Waiting for Cory Booker

November 16, 2012

The off-year governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia are always seen as a measure of the political environment a year after a presidential election.

But at least one – and possibly both – of the 2013 governor’s races could be less-than-marquee contests. And whether they will or won’t be very much depends on two men: Cory Booker and (to a lesser extent) Mark Warner.


Newark Mayor Cory Booker. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

In New Jersey, Booker is clearly looking like Democrats’ best hope to beat the popular Gov. Chris Christie (R). But decision time is approaching, and it’s far from clear that the Newark mayor will make the race.

Christie might not run away with reelection in a blue state, but Booker would instantly catapult the race to the forefront of the political world in a way that others -- state Senate President Steve Sweeney among them -- wouldn't.

In Virginia, a new poll released this week showed something that really shouldn’t surprise us: Warner can essentially have his old job back if he wants it. The popular senator leads both likely GOP nominees (Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling) by 18-20 points.


At the same time it appears very unlikely, at this point, that Warner would run for his old job, which he held from 2002 to 2006. And if he doesn't run, the race should be very competitive in a swing state.

The 2013 governor’s races tend to get started later than other races, with both sides focused heavily on the presidential race the preceding year. Thus, we don’t even know who the candidates will be in New Jersey with less than a year to go.

Christie hasn’t even said for sure that he will seek reelection (though there’s little reason to doubt he will), while the first Democrat to announce in Virginia – former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe – just announced his campaign.

The big questions for now are whether Booker will run and how the GOP nomination shakes out in Virginia, where Cuccinelli will face Bolling at the party convention. The state GOP's decision to nominate via convention was seen as a boon to Cuccinelli, a conservative favorite.

Beyond the two races in 2013 are 36 races in 2014 – the Big Enchilada when it comes to governor’s races.

Below we look at the 15 of them that we see as most likely to be competitive. Basically all of these races have yet to take shape (much like New Jersey), so this is all very preliminary and based very much on the strength of the incumbents and the political leaning of the states.

As always, No. 1 is most likely to change control.

To the line!

15. California (Democratic-controlled): If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) does not run for reelection, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) says he will make a bid. Another name to watch is Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor who made his entry to the national scene this year when he chaired the Democratic National Convention. If Brown runs again, he would be pursuing a fourth overall term as governor. California is a blue state overall, but it gave Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger two terms before Brown recaptured the state's top job for Democrats in 2010. 

14. New Jersey (Republican-controlled) (2013): Christie remains popular and doesn’t have any major Democratic opponents with less than a year to go. If Booker runs, this is a huge race; if he doesn’t, Democrats might struggle to compete. But remember, this is a blue state, so if Christie loses his popularity (the Sandy relief effort is a huge test), the race will jump up this list quickly regardless of his opponent.

13. Wisconsin (R): Many national Democrats opposed the state-led attempt to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R) this past summer, believing that the party should have bided its time and targeted all of its energy and resources on Walker’s 2014 reelection race. Given the distaste Democrats (still) feel toward Walker and President Obama’s convincing win in the state, it’s hard to imagine Walker not getting a real challenge in November 2014. But the Democratic bench isn’t all that strong, and there are some reports that two-time failed candidate Tom Barrett might run a third time. Democrats would be better off finding a fresh(er) face.

12. New Hampshire (D): The Granite State is one of two states — Vermont is the other — that forces its governors to run for reelection every two years. Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan (D) won a contested race last week, but given the swing nature of the state, she could well face a real challenge in two years' time. One thing working against Republicans: The party was dealt an across-the-board defeat in New Hampshire on Nov. 6.

11. Connecticut (D): Gov. Dan Malloy (D) hasn’t been shy about pushing his agenda and, in the process, has made his fair share of enemies. His approval rating remains below 50 percent in most polling and top Republican leaders in the state House and state Senate seem to be plotting their bids against him. Also keep an eye on 2010 GOP nominee Tom Foley, who lost a very close race. Still, this is Connecticut, where a loss by a Democrat generally takes extraordinary circumstances.

