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


SHR Race Rankings – The Pick-Up Opportunities, Pt 2

By · Sep, 11 2009

There are currently ten 2009-2010 gubernatorial races where the incumbent party is likely to lose the Governor’s Mansion. The top six likely to flip chairs were reviewed here. Numbers 6 through 10 appear below the fold. The top five Pick-Up Opportunities are all open seat contests. Only two incumbents (Nevada’s Jim Gibbons and New Jersey’s Jon Corzine) appear in our top ten list (at #7 and #9). 

Both 2009 races appear here, as Democrats continue trailing in both New Jersey and Virginia as Election Day quickly approaches. The Democratic Party has brighter prospects in the two western states of California and Nevada, while they are likely to struggle defending the open Governor’s Chair in Oklahoma, a state shifting toward the GOP at all levels of government. The contests in this group are all listed as “LEAN TAKEOVER,” meaning that while the challenging party is favored, there are scenarios in which the incumbent party can defend the governorship. For instance, if Nevada’s Gibbons retires or loses in a primary (both very likely scenarios), winning the Carson City Governor’s Mansion becomes a more difficult proposition for the Democrats. 

Analysis on gubernatorial races 6-10 can be found below the fold


6) Oklahoma – The contest to replace term-limited Democrat Brad Henry has drawn top-tier candidates from both parties. Henry’s popularity in one of the most Republican states in America (Oklahoma was the only state in the Lower 48 in which every county voted for John McCain) is a testament to his ability to garner support from across the ideological spectrum. Despite Oklahoma’s bright scarlet red on the national map, the key to statewide election victories is winning the support of the growing number of independents in the state. But the Sooner State is likely to see a Republican win the Governor’s Mansion in 2010. If that happens and they maintain their legislative majorities, it will mark the first time in history the GOP controls both the legislative and executive branches in the state.

On the Republican side, Congresswoman Mary Fallin is the frontrunner, but state Senator Randy Brogdon has been making noise among the conservative activist base. While he may only have a remote chance of winning the GOP nod, he could cause Fallin problems on her right. Aligned with the “birther” movement, Brogdon is working to harness the anger and energy of the Tea Party movement in his bid to win the GOP nomination.

The two Democrats vying for their party’s nod, Lt. Governor Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmondson, have both proven their ability to win statewide elections.  Either Democrat will have to overcome what many analysts believe could be an Obama backlash undermining Democratic candidacies in the increasingly Republican state. A May 2009 poll (pdf) conducted by Public Policy Polling showed Fallin with a comfortable double-digit lead over both potential Democratic rivals. An internal Fallin summer poll recently made public echoed these numbers. But her election is far from assured. If Brogdon manages to drag Fallin too far to the right (if that’s possible in Oklahoma) it could open the door for the Democrats to win in November.  As the least ideological of the three major candidates, Askins might be the logical heir to the outgoing Henry.  


7) Nevada- What do you get when you cross Mark Sanford’s marital infidelity with Rod Blagojevich’s ethical standards? Nevada Republican Governor Jim Gibbons.

Despite the national attention focused on John Ensign’s extramarital affair and Harry Reid’s sinking poll numbers, the governor is probably the most endangered of the three statewide officeholders. He  faces a 2010 reelection most analysts believe is near-impossible. Unquestionably the nation’s weakest Republican governor (a DKos/Research 2000 poll has him at 17% favorability) running for reelection, Gibbons was tainted by scandal before his razor-thin 2006 election victory. Things have only gotten worse since he arrived in Carson City. An ugly (and very public) divorce, ongoing ethics problems and one of the nation’s most devastated state economies make it questionable whether or not he can survive a primary contest (there are some who think he may not run). Gibbons gets scathing reviews of his job performance from across the political spectrum. Recent polling by Mason-Dixon showed Gibbons handily losing to every potential challenger.

While two Republicans (North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon and former state Senator Joe Heck) have already announced primary challenges, the real gubernatorial game-changer could be about-to-retire federal judge Brian Sandoval’s anticipated entry into the GOP field. His surprise mid-August retirement from his lifetime post sent shockwaves through the Silver State political establishment. The Mason-Dixon poll showed Sandoval as the strongest candidate in the field, regardless of party. The Hispanic jurist could help Nevada Republicans win back the support of alienated Latinos a key voting bloc in the state.

Prior to the Sandoval news, two leading Democrats had been circling like vultures above the carcass of a devastated state Republican Party. They’re still there, but the GOP doesn’t look as lifeless as it did earlier this summer. Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid (Senate Majority Leader Harry’s son) and state Assembly Leader Barbara Buckley are gearing up for gubernatorial runs. Polling shows that Buckley would be the stronger nominee, although Reid has amassed a considerable campaign warchest and has gotten an organizational headstart on his potential primary rival. With National Republicans setting their sights on daddy Harry’s Senate seat, Silver State political observers are pondering whether Rory Reid’s gubernatorial ambitions will be derailed by the Senate Majority leader’s declining poll numbers.   It was probably only a matter of time before growing tensionsbetween campaign advisors to the father and the son became public.

