DULIK: Races for Governors' Mansions Heating Up
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 18:10
It’s been said that the states are 50 political laboratories, and indeed, some of the most important policymaking in the country occurs at the state level. But with the attention of the media and the public fixed on the presidential contest and the battle for control of Capitol Hill, the 11 gubernatorial races taking place on Nov. 6 have been largely overlooked. That’s just wrong — these races have the potential to significantly alter politics and policy for the coming years. Right now, the 11 contests can be broken down into three broad tiers of competitiveness.
I’ll call the four non-competitive races Tier Three. In these cases, the incumbent governor will be reelected handily: Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah), Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R-N.D.), Gov. Jack Markell (D-Dela.) and Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-Ver.) all benefit from the significant partisan leans of their respective states, and are shoo-ins for another term in office.
The only remotely interesting campaign of these is actually occurring in Vermont, a state whose strong Democratic lean at the national level is often deceptive: it has a long history of liberal Yankee Republicans, such as former Gov. Jim Douglas and former Sen. Jim Jeffords. In fact, Shumlin was elected over Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie by a margin of less than 2 percent in 2010 (in Vermont and New Hampshire, a gubernatorial term is two years). Vermont Republicans have a compelling candidate in State Senator Randy Brock, a former State Auditor who is black and in the Rockefeller Republican tradition. If any of these races is to be an upset, look for Brock to pull off a major surprise in notoriously unpredictable Vermont. I wouldn’t put money on it, though.
Tier Two includes races that are much more competitive. In West Virginia, voters face a rematch from the 2011 special election after former Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate. Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, the acting governor and president of the state senate, defeated Republican businessman Bill Maloney by less than 3 percent. Tomblin is now seeking a full four-year term, and should probably win again over Maloney. But Maloney is running a well-funded campaign that muscularly links Tomblin to the highly unpopular President Obama, particularly on regulation of the sacrosanct coal industry. The outcome of this race will show whether West Virginians, traditionally Democratic at the state level, are finally beginning to gravitate to the GOP at all levels.
On the other side of Appalachia, Missourians are likely to reelect Gov. Jay Nixon, a moderate Democrat. Nixon is a popular incumbent facing a challenge from St. Louis businessman Dave Spence. After state Republicans pressured Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (R-Missouri), who had openly frequented strip clubs and tussled with employees, to leave the race, Spence seized the GOP mantle. He has left much to be desired, running a gaffe-riddled negative campaign. While he could knock off Nixon, I am skeptical, and believe Missourians would be wise to reelect their governor.
Finally, Indiana features a fascinating contest to succeed the term-limited and hugely popular Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.). Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is primed to keep the governor’s mansion in GOP hands. He has been running a smart, polished campaign that has simply dominated his Democratic opponent, former State House Speaker John Gregg (D-Ind.). Gregg is an affable candidate whose campaign logo is his iconic bushy mustache, and, as a relatively conservative Democrat, he certainly is a credible contender. But the combination of a Romney romp in Indiana and Democratic energy focusing on the tossup senate race, Gregg faces a steep climb.
Tier One is where things really start to get thrilling. Four states have contests that will go down to the wire. Republican Pat McCrory (R-N.C.), the popular former mayor of Charlotte, increasingly looks like North Carolina’s next governor. After losing by the skin of his teeth to incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue (D-N.C.) in the Democratic tidal wave of 2008, McCrory looks like he can capture the governor’s mansion with his pro-business, pragmatic policy prescriptions. Facing tremendous unpopularity over her weak tenure in office, Perdue opted to retire rather than run for reelection, ceding the Democratic nomination to Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton (D-N.C.). Dalton is likable and folksy, and the type of moderate Democrat who traditionally wins in North Carolina. Yet his ties to Perdue have hindered his campaign. If Obama runs well in North Carolina, he could put Dalton over the top. Otherwise, it’s McCrory’s race to lose.
Another swing state, New Hampshire, is also choosing a new governor. This time voters are picking a successor to the very popular Gov. John Lynch (D-N.H.). Frankly, neither candidate is wildly impressive. Democrat Maggie Hassan, former majority leader of the state senate, is a textbook Democrat. Her campaign commercials are uninspired, and she is not a particularly strong speaker. Her Republican opponent is Ovide Lamontagne, whose political experience includes failed bids for governor in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2010. Lamontagne is smart and likeable, and his campaign has raised significant cash. Yet as a staunch social conservative, Lamontagne is generally too conservative for the majority of New Hampshirites. The two have been deadlocked in the polls, and I honestly can’t predict who will win the day.
The election in Montana is tight, as well. Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.) is stepping aside due to term limits, but has expressed serious interest in running for president in 2016. Keep an eye on him. His party benefits from a strong candidate for his replacement in Attorney General Steve Bullock. Bullock is young, telegenic, a tough prosecutor and loyal to Montana values on guns and land issues. Republicans nominated a relatively underwhelming former congressman, Rick Hill (R-Mont.). Hill benefits from the overall conservative lean of the state, but Bullock is a better candidate with a superior campaign. Either could become the state’s next governor.