Dan Balz
Dan Balz
The Take

Governors’ races offer a barometer for 2016

In Washington, the focus right now is on the Senate: Who will control it after the November midterm elections? But the National Governors Association winter meeting this weekend is a reminder that the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial elections will be equally important in shaping the political future.

Washington remains gridlocked by divided government. President Obama, Democrats and Republicans have all but given up on anything more than modest cooperation on legislative issues and are now shaping their strategies to the midterm elections. That means the states continue to loom larger on the policy front — and rarely have the states charted such ideologically divergent paths on policies.

The stakes for both parties in this year’s elections are particularly high. Republicans control 29 governor’s offices around the country and say they have a story to tell — a narrative that highlights the effects of small-government governance. Republicans argue that their conservative policies have helped their state economies rebound more rapidly than states under Democratic control. They believe that can serve as a national model and hope to make it a foundation of a 2016 presidential campaign.

“If anything, what I would suspect is that many on the other side of the aisle are starting to recognize that while the confidence the American people have in our national government is, if not an all-time low, it’s lower than I can ever remember, that the confidence in state governments is in many states, especially those led by Republican governors, just the opposite,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R). “The other side’s going to have a hard time arguing with success.”

Democrats want to undercut the GOP by arguing that the economic records of Republican governors are less rosy than advertised. Some of the governors have produced significantly more jobs; others, however, are lagging behind their pledges. Democrats will hammer those who have not kept pace.

Beyond that, Democrats argue, many Republican governors who promised a laser focus on jobs and the economy got sidetracked by a conservative social issue agenda that has been both divisive and harmful to many residents. They will try, at least obliquely, to tarnish some of the GOP incumbents by suggesting that in policy, if not exactly in style, they are following the priorities of the party’s most conservative wing, on issues such as the right to work, abortion and women’s rights.

“The bottom line is that, while Democratic governors have focused on job creation, not only have Republican governors passed out tax cuts and goodies for the top 1 percent while they paid for it by slashing public education and going after working-class Americans, but they’ve been distracted by the same social issues that the folks in the tea party Congress have been focused on,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Gubernatorial elections long have been decided according to a combination of the national climate and state-specific issues. But the partisan debate in Washington has now spilled more directly into the states, and there was no better reflection of that than remarks Obama made before a fundraising event Thursday night for the Democratic Governors Association. He spoke of Republican governors the same way he often speaks of Republicans in Congress.

“They’re pursuing the same top-down, failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead,” he said of GOP governors. “They’re paying for it by cutting investments in the middle class, oftentimes doing everything they can to squeeze folks who are bargaining on behalf of workers. . . . They’re making it harder for working families to access health insurance. In some states, they’re making it harder even for Americans to exercise their right to vote.”

Obama seemed to recognize that all the elections this fall will become nationalized. Given the president’s low approval ratings, Democratic governors don’t necessarily want that to be the case. They would like some distance from what they sense is a landscape that has grown more challenging over time. They know Republicans will try to nationalize the races around the president’s unpopularity in many of the most contested states and around his Affordable Care Act.

There are some important differences between the competition for control of the Senate and the gubernatorial races.

Of 36 Senate seats at stake, Democrats are defending 21 seats. Of the 36 gubernatorial races, Republicans are defending 22. Beyond that is the difference in geography. In the Senate, Democrats are fighting on largely Republican terrain.

Democrats currently hold seven Senate seats in strongly Republican states. In three of those states — West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana — longtime Democratic incumbents are retiring or have retired, and Democrats face huge obstacles trying to hold them. In four other states — Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina — incumbent Democratic senators face stiff challenges.

In the gubernatorial races, there is a different dynamic. Republicans must defend territory that, if not solidly blue in political complexion, voted Democratic in at least the past two presidential elections. Some haven’t backed a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan. Those states, now under control of Republican governors, are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine.

Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, agreed that those six states will demand time, attention and resources. “They’re all going to be competitive and expensive races,” he said.

The 2010 elections brought in a new crop of Republican governors across the industrial heartland. Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania now have records to defend and must hope that the electorate tilts as strongly in the Republicans’ direction as it did in the tea-party-powered election of 2010.

Of those four, Corbett is by far the most endangered. Elsewhere, Florida’s Rick Scott and Maine’s Paul LePage are similarly embattled.

Other states already are in play. Republicans see a major opportunity to embarrass Obama and the Democrats in the president’s home state of Illinois. At this point, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is by far the most endangered of all his party’s incumbents seeking reelection. In Arkansas, popular term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe will be stepping down in a state that continues to trend Republican. Both sides say there are other potentially competitive races that they hope will develop this year.

Cox conceded that gubernatorial races are harder to nationalize than House or Senate races. But he noted that in the most competitive contests, “there isn’t a single state where Obama’s approval is over 50, and Obamacare is increasingly unpopular. . . . Obamacare will depress Democratic turnout and it will energize Republican turnout.”

These gubernatorial races will be referenda on the incumbents, but in a larger sense they will highlight the deep policy differences that now exist between the parties. They will serve as a barometer of public sentiment about competing priorities and governing philosophies.

Sweeping success by Republican incumbents in these presidential battlegrounds will embolden them and their party as they look to shape their national message and settle on a presidential standard-bearer for 2016. Defeats, whether based on unhappiness about the pace of the states’ economic recoveries or the party’s agenda on other issues, will have the opposite effect.

 
Read what others are saying