There’s yet another wild card that could shake up the 2010 contest. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (a Democrat) has expressed interest in running as an independent. Poll numbers show him as a viable candidate. A three-way general election could make the Silver State race one of the most interesting of the cycle.



8 ) California - The one certainty here is that the Golden State’s gubernatorial contest is going to be an extremely expensive endeavor. That’s not to say the one with the biggest pile of money will win, as California political history is littered with failed self-funding statewide candidates.  With the state facing unprecedented budget problems, an ineffective legislature and a ballot initiative process that makes governing the state nearly impossible, it’s a wonder anyone wants the job. The past two governors have been utter failures in solving the state’s challenges and there is a growing realization that a systemic overhaul might be necessary to fix its structural problems.

Considering the prohibitive expense of running a viable statewide campaign in the nation’s largest state (in addition to the gubernatorial contest, Sen. Barbara Boxer is also up for re-election in 2010), the GOP finds itself turning to wealthy candidates who can self-fund a significant portion of their campaigns. Former e-Bay CEO Meg Whitman has raised nearly $20 million (most of it from her own bank account) in the first half of 2009, while Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has deep pockets and seems willing to go the distance against Whitman.

A potential wild card in the Republican race may be former GOP Rep Tom Campbell who has been quietly traversing the state talking about the state’s budget problems in a straightforward manner the others (from both parties) have shied away from. If he can convince fiscal conservatives to support him, he may emerge as a real player in the contest.  Despite Whitman’s ability to garner the national media’s attention, funding advantage and lead in early polls, it’s far from clear she’s got a cakewalk to the GOP nomination. Already, the Whitman and Fiorina candidacies have already been dinged by revelations that both have histories of not participating in elections. Whitman has shown an aversion to appear in forums outside GOP-friendly gatherings and seems to think debates with her opponents are beneath her.

The rise of Silicon Valley gazillionaires in the GOP’s political establishment marks the political maturation of the entrepreneurial tech and venture capital community that has shunned electoral politics in the past. But it also exposes the weakness of the Republican brand in the Golden State, where thanks to heavily gerrymandered legislative districts the majority of the state’s elected Republicans have voting records far too conservative to win statewide. 

On the Democratic side, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is the one announced candidate, although AG Jerry Brown is laying the foundation for a campaign to win back the chair he held over two decades ago. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s decision to stay out of the race means all five major party candidates hail from Northern California’s Bay Area. A Newsom-Brown contest sets up a classic generational confrontation between the long-established politico and the ambitious upstart who created a national profile by becoming the “Gay Marriage Mayor.” While that has endeared him to the moneyed progressives in the liberal bastions of Hollywood and San Francisco, can Newsom repackage his image as he introduces himself to the more conservative Central Valley and Inland Empire voters?  

Assuming Boxer wins reelection, Southern California will be shut out from the state’s three most powerful offices, as both Senators call San Francisco home. Jerry Brown, the candidate who starts the race with the highest name recognition, holds the advantage in wooing the support of SoCal voters, although Whitman’s enormous war chest and celebrity status (although voters may be weary of celebrity candidates after the Terminator’s failed administration) could alter the scenario. At this point, Brown has the best odds of becoming California’s next governor.  


9) New Jersey- Of the two 2009 gubernatorial contests, New Jersey had been viewed as the one most likely to remain in the Democratic column. National strategists from both parties had viewed Virginia as the more likely Republican pick-up opportunity, pointing to the perceived deep blue Democratic lean of the state. But after months of abysmal poll numbers topped off by a shocking (even by New Jersey standards) corruption scandal caused CQ Politics  to shift their rating on the race from Toss-Up to Lean Republican.  Many thought the indictments might be the proverbial last nail in the coffin containing incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine’s political career.  

Following the June primaries, Republican nominee Chris Christie had opened up and maintained a consistent, comfortable double-digit lead in most polls. He built this lead on two factors: his well-cultivated image as a clean government reformer and widespread public dissatisfaction with Corzine’s job performance. But by mid-August some polls showed the race tightening slightly. A steady flow of negative headlines for the Republican may indeed make this a much closer contest come November.

Democrats tried to make the argument Corzine has fulfilled many of his campaign promises and been an effective leader through difficult economic times. But the message has fallen on deaf ears, forcing the Corzine campaign to target Christie’s perceived strength – his clean government, reformist image.  Translation: they’ve gone negative and they went their early for an incumbent. They’ve highlighted his close ties to the Bush Administration, questioned Christie’s grant of a lucrative no-bid contract to his former boss, John Ashcroft, and attacked his opposition to Obama’s federal stimulus package (the President remains popular in Blue New Jersey). But nothing seemed to be sticking.

