If you’re looking for the most interesting gubernatorial races to watch in the coming year, the nation’s biggest states are a good place to start.
Democrats Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo look like safe bets for re-election in California and New York, respectively. And, despite the pending retirement of Rick Perry, Republicans are confident of maintaining their hold on the governor’s mansion in Texas.
But Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois all feature embattled incumbents whose reelection campaigns will easily cost tens of millions of dollars. Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder could also face a real contest.
In all, 36 states will be voting for governor in 2014. All but a handful will feature incumbents favored for re-election.
Two states are holding gubernatorial contests this year. New Jersey Republican Chris Christie is considered close to a lock for a second term, while the open race in Virginia between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe remains a toss-up.
With no discernible “wave” as yet looking likely to break in favor of one party or the other next year, the overall partisan breakdown — currently favoring the GOP by 30 to 20 — is not likely to change terribly much.
Each contest matters, however. Within each state, the governor is the main political actor and can largely set the agenda as he or she sees fit.
Here’s a look at a few of the races that will bear watching:
Democrat Dan Malloy
Winning percentage in 2010: 50
Obama’s percentage in 2012: 58
Like presidents, governors get too much credit when the economy is good and too much blame when it’s bad. But when your state ranks 50th among states in economic growth two years running, you know you’re going to be in trouble.
Malloy compounded the economic unhappiness in Connecticut by signing into law the largest tax increase in state history during his first year in office. The result has been approval ratings south of 50 percent throughout his tenure in office.
“Voters say he does have strong leadership qualities, no doubt due to his handling of [Superstorm] Sandy and Newtown,” says Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “But when it comes to bread-and-butter issues, like the economy and taxes, people are not happy with the way Malloy has handled those things.”
Malloy may face a rematch with Tom Foley, a businessman and former ambassador whom he defeated by less than a percentage point in 2010. Foley’s possible rivals for the GOP nomination, state Sen. John McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton (Foley’s running mate last time around), are expected to seek public financing and thus won’t be able to match Foley’s campaign treasury.
But the eventual GOP nominee may matter less than Malloy himself.
“The good news about being the incumbent is you’ve got 99 percent name recognition,” says Matthew Hennessy, a Democratic consultant in Hartford. “The bad news is, if you’re at 99 percent name recognition and you still can’t get a positive rating about the job you’ve done, that allows your opponent to make the election about you.”
Republican Rick Scott
Winning percentage in 2010: 49 percent
Obama’s percentage in 2012: 50 percent
Like some other Republican governors, Scott has moderated his image a bit since the start of his term. One example: He agreed to accept federal dollars for the Medicaid expansion planned under the Affordable Care Act (although he couldn’t get that idea past the legislature).
Scott has also benefited from a boost in jobs on his watch — more than 300,000 in total, bringing the state’s unemployment rate down below the national average. “His mantra from day one has been jobs, jobs, jobs,” says former GOP state legislator Pete Dunbar. “Unemployment has dropped and he’s delivered on those promises.”
On the other hand, Democrats point out that Scott failed to push through the Medicaid expansion and turned down billions more by refusing a federal high-speed rail project. They gleefully point out the large number of his staff and appointees who have been forced to step down, including the lieutenant governor.
Scott remains vulnerable in a purple state — one where Democratic turnout, certain to drop off from 2012, could be boosted some by a likely medical marijuana initiative, as well as anger on the left over the state’s voting restrictions and “stand your ground” law.
Democrats haven’t settled on a candidate. Alex Sink, defeated by Scott four years ago by a percentage point, might run again. So might Charlie Crist. He preceded Scott as the Republican governor of Florida, ran for Senate in 2010 as an independent and has since become a Democrat.
Needless to say, activists in both parties are wary of him. But he has the name recognition and fundraising ability to potentially match the wealthy Scott, who has long since begun aggressively courting donations. Crist’s famously tanned visage is already plastered all over the state on billboards, nominally to advertise the law firm he now works for.
Democrat Pat Quinn
Winning percentage in 2010: 47
Obama’s percentage in 2012: 57
Quinn barely won last time around. He’s only gotten more unpopular since. Still, Republicans aren’t ready to write off his chances in a blue state.
