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Trickle-Up Politics

GOP governors could define national race.

Vulnerable: N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 15, 2011

Perhaps the most sweeping ramifications of Republican wins in 2010 have been felt in the states, where new governors are cutting budgets, revamping regulations and election laws, and reinventing a party that only recently seemed at the precipice of obscurity.

Indeed, governors are driving much of the political conversation. The protests over Wisconsin’s new collective bargaining law, the tough new immigration laws in states seeking to catch up with Arizona, and the election-overhaul proposals in Florida are just part of the story.  Serious budget shortfalls in at least 44 states are going to test the scientists who run the laboratories of democracy in ways that will fundamentally reshape government.

The governors themselves will have a big impact on the 2012 presidential contest. Their governance will send a powerful signal, but the very fact that almost a dozen governorships will be on the ballot is going to inject big money into key states. Those governors who do not have to seek reelection next year can donate their political organizations—often the best existing machines in their states—to their party’s eventual nominee.


A party holding the governorship is an advantage in a presidential contest, though it doesn’t guarantee a victory. The correlation between a governor’s mansion and winning elections is much stronger when it comes to Senate contests. Since 1995, almost three quarters of the Senate seats Republicans have picked up have come in states that either had a Republican governor serving at the time or had a Republican gubernatorial candidate win the same day.

So while both Democratic and Republican presidential field organizations will benefit from having governors in charge in key states, the real impact of the GOP’s 2010 gubernatorial victories could come in Senate races: In nine of the 11 states that hold governor elections in 2012, a Senate seat is also on the ballot.

Republicans would seem to have the upper hand. Of the 13 states rated toss-up or leaning toward one party or another by the Cook Political Report, eight have Republican governors. Those eight states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia—make up 118 electoral votes; that’s more than enough, when added to each party’s base vote, to push either side to the 270 required to win the presidency. Republicans are aiming for Senate seats in several states in which governorships are on the ballot, including in Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri.

What’s more, Republicans will work hard to win the three toss-up or lean states that have Democratic governors seeking another term.

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation after a rocky first term. She will face a rematch against former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, whom she beat in 2008 by a slim margin of 50 percent to 47 percent. A poll taken in January by Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies for the conservative Civitas Institute showed McCrory leading by 15 points, though lately Perdue’s high-profile fight with the Republican-held Legislature over the budget has her approval ratings on the rise.

In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has been consumed with a response to monster storms that have ravaged parts of the state  and put politics temporarily on hold. But he is likely to face Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican who is a prodigious fundraiser. It’s true that Kinder’s campaign has been buffeted by questions over his use of taxpayer money to spend dozens of nights in hotels in Kansas City and St. Louis. But that may be only a temporary distraction, and Obama’s campaign is unlikely to make Missouri a strong priority after losing the state in 2008. (John Kerry and Al Gore lost it, too.) If Republicans run away with Missouri on the federal level, Kinder’s chances will improve greatly.

Perhaps no governor has a more formidable organization than New Hampshire’s John Lynch. The three-term Democrat must run for reelection every two years, and he’s proven untouchable, even in the 2010 Republican wave. But there is no guarantee Lynch will run for a fourth term; in fact, no Granite State governor has ever served four two-year terms. Republicans are likely to face a primary whether there’s an open seat or not, but conservative attorney Ovide Lamontagne, who narrowly lost a Senate primary in 2010, is the early front-runner if he decides to take a second shot at the executive office (he was the Republican nominee in 1996).

That leaves  Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as the only Democrats running toss-up or swing states. The fact that so many Republican chief executives are running key swing states, or will be running campaigns in those states, will help the eventual GOP nominee build a formidable infrastructure more on par with what Obama’s team already has in place.

Of course, it’s not always easier to be running for office from a position of power. Already, Republican governors in key swing states have seen their approval ratings plummet as they make tough budget-cutting decisions. Polls show Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, and Ohio’s John Kasich struggling; each has a disapproval rating that far exceeds his approval rating.

The budget crises in many of those states constitute make-or-break moments for these new governors. After governors emerge from the budget wars, they will either be lauded as visionary heroes or blamed as heartless failures. Perhaps more daunting, those governors and their political organizations could carry their entire parties on their backs.

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