Governor contests in November midterms may yield surprises

Paul Davis, Democratic candidate for Kansas governor, listens during a news conference announcing endorsements by more than 100 current and former Republicans politicians July 15 in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

As America becomes more and more polarized, the old adage that "all politics is local" seems less and less relevant. The nation is divided down the middle, with about 46 percent voting for the Democrats in each and every election and 46 percent voting for the Republicans, and the 8 percent in the middle deciding who shall live in the White House and which party will control Congress. The debates that animate the editorial pages of our newspapers and set the talking heads to talking are national debates: war, Obamacare, race, poverty.

But a quick look at this year's midterm elections shows that, in at least one respect, politics is still local. True, the GOP is likely to gain control of the U.S. Senate, buoyed toward victory by President Barack Obama's sinking poll numbers and the rising national ennui those poll numbers reflect. Their control of the House was never in doubt. But a surprising number of gubernatorial contests do not fit the pattern, with some Republican governors of ruby red states facing tough re-election fights and some Democratic governors in deep blue states similarly struggling to stay in office.

Connecticut is as blue as a state can be. Obama carried it in 2012 with 58 percent of the vote. Both of Connecticut's U.S. senators are Democrats, as are all five of its members of Congress. The Democrats hold large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. But incumbent Gov. Dannel Malloy is neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Tom Foley in all polls. These same two men faced each other four years ago, with Malloy winning by less than 7,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

Once in office, Malloy raised taxes, which is never popular. He also took on some state employee unions in an effort to balance the budget, and the teachers' unions on school performance and his commitment to public charter schools. Taking on the teach-ers' unions is always risky for a Democrat and it has earned Malloy a potential challenger from his left, former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto. To get on the ballot, Pelto may have to go to court because state election officials tossed out some of the petitioning signatures he submitted. Pelto would only be likely to draw a few thousand votes, but looking back at 2010, that may be enough.

Mark Silk of Trinity College in Hartford also notes that Malloy's personality is part of the problem. "He's not got a winsome personality," Silk told NCR. Many Democrats find him distant at best, autocratic at worst. His GOP opponent had to survive a primary, which he won with 55 percent of the vote, not exactly a landslide. The lack of enthusiasm, combined with the fact that neither of Connecticut's popular U.S. senators is up for re-election this year, suggests a very low turnout election.

Kansas is as red as Connecticut is blue. In 2012, Mitt Romney captured almost 60 percent of the vote. Both of its U.S. senators and all four of its congressional representatives are Republicans. The GOP controls both houses of the state legislature. And, in 2010, Sam Brownback won the governorship with 63 percent of the vote.

This year, Brownback is trailing Democratic challenger Paul Davis in all current polls. (Full disclosure: Davis' campaign manager is James Roberts, son of NCR editor at large Tom Roberts.)

Brownback used his party's control of the legislature to enact sweeping tax cuts that left the state unable to fund basic services like education and also resulted in the state's credit rating being downgraded twice. Even Republicans are upset with him.

In July, the Davis campaign rolled out the names of more than 100 prominent Republicans officials and former officeholders who are bucking their party and supporting Davis' candidacy. The latest snafu from the Brownback campaign? His first television campaign ad displays a lawn sign for his opponent in the background.

In both Connecticut and Kansas, the governor's mansion has shifted from one party to the other over the years, even while the congressional delegations and presidential votes became predictably partisan. Malloy was the first Democrat to win the Connecticut governorship in two decades. In Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius served two terms as governor before heading to Washington as Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services. Republicans in Connecticut tend to be pro-choice and Democrats in Kansas tend not to be big spenders.

Still, the polarization of the electorate during Obama's tenure should be turning these governor's races into partisan referendums, not least because Malloy expanded Medicaid in his state under Obamacare, and Brownback declined to do so in Kansas, a singular example of a national policy requiring a state-level decision.

Malloy and Brownback are not the only incumbents in trouble in states that should not be a heavy lift for an incumbent this year. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie will not even make it to November. He lost his primary race decisively in August. In Illinois, another true blue state that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, incumbent Democrat Gov. Pat Quinn is trailing in the polls against Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner.

Rauner's campaign biography has a line straight from the Romney playbook: "Bruce makes no apologies for his success." That kind of bragging did not land Romney in the White House. Yet, the RealClearPolitics polling average has Rauner up by seven points against Quinn, who has been plagued by scandals involving government patronage.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, once touted as a rising star in the GOP, got into a nasty fight with fellow Republicans over ethics legislation. While she is likely to retain her hold on the governorship, she is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Democrat Vincent Sheheen.

Next door, in Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is holding the narrowest of leads against challenger Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and currently a state senator. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Deal ahead by just 1.3 percent.

Bill Clinton in 1992 was the last Democrat to win Georgia in a presidential contest, and he achieved that with only 43 percent of the vote because Ross Perot took 13 percent of Georgia's voters that year.

Other states like Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin are also close in this year's gubernatorial contests, but these are tossup states where everyone expects a close race. The most important of these nationally may be in Florida, where former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has switched parties and is challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida, under Scott's leadership, declined the Medicaid expansion offered under Obamacare. A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute demonstrated that of the two dozen states that opted out of the expansion, Florida will lose the most. The state would have secured a staggering $66.1 billion in federal money if Scott had opted into the program.

Governor races matter. Most presidents come from state houses -- not from the senate. Governors have to make executive decisions and so their record is not a voting record but a performance record. And, of course, who sits in the governor's mansion matters a great deal to the residents of each state.

It may no longer be the case that "all politics is local" but sometimes it still is, and we are likely to witness that local impact this November.

[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his blog, Distinctly Catholic.]

This story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: Governor contests may yield surprises .

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