10. Ohio (R): Gov. John Kasich (R) has recovered in a big way after some tough early sledding and a rebuke from voters on his effort to curb collective bargaining rights for unions. But the GOP legislature’s move to defund Planned Parenthood is something of a minefield. Former governor Ted Strickland (D) appears to be girding for a rematch.

9. Arizona (R): Gov. Jan Brewer (R) appears to be term-limited … unless she’s not. Despite having only been elected just once in her own right, in 2010, Arizona law appears to say that Brewer’s partial term (she replaced Janet Napolitano as governor when Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary in 2009), means she can’t run again. Brewer has suggested there might be some wiggle room in the law, though. Democrats have struggled to recruit for statewide office in this red-leaning state.

8. Michigan (R): Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) numbers have been on the mend, and automated Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling recently showed him running ahead of a generic Democratic opponent. But given the state's economic climate, he's not a sure bet for 2012. Democrats, though, will need to find a solid recruit for the race -- something they didn't do in 2010.

7. Pennsylvania (R): Gov. Tom Corbett's (R) approval ratings were underwater in a recent PPP poll that also showed him trailing a generic Democrat by 10 points. The buzzy Democratic names at this point include Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord,  former congressman Joe Sestak, and Tom Wolf, who served in former governor Ed Rendell's (D) administration.

6. Illinois (D): Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is among the most unpopular governors – if not the most unpopular – in the country, which puts this blue state at risk. A recent Chicago Tribune poll put his approval at an abysmal 26 percent, compared to 52 percent disapproval. On the GOP side, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford could run, and state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who lost in a crowded 2010 primary, is moving toward a repeat bid. (Dillard, notably, suffered two years ago because he had endorsed Obama for president in 2008 and even appeared in an Obama ad.)

5. Virginia (R) (2013): This 2013 contest could be the best/nastiest race of the entire two-year cycle. Assuming Warner stays out of the race, 2009 candidate Terry McAuliffe should have the Democratic nomination to himself. On the Republican side, Bolling yielded to current Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 and isn't happy that Cuccinelli is running against him this year after Cuccinelli signaled that he would stick to running for reelection as attorney general. Cuccinelli, a conservative firebrand, has to be considered the favorite, and a general election between him and the former top Democratic Party official could be one for the ages.

4. Arkansas (D): The state has a strong history of electing Democratic governors, but hugely popular Gov. Mike Beebe (D) is term-limited, and the state's increasing Republican tilt means this should be a good pickup opportunity. Retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Ross was believed to be eyeing the state's top job, but surprised observers when he announced he would not run. Democratic state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is already in, while over on the Republican side, keep an eye on Lt. Gov. Mark Darr

3. Rhode Island (Independent-controlled): This one ranks high because 1) Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) is pretty darn unpopular and 2) anything can happen in a three-way race. Possible Democratic candidates include state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, former state auditor Ernest Almonte and former state attorney general Patrick Lynch. On the GOP side, 2010 nominee John Robitaille came very close to pulling a big upset two years ago and may try again, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is the GOP’s next big hope.

2. Florida (R): No governor elected in 2010 got off to a worse start than Rick Scott (R). While he seems to have found his footing over the past year or so, Scott’s approval ratings and the competitiveness of the Sunshine State (Obama won it in 2008 and 2012) guarantees a very tough race. At the moment, the most likely Democratic candidate looks like former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who has bent over backwards to prove that all the stuff he said he when he was a Republican doesn’t apply anymore. (Heck, he spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention!) While Crist brings heavy baggage to the race, it’s not clear that Democrats have another solid alternative. And Crist was a popular governor.

1. Maine (R): Coming from Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R) never really gets his due on the national scene as a truly fascinating governor. With a penchant for shooting his mouth off, though, he's something short of popular in this blue-leaning state. But given how often the state fields liberal-leaning independents, LePage likely won't need to get anywhere near 50 percent of the vote to win reelection. Independent Eliot Cutler is a good bet to run again; Democrats, meanwhile, have struggled to recruit top-flight candidates for governor and Senate.

Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Sean Sullivan · November 16, 2012