Some safe state governors face unexpectedly tough fall fights


Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) faces primary voters on Saturday. Polls show he trails state Sen. David Ige (D). (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

With no big national wave benefiting either party this year, some Democrats and Republicans are finding themselves unexpectedly competitive in territory that’s usually anything but — and at least half a dozen governors in so-called safe states, who tend to expect few bumps on this stretch of the road to re-election, are finding their campaign fortunes oddly uncertain.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) faces voters this Saturday in a Democratic primary in which he has outspent his opponent, state Sen. David Ige (D), by a 10-to-1 margin. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) won with more than 63 percent of the vote in 2010 in his heavily Republican state. But polls show both incumbents trailing.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) faces a fierce challenge from businessman Tom Foley (R), who is expected to win his primary election next week. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) trails his opponent, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner (R), in an ordinarily blue state. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) faces a close rematch against state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) that has drawn national attention. And Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is running neck and neck with state Sen. Jason Carter (D), in a state where no Democrat has won the governorship since 1998.

All six governors are running in states their political party firmly controls. They can point to unemployment rates that are far lower than when they assumed office, thanks to hundreds of thousands of new jobs created under their watch.

Yet they all now find themselves in jeopardy, thanks to self-inflicted wounds.

Abercrombie began fighting almost immediately with his state legislature, proposed to kick the NFL’s Pro Bowl out of Honolulu and sparked a public feud with the widow of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), the godfather of state politics. Two recent polls showed Ige leading.

Brownback launched a war on moderate Republicans in his state Senate, then shepherded a big income tax cut that will create an estimated $330 million budget shortfall. Two agencies have cut the state’s bond rating in recent months over the shortfall.

Malloy raised taxes and cut union benefits to help his state out of the recession, then promised voters a one-time tax rebate that never materialized. Quinn, who won office with just 47 percent of the vote in 2010, signed what he said was a temporary income tax hike, then proposed making the increase permanent.

“Quinn has to significantly improve on his own 2010 performance, after raising income taxes, after falling way short on improving the economy and in the midst of a federal investigation into a 2010 anti-violence program and a lawsuit over patronage hiring practices at the Department of Transportation,” said Rich Miller, editor of Capitol Fax, an Illinois political publication.

Like Brownback, Haley has fought with members of her own party, though over new ethics rules she supports, among other issues. In Georgia, Deal has faced questions over his move to replace a state ethics investigator who was looking into his campaign’s finances.

“Deal has been dogged by numerous ethics controversies, none of them a major bombshell individually, but the sheer number of them [are] having a cumulative effect, I believe, on his approval numbers,” said Tom Crawford, editor of The Georgia Report, an influential state political tipsheet.

In the absence of a national political wave favoring one party or the other, governor’s races can become intensely localized, taking them out of the prism of typical partisanship.

That makes for competitive races even in states ordinarily dominated by one party. In the last decade, Republicans have won governorships in deep blue states like Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii; Democrats have served in governor’s offices in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Tennessee.

But it’s rare for a sitting governor to lose re-election. In the 117 governor’s elections that have taken place since 2004, just 11 governors have lost their seats, including two who ascended to the governorship to replace predecessors who vacated the office, according to data maintained by Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

In many of those cases, and in several this year, the governors involved were described by fellow political insiders as difficult to get along with. Even Democrats say Abercrombie and Malloy are difficult to get along with, and more than 100 prominent Republicans recently endorsed Brownback’s opponent in Kansas.

The unexpected battlegrounds complicate matters for both national parties, which initially planned to focus attention on major battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania. The Republican Governors Association this week launched a new advertisement in Kansas, attacking Democrat Davis for his ties to President Obama. Both the RGA and the Democratic Governors Association have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in South Carolina, too.

But at a moment when voters associate every member of Congress with their party’s national leaders, governor’s races — even those in states normally controlled by one party — can still turn on a local concern.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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