The State Houses – What’s At Stake in 2010

Thirty-nine states will be electing a governor during the 2009-2010 election cycle. Of these, eighteen races will not include an incumbent and four incumbents who will be running were not elected to their current position. The recession and huge budget deficits threaten to undercut the power of incumbency for governors running for reelection.

The Current Line-Up

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Sep
10

SHR Race Rankings – The Pick-Up Opportunities, Pt 1

By · Sep, 10 2009

The StateHouseRock Governor’s Race ratings begin with the five states most likely to see a party switch in the 2010 elections. All five are open Governor’s races. At the presidential level, none of these states are considered competitive swing states as each is firmly entrenched in either the Democratic Blue (Vermont and Hawai’i) or Republican Red (Kansas, Wyoming and Tennessee) column.  The incumbent governors all hail from the party that doesn’t carry the state in the electoral college.

These rankings are hardly set in stone. Any number of  circumstances could dramatically alter each party’s prospects in any state on the list.

Prior to Jim Douglas’ retirement announcement in late August, Vermont was a relatively safe bet to remain in Republican hands. That’s no longer the case. The race in Tennessee is the most crowded of the five and could move toward the Democrats (and futher down the list) depending on which candidates win their party’s nominations. If the two high-profile Democrats in Hawai’i engage in a no-holds-barred primary contest, the victor could emerge weakened, providing an opportunity for the GOP to retain the seat. Vermont’s GOP hasn’t yet regrouped from Douglas’ decision. If a credible candidate steps forward, the ranking might change. Wyoming could drop from near the top of the SHR rankings to the bottom if Dave Freudenthal challenges the state’s term-limits laws.

On to the rankings:

1) Kansas - Senator (and former GOP presidential candidate) Sam Brownback has always been viewed as the overwhelming favorite to become the next Cedar Crest resident.  Popular yet term-limited Democrat Kathleen Sebelius departed Topeka  early to become the Obama Administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services leaving a dearth of Democrats in her wake.  Despite numerous pleas from Team Blue her replacement, the Republican-turned-Democrat Lt. Governor Mark Parkinson, has repeatedly said he isn’t interested in running for the office in his own right. He is currently the only “Accidental Governor” (along with Arizona’s Jan Brewer, New York’s David Paterson, Alaska’s Sean Parnell and Utah’s Gary Herbert) who has thus far opted out of running for governor in 2010. 

The Democratic field is virtually non-existent at this stage (scrappy state Sen. Chris Steineger has expressed some interest) although Democrats continue to urge Parkinson to revisit his decision. The one significant obstacle to a Brownback coronation, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, abandoned plans to mount a primary challenge after early poll numbers showed him badly trailing the Senator. In early September, Brownback announced the moderate Thornburgh would be chairing his gubernatorial effort, effectively solidfying the conservative’s control of the Kansas GOP. Unless he’s been womanizing with other GOP presidential wannabes Sanford and Ensign in the C Street fraternity house (and videos show up on YouTube), it’s difficult to foresee a development that endangers Brownback’s chances. This is why Kansas occupies the top slot. 

RATING: SAFE REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER 

2) Wyoming –   If Democrat Dave Freudenthal wants a third term, the conventional wisdom is that it’s his for the taking. So why would it appear as #2 on the SHR list? Although the governor is currently prohibited from running again by the state’s term limit restrictions most politicos in the state are awaiting word on whether or not he plans a 2010 run.

In 2004, state legislators successfully challenged the term limits legislation enacted by a 1992 ballot initiative. The court did not include statewide officeholders in it’s decision. Many observers believe a Freudenthal challenge would be successful. The governor’s popularity (he won his 2006 reelection with 70% of the vote in heavily Republican Wyoming) and the state’s relative economic prosperity (although the decline in energy prices has begun to drive up unemployment numbers) insulate Freudenthal from potential damage such a brazen political move might incur in other jurisdictions.

Thus far, Freudenthal hasn’t indicated his thinking on the matter. Until he does, the Wyoming race remains in limbo, with no one on either side of the aisle making any public moves about running. If he opts to run, this race would immediately move into a Democratic Retention column.

RATING: LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER

3) VermontAlong with its neighbor New Hampshire, the Green Mountain State is one of only two that continue electing governors to two-year terms. Through four elections, Republican Jim Douglas had proven a resilient politician in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. He would have been a heavy favorite to retain the Governor’s Mansion if he had run for a fifth term. When he announced his decision to retire in mid-August, this race quickly vaulted to the top of the Democrats’ list of pick-up opportunities. Unlike in recent election cycles when top-tier Democrats opted to keep their powder dry rather than challenge Douglas, leading Democrats had already declared their intentions to run prior to his retirement announcement. The field includes the current Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and two state Senators Susan Bartlett and Doug Racine. Others (Senate President Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith) are rumored to be considering a run now that Douglas is leaving.

