Voters hungry for change and looking for a scapegoat handed Republican governors big wins on Tuesday, when most close races even in heavily Democratic states broke the GOP’s way.
Early returns looked good for Democrats after former Pennsylvania revenue secretary Tom Wolf (D) defeated Gov. Tom Corbett (R). But results turned grim later as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) lost his reelection bid to venture capitalist Bruce Rauner (R).
Republicans were poised to gain in other states: In Arkansas, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) defeated fellow former congressman Mike Ross (D), despite the popularity of the outgoing governor, Mike Beebe (D). Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) conceded to businessman Larry Hogan (R), a shocking upset in a deep blue state.
And Massachusetts voters elected businessman Charlie Baker (R) over Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), four years after Coakley lost a Senate seat in another upset.
Democratic incumbents faced trouble, too. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) trailed Republican former congressman Bob Beauprez by a percentage point with 81 percent of the votes counted.
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In liberal Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) led Scott Milne (R) by a shockingly close 47 percent to 45 percent with 85 percent of precincts reporting. Because no candidate won a majority, the Democratic-dominated state legislature will pick a candidate.
Many races turned on local issues such as taxes and the economy. Democratic governors were punished for pursuing tax increases, while some Republicans fended off criticism after deep tax cuts hurt their states’ bottom lines.
“Unlike federal races, which are a referendum on Obama, governors’ races tend be more of a referendum on the policies and personality of that particular governor,” said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
“People are anxious about their personal economic situations and are deeply concerned that they’re being left out of the recovery,” added Colm O’Comartun, Cox’s counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association.
The Republican-friendly environment featured voters punishing Democratic senators first elected in the Democratic wave of 2008 much more than Republican governors first elected in the GOP tsunami of 2010.
Aside from Corbett, virtually every Republican incumbent was leading. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), once thought a certain loser by party strategists, defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 2 percentage points with 82 percent reporting. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) defeated Rep. Mike Michaud (D) by a 47.5 percent to 44 percent margin. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) each won re-election.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) defeated former Gov. Charlie Crist (D), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) won by a surprisingly healthy six-point margin.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) remained the only incumbent in jeopardy. Polls in Alaska closed at 1 a.m. Eastern time. He faced a difficult challenge from Bill Walker, an independent who has the endorsement of Republican Sarah Palin, Parnell’s predecessor. Parnell repealed a tax on oil and gas companies that had been a cornerstone of Palin’s tenure.
The results of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections will have far-reaching consequences. In Arkansas, Hutchinson’s victory and Republican control of the legislature probably would mean the end of a modified Medicaid expansion plan signed into law by Beebe.
Democratic wins in Florida and Maine could mean a renewed push to expand Medicaid in those states, which would cover an estimated 1.3 million people in Florida and 70,000 in Maine.
Some Democrats worry that Baker, in Massachusetts, will pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a pact among northeastern states that regulates carbon use; Baker has said he supports the effort. A Walker administration in Alaska could reconsider oil and gas taxes to refill the state’s coffers.
In Wisconsin, Democrats harbored hopes that they could knock Walker (R). Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), once considered vulnerable, cruised to an easy reelection over a Democrat beset by ethics problems.
The three incumbents who have been around the longest, however, all won another term. Voters re-elected California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), both seeking their fourth terms in office.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, was expected to be easily elected to his sixth term in office.
Several governors facing reelection on Tuesday are said to have higher ambitions, and governors do well at the national level: Four of the past six presidents, going back to Jimmy Carter, have been governors.