2014 Midterm Preview Part Three: The Governors

With the midterm elections tomorrow, this third and final preview post concerns the 36 gubernatorial races taking place across the country.

While the Republican Party are widely expected to sweep both the House and the Senate, forecasters are predicting rather more joy for the Democrats in tomorrow’s gubernatorial races. While there are many contributing factors to this discrepancy, an important one is the differing term lengths served by members of the three bodies. Senators, for example, serve six-year terms, meaning that a considerable number of the current cohort are Democrats elected in 2008 with the help of Barack Obama’s popularity and the resulting effect on Democratic turnout. Governors on the other hand serve four-year terms, meaning that several of the Republicans currently up for election came to power in the Tea Party wave of 2010. What we now have, therefore, is blue senators in red states and red governors in blue states, and voters that finally have an opportunity to get rid of them.

Nowhere is this truer than in Maine, a typically liberal state currently governed by outspoken ideologue Paul LePage, who has ‘told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” hired corporate lobbyists to help him rewrite regulations, and intervened so aggressively against unemployed workers that the US Labor Department had to step in’. LePage was elected in part due to a centre-left divided by the independent candidacy of Eliot Cutler, who is running again in this election. Last week Cutler called a bizarre press conference to say that while he wasn’t dropping out of the race, his supporters had his blessing to vote tactically for one of his opponents. From Cutler’s political positions, it is clear that he and the majority of his supporters would prefer the Democrat Mike Michaud over four more years of LePage, but if his unwillingness to properly drop out of the race and endorse the Democrat splits the centre-left vote enough, this liberal state may be stuck with ‘arguably the most right-wing governor in the country’ until 2018.

LePage’s strongest competition for that title of the nation’s most right-wing governor must surely be Sam Brownback of Kansas. Brownback won the 2010 election by more than 31 points, but his enormous tax cuts have left Kansas with state revenues more than $300 million lower than expectations in the last fiscal year, and real concerns over whether the state can continue to adequately fund its education programmes. In a state known for its conservatism, Brownback’s disastrous ideological ‘experiment’ has taken such a toll on the economy that over 100 current and former Republican state officials have endorsed his Democratic rival Paul Davis in a desperate plea to clean up Brownback’s mess.

Ideology and the economy also take centre stage in two northern states with Republican governors. In Michigan, Rick Snyder came to power in 2010, billing himself as ‘one tough nerd’ who would govern as a moderate businessman. A raft of anti-union measures in a state with one of the strongest organised labour movements has made him unpopular, however, and four years after his 18-point victory, he sits barely ahead of his Democratic opponent in the polls. In Wisconsin, Tea Party darling Scott Walker likewise enacted draconian anti-labour measures prompting widespread protests, the occupation of the state capitol and a recall election, which the governor survived. Unlike the relatively socially moderate Snyder, however, Walker has paired his antiunionism with abortion restrictions, a rejection of federal money for a Medicaid expansion, and a voter ID law that was blocked by the Supreme Court. All put together, this has made Scott Walker one of the most polarising politicians in the country. His name has repeatedly been raised in relation to a presidential run in 2016, but for now his battleground is Wisconsin, which has voted Democrat in the last seven presidential elections and may have run out of patience for him.

Republican governors of the class of 2010 are not the only vulnerable incumbents in this election. Democrats in Colorado and Connecticut face nail-biting finishes in their bids to stay in office, while Pat Quinn of Illinois goes into the election with an approval rating of 34% – even lower than Barack Obama’s. Quinn is still being kept alive in the race solely by the weakness of his challenger, billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner – a Romneyesque venture capitalist who has advocated cutting the minimum wage and is a member of a wine club with a joining fee of $140,000. Quinn has been one of the few Democrats in this election that Obama has actively campaigned for. While Quinn desperately needs the Democratic base to turn out if he is to be reelected, he is also one of a very small number of politicians who couldn’t have his popularity dragged any lower by having the president in his corner

For lack of popularity, however, nowhere in this election beats the example of Florida. Harry Enten has described the choice between Republican governor Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist as being like ‘the choice between eating a two month old and three month old burrito. One is technically less bad, but neither is appetising’. Crist, who was actually a Republican governor of Florida before switching parties, had maintained a solid lead in the polls for months until a multi-million dollar negative advertising blitz succeeded in dragging the Democrat down to Rick Scott’s level. Enten goes on to claim that this race will set a new record for level of voters’ disdain for both candidates. Certainly, the victor tomorrow will only be the one who is hated slightly less than the other.

While all this talk of vulnerable Republicans seems out of place considering the state of the races for the House and the Senate, the idea of vulnerable incumbent governors is stranger still. In the past 30 years, only 34 governors have lost their seats in a general election. This works out to just over two per election cycle. This year, the eight men listed above are rated no better than a tossup to retain their seats, and the governors of AlaskaGeorgia and possibly New Hampshire could be added to that number. In Pennsylvania, the election isn’t even competitive. The only question is how many points Republican incumbent Tom Corbett will lose by.

In all the talk of the Republicans taking the Senate, the gubernatorial races have been somewhat overlooked, but as well as offering some consolation to the Democrats, the governors tomorrow could make history.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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