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Governors' Races Offer Promise For Democrats

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett applauds a choir at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center during a Jan. 29 news conference in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett applauds a choir at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center during a Jan. 29 news conference in Philadelphia.

Elections for governor could provide some good news for Democrats this fall, giving them the chance to regain ground in a few states where the party has had good fortune recently.

At this early stage, Republicans are expected to hold control of the House and pick up seats in the Senate — maybe even win a majority in the Senate.

But the GOP has fewer opportunities when it comes to statehouses. Republicans dominated state elections back in 2010, leaving them few openings this year. (Governors serve four-year terms everywhere but Vermont and New Hampshire.)

Republicans gained six governorships in 2010. They have a 29 to 21 edge over Democrats overall.

There are 36 governorships up for grabs this year. Over the coming weeks, NPR will be looking at the most competitive and compelling races among them.

"You had a lot of Republicans win governorships in 2010 and some of them are going to be vulnerable, particularly in those blueish-leaning states," says Justin Phillips, co-author of The Power of American Governors.

But Phillips says there might not be as many vulnerable Republicans as some observers had expected a couple of years ago.

There are governors who pushed controversial programs early in their terms, but have since moderated their message. They may also benefit from President Obama's current unpopularity, Phillips says.

"Democrats will probably hold maybe one or two more governorships next year than they do now, but I wouldn't expect there to be a huge turnover, or for the Democrats to hold more governorships than Republicans next year," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia's political website Crystal Ball.

A Lot Like 1986

Kondik compares this year to 1986. Then as now, many senators of the president's party were vulnerable. In fact, Democrats took control of the Senate that year, ousting a number of Republicans who had been elected along with President Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But Republicans gained governorships that year. And something similar might happen this fall.

Several Democratic senators elected from red states such as Alaska and Arkansas during Obama's big win in 2008 are looking vulnerable. But there are Republicans serving as governor in no fewer than 10 states that Obama carried in both his presidential elections.

Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe prevailed in one such state last year, breaking the commonwealth's longstanding practice of electing governors from the party that doesn't control the White House.

Several Republicans swept in with the GOP tide in 2010 might be washed away this year; the list of most vulnerable governors includes Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Paul LePage of Maine and Rick Scott of Florida.

Rick Snyder of Michigan is also a Democratic target, but he appears to be in better shape. In fact, not all the blue and purple state Republicans are looking particularly vulnerable.

Some who pushed controversial programs early in their terms, such as John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have had time to recover their footing and now look like favorites.

Able To Appear Moderate

Today's governors may be more partisan than their predecessors, but they still have the chance to craft a moderate image, focusing on big-picture issues such as the budget and jobs while leaving contentious social issues to legislators.

"We've seen just as many cases of governors making moderate turns," says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "Part of why [Democratic Gov.] Jerry Brown is not facing a major challenge is that he's really governed from the center in California."

Next door in Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval's focus on education and health — including his embrace of the Affordable Care Act — has kept his approval ratings high in a state that twice voted for Obama. In fact, Democrats have yet to field an opponent against him.

Incumbent governors in general are tough to beat. Even as they made their gains in 2010, Republicans defeated only two incumbent Democrats (Chet Culver of Iowa and Ted Strickland of Ohio).

Not every governor has announced his or her plans yet, but more than 25 of them will be running for re-election this year.

Personally Unpopular

A few sitting governors could run into difficulty, either because the economy remains weak in their states or because their own policies have proven to be unpopular.

Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, for instance, has managed to alienate even many members of his own party with his strongly conservative agenda. Several blue state Democratic incumbents could also be at risk, including Pat Quinn of Illinois, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut.

"Of the six states where there's likeliest to be turnover, three are Republicans and three are Democrats," Kondik says.

Republicans have their eye on Arkansas, where popular incumbent Democrat Mike Beebe is prevented from running again by term limits. The state has been trending Republican — not only strongly opposing Obama, but giving control of the legislature to the GOP two years ago for the first time since the 19th century.

Arkansas is a place where an anti-Obama tide isn't the only Democratic worry — the attention and resources being devoted to a Senate race also could have a spillover effect on the governor's race.

But in most places, the governorship is a prominent enough position that candidates should be able to stand, or fall, on their own.

That's led some political observers to think this year's elections will end up reflecting the 50-50 divide in the country.

The conventional wisdom at this point is that Republicans will gain seats in Congress — as the party not controlling the White House nearly always does in mid-term elections.

But Democrats can cut against this grain by taking back a few governorships — which would be especially satisfying in big states like Pennsylvania and Florida.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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