The landscape for governors' races over the next two years is remarkably different from the starkly red and blue ideological universe in which Congress operates.
In Kentucky and West Virginia, both conservative states, Democratic governors up for reelection this year are in surprisingly strong position. In Washington state, which has the longest streak in the country of electing Democratic governors, Republicans are optimistic about scoring a pickup.
On paper, Kentucky's Steve Beshear and West Virginia's Earl Ray Tomblin shouldn't have it easy: Both are Democrats governing states hit hard by the recession with unemployment rates above the national average. These also are places where voters view the Obama administration very unfavorably. But at this point, it would take a major upset for Republicans to defeat them.
GOP officials are already close to writing off Kentucky, frustrated with a weak nominee in state Senate President David Williams. No negative ads have yet run against him, but his approval rating is underwater and he trails by more than 20 points in two polls. Even with an early advertising buy from the Republican Governors Association on Williams's behalf, the race is shaping up to be a blowout.
The Democratic successes in Kentucky and West Virginia speak to how effectively Beshear and Tomblin have developed their own brands, separate from the national party's. Both have defended the coal industry in their states against environmental regulations from Washington; both support gun rights; and both connect culturally with rural, Appalachian voters.
That's gone a long way in inoculating them from their states' economic struggles. In Kentucky, Republican Williams has been trying to tie the governor to President Obama and federal issues. No such luck. And, as state Senate president, Williams can't contrast himself as an outsider—the strategy behind Republican Rand Paul's surprisingly successful insurgent U.S. Senate campaign last year.
Recent allegations that Beshear's campaign pressured state employees to donate to his campaign could dent his lead. But even Williams's supporters doubt that it's a game-changer.
The story is similar in West Virginia. Tomblin, who became acting governor after Joe Manchin was elected to the Senate, is cut from the same conservative cloth as his predecessor. In the primary, Tomblin won endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and West Virginia's right-to-life lobby.
Republicans nominated a wealthy businessman, Bill Maloney, who's capable of spending some of his own money on the race. Few West Virginians know him yet, and his résumé is intriguing: He owns the company that devised the plan to save the trapped Chilean miners.
But Republicans may have seen their best opportunity in the race evaporate in the primary. They hoped that Democrats would nominate one of Tomblin's more liberal challengers, who would have been less acceptable to the state's blue-collar electorate.
The GOP, meanwhile, has all but locked up the two off-year contests in Louisiana and Mississippi. Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., isn't even facing a credible Democratic opponent, with three months before the election. His success speaks to his stewardship of the state, post-Hurricane Katrina, and to the state's ever-increasing Republican leanings.
Looking ahead to 2012, only a few of the 11 governors' races appear competitive. Washington state, Missouri, and North Carolina are all potential GOP pickups. Only the Indiana governor's race gives Democrats an outside shot at winning.
The race in Washington to succeed retiring Gov. Christine Gregoire is shaping up as the most compelling gubernatorial contest of the cycle.
Strategists from both parties expect this race to be very close, with Rep. Jay Inslee, the Democratic nominee, benefiting from presidential-level turnout. But Republicans are hoping that Attorney General Rob McKenna, who sports a moderate profile with a record of success winning in the Seattle suburbs, can reverse the 30-year Republican curse in the state.
In North Carolina, Democrat Bev Perdue is the most vulnerable governor. Every poll conducted in the last year shows her trailing Republican Pat McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte.
But Gov. Jay Nixon, D-Mo., appears to be in solid shape for reelection against Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
There's plenty of time left, but Missouri's race is developing on a parallel track to the one in Kentucky—with a Democratic governor running ahead of the odds in a Republican-leaning state, thanks to his charisma and likability and his opponent's early stumbles.
It offers yet another reminder that governors' races are about a personal comfort level with the candidates. That truism is giving Democrats some optimism in what otherwise is shaping up to be a difficult year.
This article appears in the August 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.