The most embattled collection of politicians this fall are neither members of the Senate nor the House. That distinction falls upon the nation’s governors. Compared with elected officials in Washington, incumbent governors are struggling disproportionately.
The Cook Political Report lists nine incumbent governors in tossup races and another as a clear underdog. That group of 10 includes seven Republicans and three Democrats. That’s the most ever dating back years of Cook Report analyses, according to Cook’s Jennifer Duffy. Another Democratic incumbent — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie — is already on the sidelines after losing his primary earlier this year.
The Rothenberg Political Report rates the races on a different scale and differs in some small ways from the Cook analysis, but it comes to a similar conclusion about the competitive nature of the races in the states: It’s a tough year to be a governor.
Voters often say they prefer their state or local elected officials to their Washington representatives. That may still be the case, theoretically. But the fact that this many are on the watch list provides one more indicator that voters in both red and blue states are unhappy.
At this point, the Republican incumbents who face serious competition include: Rick Scott in Florida; Scott Walker in Wisconsin; Rick Snyder in Michigan; Nathan Deal in Georgia; Sam Brownback in Kansas; Paul LePage in Maine; and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania. Democrats with competitive races include Pat Quinn of Illinois; Dan Malloy of Connecticut; and John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
Conversations with a number of people directly involved in the gubernatorial races produced no single answer as to why so many governors have to fight for another term. One reason is the general anti-incumbent mood of voters. Another is that some of these states are closely divided politically. In some cases, state-specific issues have put them in jeopardy.
Ray Scheppach, who for many years was the executive director of the National Governors Association, said he sees the governors’ policy choices as a major factor in the way the campaigns are playing out today. “The last four years have not been a very good time,” he said. “Unemployment has been high. There’s not a lot of increases in wage growth. Plus, there were a lot of budget cuts and some tax increases.”
Many of these governors inherited sizable budget deficits when they took office in early 2011. Republicans cuts spending, and many also cut taxes. Cuts in programs such as education were not popular. Democrats cut less in spending but pushed through higher taxes to balance their state budgets.
Republicans had a very big year in 2010, particularly in the Midwest, and are now paying the price for that success. They swept many of the big industrial states, flipping Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin from Democrat to Republican. Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich is headed toward an easy reelection, thanks to the implosion of his Democratic opponent.
Wisconsin is a case study of a Republican governor who took over a nominally blue state and turned it into a cauldron of anger and resentment by taking on public-employee unions without having properly prepared the public for what he planned to do.
Walker is battle-tested, having survived a contentious recall election two years ago. But the state remains passionately divided over his leadership. As a result, he is now in a very competitive race against Democrat Mary Burke, with both his governorship and his 2016 presidential aspirations at risk.
In Michigan, Snyder billed himself as “one tough nerd” in his first campaign. He was a businessman who seemed to eschew traditional politics and an upbeat politician who said he didn’t want to make ideological waves like those in neighboring Wisconsin.
Under his leadership, the economy has improved and the unemployment rate has dropped. But he cut taxes for business while raising them on pensioners. He also signed a right-to-work law that has made him a target of the unions in his race against former Democratic representative Mark Schauer.
Pennsylvania’s Corbett may be the most endangered Republican governor, failing to make a connection with his voters. He is currently running far behind his Democratic challenger, businessman Tom Wolf, and isn’t likely to survive.
Outside the Midwest, Florida’s Scott barely won in a good Republican year four years ago. A businessman, he is not a naturally gifted politician. Now he’s in a costly and nasty race against Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who left his party when he was losing the GOP Senate primary in 2012 and then became a Democrat.
It’s easy to understand why some Republican governors in blue or purple states have found themselves buffeted by a backlash against an agenda seen as more conservative than their state. Kansas is a totally different case study this fall.
Among all the new Republican governors elected in 2010, Brownback most aggressively sought to implement a conservative governing agenda. He is in trouble because his experiment with deep tax cuts has put his state at risk financially and cost support among moderate Republicans. He is being challenged by state House minority leader Paul Davis.
Democrats are not immune from the backlash, even in deep blue states. Quinn of Illinois long has been the most endangered Democratic governor in the nation. He leads a state that has been plagued by fiscal and pension problems and he raised taxes early in his term. His opponent, businessman Bruce Rauner, has proved to have enough flaws to keep the race competitive.
In Connecticut, which President Obama carried by 17 points in 2012 and 22 points in 2008, Malloy won four years ago by fewer than 7,000 votes. Facing a huge budget deficit, he raised taxes. More than half the likely voters in the state have an unfavorable view of him, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. He is in a tough rematch against Republican businessman Tom Foley.
Personality has played a role in the races in Colorado and Maine. Republican LePage has offended many in Maine with his tongue and his conservative agenda. He won with just 38 percent of the vote four years ago in a three-way race. He would be a decided underdog against Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud were it not for the fact that independent Eliot Cutler is running again.
In Colorado, Hickenlooper won four years ago because he had weak opposition. This year he has stiffer competition in former Republican representative Bob Beauprez. His quirky personality has been, at various times, both helpful and not helpful. His actions, including support for tougher gun-control measures, have cost him support. His refusal to run negative ads, which many voters laud, has left him exposed in the face of attacks.
One caveat: Rhodes Cook, the independent analyst of elections, notes that there has been a steady decline in the number of incumbent governors defeated over the past half-century.
In the 1960s, 30 incumbent governors were defeated, including 11 in 1962. The most in any year since came in 1990, when six lost. Between 2000 and 2008, a total of eight incumbents lost gubernatorial reelection bids and in 2010 only two lost.
What that means is that, in the end, many of these embattled governors could survive. But the fact that they are not safe five weeks before Election Day is a clear sign of an electorate dissatisfied with its elected leaders and of the increased partisanship at the state level.