But the recent negative headlines may be making a dent. First, Karl Rove testified he talked with Christie about a potential run for governor while Christie was still a US Attorney, a possible violation of the Hatch Act, although federal prosecutors have recently decided not to open an investigation. Neverhteless, Rove’s name remains a dogwhistle to partisan Democrats, who are likely to be riled up by the mere mention of his name in the gubernatorial contest.  

It was then learned Christie had loaned a subordinate $46,000 – and had neglected to report it to the IRS or on required financial disclosure forms. Christie has boasted of his team in the US Attorney’s office (a place supposed to be removed from partisan politics). perhaps raising just enough question in voters’  minds about his “clean government” image. In recent weeks, Christie’s abysmal driving record has come under intense scrutiny. Each story alone is of minor consequence, but added together they threaten to reach a critical mass, perhaps raising just enough question in voters’ minds about his “clean government” image. Karl Rove’s name is a dog-whistle to partisan Democrats, who are likely to be riled up by the mere mention of his name in the gubernatorial contest.

When independent candidate Christopher Daggett qualified for matching funds (and a podium alongside Corzine and Christie in the debates this fall) he became a real wildcard in the contest. If he proves himself as a viable alternative (and his first tv ad is drawing positive reviews), could he attract enough of the dissatisfied independents and Democrats who had shown a willingness in earlier polls to swing toward Christie? Does he become too strong, (from Corzine’s perspective) and start drawing core Democrats away, especially after the Sierra Club’s surprise endorsement of Daggett’s candidacy? Could Christie and Corzine tear each other down a point of Mutually Assured Destruction?

The odds are stacked against Corzine.  It’s been 32 years since a Democratic incumbent was last re-elected Governor of New Jersey. Brendan Byrne mounted a come-from-behind campaign in recessionary times. Garden State voters are also known to become cantankerous during tough economic times and 2009 is among the toughest. With little more than fifty days remaining, Corzine’s the underdog.



10) Virginia- The Old Dominion is the only state in the nation that constitutionally prohibits a governor from serving two successive terms. Much has been made about President Obama’s landmark victory in the 2008 presidential college (winning the state for the first time since LBJ’s 1964 landslide. While Virginia’s electorate is undeniably conservative-leaning, Democrats – especially moderates – have been successful in the Old Dominion.

The central question of the fall campaign is whether or not Deeds is the tortoise to McDonnell’s hare. Throughout the Democratic primary Deeeds trailed both his better-known and better-funded rivals. He surged ahead in the campaign’s closing days, propelled by a game-changing editorial page endorsement from the Washington Post. It’s unlikely he can replicate the feat in the general election, as the dynamics are much different. After experiencing a primary victory bump in the polls, Deeds watched his poll numbers decline. Throughout the summer, every poll had McDonnell with a narrow, but comfortable lead over his Democratic rival.

Deeds surprising come-from-behind primary victory shocked both the Richmond and DC political cognoscenti. McDonnell’s team was ready to run a campaign against either a Northern Virginia “liberal” (Brian Moran) or an uber Inside the Beltway Clintonista (Terry McAuliffe). Instead, they got what many thought looked like their worst nightmare – a centris, rural Virginian who could more easilly stake out the crucial middle ground McDonnell  must win over to win in November.

The trouble for Democrats as they pivoted from the primary was Deeds himself seemed to be nearly as surprised as everyone else by his victory.  Underfunded and understaffed throughout the primary contest, the campaign was ill-prepared to launch a general election campaign.  The well-rested McDonnell campaign (the Republicans didn’t have a primary contest) seized the momentum and was able to define the first months of the campaign on terrain and terms they wanted. As a result, McDonnell sits atop a steady lead in the polls as Labor Day approaches.

Deeds seems torn as to whether or not President Obama is an asset or a liability to his campaign. On occasion, he has kept the president at arm’s length, but has recently had the president headline fundraisers  and rallies in Northern Virginia. McDonnell seems to have a clearer vision of the image and message he wants Virginia voters to see and hear. The social conservative ideologue has repackaged himself as a moderate. He’s done a pretty effective job at staying on script.

That was until The Thesis became a Washington Post front-page story (and a daily fascination) that made national headlines Bob McDonnell hoped he never see. His two-decade old master’s thesis for Pat Robertson’s Regent University contained unflinchingly conservative  — and politically difficult-to-defend to critical Northern Virginia moderates  — about working women, feminists and homosexuals. While early polls showed little movement in the revelations’ aftermath, it’s undeniably struck at the heart of McDonnell’s campaign strategy. The Republican remains the favorite, but this race could be competitive until the end.


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