The Republicans are the ones who have been caught by surprise by Douglas’ decision. While Lt. Governor Brian Dubie has been mentioned as a candidate, the GOP field remains vacant two weeks after the governor’s announcement.  Other potential candidates mentioned include 2006 House nominee Martha Rainville, son of a former GOP governor Mark Snelling, state Senator Randy Brock and state Auditor Tom Salmon (who recently switched from the Democratic Party). 

Once a bastion of Republicanism, the tiny, homogeneous state has become one of the most liberal in the nation over the past couple of decades. This is the state, after all, that sends Bernie Sanders to the Senate and was the first in the nation to enact civil unions for same-sex couples. Could Douglas and former Senator (and party switcher) Jim Jeffords represent the last vestiges of a long Vermont moderate Republican tradition? The GOP’s social conservative agenda has decimated the party throughout New England. Without Douglas, the Republicans’ fortunes in the state appear bleak, but that could change dramatically if the gubernatorial race turns into a three-way contest, which is not inconceivable in the Green Mountain State.

Besides the region-wide decline of the GOP, there’s another factor that sets Vermont’s politics apart from nearly every other state in the nation.  It’s the home of a vibrant Progressive Party, which pulls Democrats to the left and can occasionally affect the outcome of races in the state.  Already this summer, the Progressives were meeting with the Democratic contenders with a list of policy positions they considered vital to attaining the Progressives’ support. In the aftermath Douglas’ decision, the Progressives are now considering running their own gubernatorial candidate, which could make this race much more competitive.

RATING: LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER 

4) Tennessee- One of the few states trending toward the Republicans at the national level during the 2006 and 2008 elections, Democrats will face a difficult task defending the chair currently held by term-limited Phil Bredesen. Reflecting the shift toward the GOP, Bredesen was one of the few Democratic governors who publicly contemplated rejecting some Obama stimulus funds. Looking toward 2010, both parties have crowded primary fields with no clear frontrunner on either side. Regardless which candidate wins their respective primaries; the Republicans have a stronger group of candidates and will likely enter the general election campaign with the advantage. 

 The Republican field includes Shelby County DA Bill Gibbons, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Congressman Zach Wamp, and conservative party activist  Joe Kirkpatrick. The Democratic field includes Mike McWherter, the son of a former governor, Ward Cammack, a relatively unknown self-funder, state Senator Roy Herron and former state Representative Kim McMillan. As a group, the GOP candidates have outraised the Democrats by a 3-1 margin, reinforcing the conventional wisdom regarding the Republicans’ opportunity to pick up this governor’s chair. 

But sex scandals could weaken two of the GOP’s leading candidates. Ramsey, as speaker of the Tennessee House, has been dogged by questions of what he knew and when he knew it regarding Rep. Paul Stanley’s extramarital (with alleged blackmail) affair. As a long-time resident of the C Street fraternity house, Wamp is getting similar questions from the local media. How this plays out in an election still many months away remains to be seen. But salacious headlines can’t be viewed as an asset as these candidates seek the support of “family values” voters in the GOP base.  

RATING: LIKELY REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER 

5) Hawai’i - Term-limited Linda Lingle’s tenure as Hawai’i's first Republican governor is coming to an end without her leaving a vibrant state party in her wake. Lingle’s personal popularity simply didn’t transfer to the state GOP during her time in office. As a result, the Aloha State represents one of the Democrats’ best 2010 pick-up opportunities.

Beyond the Democratic Party’s strength in the state, I can’t imagine the increased exposure of “The Birthers” has been well-received among Hawaiians as they celebrate the 50th anniversary as America’s 5oth state. The national GOP’s increasingly xenophobic nature can’t play well in a state as demographically diverse as Hawai’i.

Lingle’s Lt. Governor James “Duke” Aiona will probably carry the Republican banner in the gubernatorial contest. It looks like the real action will occur in the Democratic primary where Rep. Neil Abercrombie will campaign against Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. This represents a rematch of the 1986 primary where Abercrombie first won the US House seat he currently holds. Hannemann has dashed ahead in the fundraising race, aided by the Hawai’i State Spending Commission’s ruling that prohibited Abercrombie from transfering campaign funds from his federal accounts for the gubernatorial contest.

RATING: LEAN DEMOCRATIC TAKEOVER 

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