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


Archive for What’s at Stake

The national media and the cable chattering classes obsess over whether the US House will be led by a Speaker Boehner and whether a Republican wave can wash away the Democrats’ Senate majority in the November midterms. The Beltway-centric focus of the punditocracy’s groupthink overlooks the critical and undeniable importance of the races that will actually make a difference in the lives of average Americans for the next decade – the gubernatorial contests.

In today’s WaPo Dan Balz makes the point that with 24 open seat contests (many governors are bumping up against term limits) and only a handful of incumbents not facing serious challengers the partisan makeup of the nation’s gubernatorial map is likely to look much different than it does today.

~ Washington Post graphic (note: Minnesota is incorrectly colored blue, the incumbent Tim Pawlenty is a Republican)

The stakes for both parties couldn’t be higher, Balz writes:

Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, offers this preview of what’s at stake in the 37 gubernatorial races in November. Between now and Election Day, the association and its Democratic counterpart will be engaged in “a $100 million-plus chess match for control of the foundation of American politics for the next 10 years.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, it isn’t. The Washington political community is understandably obsessed with the battle for control of Congress that will play out between now and November and the implications for how President Obama may govern in the second half of his first term. But no one at this weekend’s summer meeting of the National Governors Association underestimates the potentially greater significance of the outcomes in the states this fall.

Everything from implications for redistricting to 2012 presidential politics to contrasting styles of Republican and Democratic governance that will be put before the American people will be affected by what happens in the races for governor. As Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, put it, “It’s the most important gubernatorial election in a generation.”

Daschle noted that many of the House seats that switch parties this November could shift back in two years. “Gubernatorial politics, particularly in a year like this, are long-term structural changes,” he said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates in many regions are buffeted by the same winds facing House and Senate Democrats and most prognosticators predict Republicans to pick up many Governor’s Mansions across the country.  The University of Minnesota recently raised the possibility the GOP could reach it’s highest gubernatorial total since the days of Warren Harding.

Democrats appear in trouble from coast-to-coast, but the party’s problems are particularly acute in the traditional presidential battlegrounds of the Midwest. Losing control across the swath of states stretching from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin through Michigan, Ohio and into Pennsylvania is a very real possibility. Congressional redistricting in these states with shrinking delegations will help shape the congressional majority for the coming decade.

While Republicans have turned to wealthy self-financers (Meg Whitman in California), embraced a crop of diverse female nominees (Nikki Haley in SC and Susana Martinez in NM), they’ve also seen fractious primaries, especially in Iowa. The Florida and Georgia primaries could derail GOP hopes of holding onto those burgeoning Southern states where the 2010 Census count will result in new congressional seats.

Beyond redistricting, the loss of governor’s mansions could undermine the Obama Administration in two ways. As Balz points out, it could make the 2012 electoral map much more challenging for the president as he seeks re-election. Republican governors (think Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004) were critical in helping George W. Bush’s presidential aspirations.

Additionally, there’s the specter of Republicans in state capitals across the country hindering the implementation of Obama’s Democratic agenda. As GOP governors and attorneys general have already shown regarding healthcare (and now immigration in Arizona), they can erect structural and legal obstacles to federal policies they oppose. Emboldened Republican governors (think Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie as prototypes), will be jockeying for a national spotlight to become the spokesperson – or leader – of the Republican opposition.


The Election of a Generation

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Over at the Democratic Governor’s Association, they have taken to calling the current 2009-2010 political cycle “The Election of a Generation.” At first this may seem to be self-serving hyperbole, especially after the seismic 2008 presidential campaign. But it’s hard to deny that the elections that began this month in New Jersey and Virginia will have an enormous impact on the American story for decades to come. In the current cycle voters in all but three states (WV, MT and MS) will be electing either a governor or a senator. In at least 25 states (TX and UT could be added to the list) voters will be electing both. 

But it’s not simply the sheer volume of potentially competitive contests that make this election so critical. Many political observers believe a Republican Party resurgence (if it come) will begin at the state level. We’ve already seen Republican governors jockeying for positioning in the 2012 GOP presidential sweepstakes by challenging the Obama Administration on stimulus funding. While the Republican Party is a greatly diminished minority in DC, it still holds key governor’s mansions in strongly Democratic states (CA, CT, HI, VT and RI), critical swing states (FL, NV, and AZ) while Democrats maintain footholds in unlikely red locales like Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Kansas.

National Republicans are already looking to the 2009 New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests as opportunities to thwart the Obama victory’s transformative potential. If Democrats fail to defend critical Governorships, conservative commentators will be heralding America’s return to it’s ‘right-of-center’ roots. By holding steady in 2010, Democrats can solidify the gains made over the past two election cycles and further validate Obama’s victory.

Because many incumbent governors are bumping up against term limits, there are a slew of Governor’s Mansions that will have new inhabitants in January 2011. Since governors in most states play a role in the nation’s annual redistricting ritual, the victors will draw the maps that will influence the balance of power in the House of Representatives throughout the next decade. Political observers currently predict about a half dozen competitive senate races on the horizon. The same forecasters foresee double that number of gubernatorial races to be “toss-ups.”

What does “The Election of a Generation” look like?

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