Exploring the political role of governorships

Published 9:40 am Saturday, March 14, 2009

Every midterm year, the lion’s share of the attention seems to go to the U.S. Senate and House contests at the national level, even though the governorships are arguably more important.

Despite the unusual all-Senate match up of Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, the statehouses are still the incubators for most modern presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, G.W. Bush).

Moreover, the 36 gubernatorial battles and the state legislative elections that will accompany them in 2010 will determine what happens during the 2011 post-Census redistricting of the U.S. House and the state legislatures themselves. More than a few House seats will shift parties because of the partisan line-drawing that results.

Therefore, we’ll take a look at the early maneuvering for governor in every state with such a race. The candidates are already reasonably clear in a handful of states. In others, we have a good idea about the nominee of one party (usually the incumbent). But in quite a few states, where the incumbent is retiring or term limited, a free-for-all is in store.

As we open up the 2010 gubernatorial cycle, we find that Democrats control 28 governorships to the Republicans’ 22. The Democrats added one state in 2008 (Missouri) after putting six more governorships in their column in 2006. So effectively, what was GOP domination of 28 to 22 governorships just a few years ago flipped to a 29 to 21 Democratic majority. That lasted just a few weeks until President-elect Obama chose Gov. Janet Napolitano to be his Secretary of Homeland Security. Napolitano was succeeded by a Republican, Secretary of State Jan Brewer — bringing the gubernatorial total to precisely what it was before the 2008 elections: 28 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

Keep in mind that the party balance could change again in November, when New Jersey and Virginia hold their oddly timed off-off-year elections for governor.

In New Jersey, Gov. and former U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D) is finishing an unimpressive first term with mediocre popularity ratings. His GOP opponent will probably be former

U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie. Should he be the Republican candidate, Christie will have to hope that the Obama administration has become unpopular and that voters will focus on the foibles of Corzine and Co., and somehow Christie will have to find the funding to match the super-wealthy Corzine, who spent $62 million of his own money to win a Senate seat in 2000. Christie is actually leading Corzine in some early polls, yet Democrats usually pull out a victory in this deep-blue Northeastern state. Too soon to say in the Garden State this year.

Another chance for party change is in Virginia, where Republicans have already decided upon their gubernatorial nominee, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell. Democrats have a three-way primary among state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who lost to McDonnell four years ago by less than 400 votes; former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe; and former state Delegate Brian Moran. There will be no primary runoff, so the winner could get a mere plurality. McAuliffe will almost certainly outspend his rivals, and that may be enough to buy a low-turnout primary, but his lack of experience in the Commonwealth’s politics troubles many. Most Democrats didn’t even know the native New Yorker lived in Virginia until he started running for the top job.

The general election contest has not gelled to this point, but Democrats hope they can keep the strong blue trend going in the New Dominion, while Republicans expect the usual off-year election snapback against the incumbent president (a consistent pattern in Virginia that stretches back to 1977). The incumbent, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, is also now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, so he can be expected to pull out all the stops to prevent a severe personal embarrassment in his own state — which is how a Republican takeover would be interpreted.

Naturally, nothing is quite so straightforward in American federalism. Many governors of one party have to share power with the other party, since it controls one or both houses of the state legislature. Almost half (23) of the states are in this split-party control category. Seventeen states have all-Democratic control, just nine have all-GOP control and Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature.

With 2010 a midterm election, will there be any impact of the Obama presidency on elections for governor? It may not make sense at first, since governors are elected independently to run their own states. But there is no question that the incumbent president has a real effect on the outcomes of gubernatorial elections in at least some states. The link of party label in the voter’s mind is often stronger than we think. In 16 midterm elections over 60 years, the president’s party added governorships only twice, in 1946 and 1986. In two other elections (1962 and 1998), there was no net change. But in 12 cases (75 percent of the time), the president’s party lost gubernatorial berths.