Gov. in this red state, so it would normally be a tough pick-up for the Dems, but Attorney General Mike Beebe has led in every poll I've seen. Asa Hutchison is closing the gap and will have plenty of money, but this is still very much leaning Dem.
6. Iowa - Tom Vilsack (D) is retiring
I have been underwhelmed by Chet Culver thus far, and Jim Nussle is the GOP's best horse in Iowa. Vilsack isn't sporting great numbers, but Nussle is a Washington Republican - not exactly a great thing to have on your resume this year. This is the first race without a definite tilt to one side, but I would put my money on Nussle (if I had enough to gamble with).
7. Colorado - Bill Owens (R) is retiring
Remember when Bill Owens was floated as a strong presidential candidate for '08? Well, the poor year for CO Republicans in 2004 and the crash in his approval rating last year seemed to end that speculation, and Bob Beauprez has suffered collateral damage in his bid to replace Owens. Democrat Bill Ritter is still the frontrunner at this point, but Owens's approval rating have been climbing, and this race looks like it will be close to the finish.
8. Michigan - Jennifer Granholm is running for re-election
See above. Once Granholm starts engaging this race, this will probably go into a dead heat. This is a true toss-up.
9. Oregon - Ted Kulongowski (D) is running for re-election
Kulongoski has had approval ratings south of 40 for months, and this would be ranked much higher if the GOP had a better-known candidate in the race. But they don't, and attorney Ron Saxton will have to rely on Kulongoski's unpopularity to carry him over the finish line. I think he'll come up a bit short.
10. Alaska - Frank Murkowski (R) is running for re-election
If Murkowski loses the primary, then I'd move this race down (probably to 12). If he wins it, I'd move it up (probably to 6). This ranking is a weighted average of the two, since the polls show Murkowski trailing in the primary. Tony Knowles is the really the only chance the Dems have in Alaska, but remember that Knowles couldn't beat a flawed GOP candidate named Murkowski in 2004...
11. Nevada - Kenny Guinn (R) is retiring
The state GOP here is horribly divided over this 3-way race, particularly since Guinn and GOP frontrunner Jim Gibbons are hardly bosom buddies. Jim Gibson has the potential to turn some heads assuming he wins the Dem nomination, and I could easily see this race becoming a toss-up.
12. Wisconsin - James Doyle (D) is running for re-election
Jim Doyle's approval ratings have been richocheting between 40% and 50% for over a year, and Rep. Mark Green is a first-tier recruit. But the lack of a strong GOP challenger in the Senate race and the fact that Green is a House GOPer in a year where that label is anathema makes me think this race will slip away from the Republicans once election day gets closer.
(Note: There's a big drop in actual competitiveness after Wisconsin)
13. Georgia - Sonny Perdue (R) is running for re-election
I grew up in Georgia, so I admit I might be reading too much into this race, but I don't think that Perdue is as safe a bet as people seem to assume, and I'm intentionally pushing this race higher than it deserves to make that point. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor really hit his stride in the closing months of the Dem primary, has very strong support from the African-American community in GA, has the most folksy-yet-genuine political slogan of this cycle, and will not be short on money as election day approaches. I also think Perdue might not get the turnout he needs in rural GA. If that happens and Taylor can get a big turnout in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, this could easily become competitive, and a Dem tidal wave could sweep Taylor into the Governor's mansion. But I admit that those are a whole lot of ifs...
14. Rhode Island - Don Carcieri (R) is running for re-election
This race will rise in the rankings if Chafee loses the GOP primary, which is a close call at this point. Carcieri's approval ratings are just above 50%, but need to be closer to 60% to make him safe in this very blue state. Charlie Fogarty will make a decent nominee, but he needs Laffey on the ticket for the GOP in order to have a real chance.
15. California - Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is running for re-election
I rate this higher than IL simply because Schwarzenegger has the wrong party ID for the state, and I rate it lower than GA because the challenging nominee seems weak. Any Dem will get 45% in CA, but Chuck Todd said it best - something about Dem nominee Phil Angelides just screams "47%." Angelides needs to get everyone to see this website. Seriously.
16. Illinois - Rod Blagojevich (D) is running for re-election
Blago is being treated as much more vulnerable than he actually is, I think. His approval ratings are not great, but they aren't terrible either. And Judy Baar Topinka is a good recruit for the GOP, but she's not great. Add in the fact that this is a blue state, and Topinka would need a near-perfect storm to win.
17. Florida - Jeb Bush (R) is retiring
Charlie Crist is as good a candidate as the GOP has in a governor's race this year, and he is basically going to get a free pass from here on out in the GOP primary. I just don't see how either Jim Davis or Rod Smith raise enough money to close the gap before November. The biggest strike against Crist is that Katherine Harris will be on the same ballot, and that will probably draw lots of Dem voters. If Harris loses the primary, this race drops below ME and MN in my book.
18. Maine - John Baldacci (D) is running for re-election
Baldacci trailed his opponent in a recent poll, has lower approval ratings than Blagojevich does in IL, and is going to have to deal with the fact that Olympia Snowe will be easily winning re-election in the Senate race. But this is still a blue(ish) state and Baldacci will have a big money edge. Also - and I know this sounds silly, but it's true - are Maine voters really going to want their chief executive to be named Governor Woodcock?
19. Minnesota - Tim Pawlenty (R) is running for re-election
See above discussion. This is only barely a blue state, and Pawlenty has approval ratings which have never dropped below 50%. Hatch still looks like a safe bet for the Dem nomination, but he just doesn't seem to have "it" for whatever reason, and I can't see him winning in November unless that changes.
20. South Carolina - Mark Sanford (R) is running for re-election
This race was closer than expected in a recent poll, which is a head-scratcher since all the tangibles are in Sanford's favor: This is a deep red state, Sanford's approval ratings are pretty good, and Dem nominee Tommy Moore hasn't even really made a move. For whatever reason, Sanford seems vaguely vulnerable, but it's tough to imagine him ultimately losing.
21. Pennsylvania - Ed Rendell (D) is running for re-election
22. Alabama - Bob Riley (R) is running for re-election
In both of these races, the incumbent holds a solid lead over the challenger.Riley's GOP label helps him more in AL than Rendell's Dem label helps him in PA, but Lucy Baxley is a stronger challenger than Lynn Swann. It will take a major change of some kind to make either of these races close.
The rest of the races aren't really worth mentioning. So comment away!