“He’s made a whole career out of being underestimated by the opposition,” says Dennis Culloton, a GOP media strategist. “What he might lack in polish or financing, he’ll make up in hustle.”
Illinois has the worst budget problems of any state, including the nation’s most underfunded pension plan. Quinn is openly disliked by nearly every other top Democrat in the state and faces a primary challenge from William Daley, a former White House chief of staff.
“On the face of it, it looks like he’s toast,” says Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “It looks like there’s no way this guy can get reelected.”
But the Republican cause last time was hurt by a bitter primary fight. That could happen again, with multiple candidates looking to overcome venture capitalist Bruce Rauner’s financial advantage. Quinn has already gotten lucky in not having to face state Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She would have been a tougher primary opponent than Daley, whose name carries baggage outside of Chicago (where both his father and brother were long-time mayors).
And Quinn might yet get a pension deal. Quinn took away legislators’ pay through a line-item veto until they agree to an overhaul, which may not be likely but could happen. If it does, Quinn will get credit for forcing the issue through a move that has played well as part of his overall populist, “I’m for the little guy” persona.
“It was a political stroke of genius, even though in the long run it will hurt him [among legislators],” Mooney says. “If now they get this deal done, then all of a sudden Quinn can say, ‘I put the hammer down.’ Then he’s got something done.”
Republican Paul LePage
Winning percentage in 2010: 38
Obama’s percentage in 2012: 56
The episode was in keeping with a long series of outrageous statements from the governor, a habit that has alienated both Republicans and Democrats.
“You just can’t have the leader of the state embarrassing people, and he’s certainly crossed that threshold,” says Ben Grant, who chairs the Maine Democratic Party.
Obama has won Maine easily in each of the last two elections and the Democrats took back control of both legislative chambers last fall. Still, LePage has a plausible re-election scenario available to him.
He barely won last time, thanks to a split vote. Eliot Cutler, the independent who nearly beat LePage last time, is running again. Rep. Mike Michaud, the likely Democratic nominee, is going to argue that any vote for Cutler is going to be a vote for LePage.
LePage maintains a bedrock base of support and will almost certainly win a percentage similar to his 2010 total (which triggered bumper stickers around Maine saying “61 percent” — an allusion to the percentage of the state that voted for someone other than him, depending on how you round the totals). He’s been able to accomplish much of what he wanted, notably in terms of cutting spending, despite now having to share power with Democrats.
That means the big question in the race is whether Michaud can reach out to independent voters — of which Maine has plenty — and convince them that supporting Cutler a second time is tantamount to handing LePage four more years in power, says Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist.
“I would argue that LePage’s re-election chances were in trouble from the minute he took the oath of office, because of how he won that election,” Brewer says.
Republican Tom Corbett
Winning percentage in 2010: 54
Obama’s percentage in 2012: 52
Pennsylvania has long been the perfect swing state when it comes to gubernatorial elections. Since 1954, power has changed hands between the parties every eight years.
It’s still the GOP’s turn, but it looks increasingly like Corbett might break the streak. His approval ratings remain stuck in the low 30s — near-death numbers — and every national prognosticator seems to think he’s the most likely incumbent to lose next year.
Corbett, who inherited a $4.2 billion deficit and refused to raise taxes, was forced to make deep cuts to some of the most popular programs in the state, including aid to both K-12 schools and higher education.
A longtime former prosecutor, he’s struggled to make the switch to a smooth politician able to put the best gloss on what he’s doing, says Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College. “He recommended steep cuts, but he never offered a sufficient rationale to voters about what he was doing and why he was doing it,” Madonna says.
Corbett hasn’t been able to convince a Republican legislature to go along with his main priorities, including a transportation package, privatization of the state’s liquor stores and a pension overhaul. There’s talk that he’ll be challenged in next year’s primary (although so far it’s just talk).
Democrats have a crowded field of their own, including state Treasurer Rob McCord and Rep. Allyson Schwartz. Whoever emerges will be favored to end Corbett’s tenure and with it one of the longest unbroken streaks in American politics.