In presidential election years, governor's races are often overlooked. But they shouldn't be: State-level politics often presage big national changes. The Republican Party traces much of its rise in the early 1990s to success the party's governors had in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, and Iowa. Haley Barbour—himself a former governor—likes to point out the correlation between control of a governor's mansion and winning records in Senate races. And, as this last cycle demonstrated, control of state government helps a party bolster its hold on Congressional delegations.
They are, to paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, the laboratories of democracy—and often of politics.
This year, both parties see some opportunities to take control of statehouses. Democrats have forced a recall in Wisconsin, a key early test of the party's turnout operation (and a big test for organized labor, to wit). Republicans are primed to complete their power grab in North Carolina, thanks to an unpopular former governor.
In this, the first installment of Hotline's monthly gubernatorial rankings, we examine the governorships most likely to change partisan control in this year's elections. That is, we see North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue's seat as more likely to wind up in Republican hands than Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire's. Our complex methodology includes a delicate balance of poll numbers, both public and private; fundraising performance; message resonance; buzz on the trail; and, the key ingredient, our gut feelings.
From those five factors, we answer a fundamental question: Which candidate would we rather be? The ultimate conclusions are subjective, of course. But they represent months of close scrutiny of each race, and our best conclusions as to where the Senate is headed in the 113th Congress.
|NORTH CAROLINA (Open D, Gov. Bev Perdue retiring)
It's been more than 20 years since a Republican won the governorship, but former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is looking like a heavy favorite against Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. McCrory has been running since he lost four years ago; Dalton got a late start after first-term Gov. Bev Perdue, bending to reality in the face of terrible poll numbers, dropped out earlier this year. Expect a Republican pickup.
|WISCONSIN (R, Gov. Scott Walker facing recall)
The latest polling shows Gov. Scott Walker pulling ahead of Democrat Tom Barrett, but this is a race that will be close -- with both parties' bases energized. Both candidates are well-defined, but the race is mostly about Walker and the union-targeting legislation he pushed during his first year in office. This race is labor's chance to show it still has turnout muscle; with few undecided voters remaining, neither side has room for error, and the winner will be the campaign with the best get-out-the-vote operation.
|WASHINGTON (D, Gov. Christine Gregoire retiring)
No Republican has won Washington's governorship since John Spellman in 1980, but Attorney General Rob McKenna is a stellar candidate. He faces an uphill climb in a blue state in a presidential year, and he's running as a technocrat in an effort to downplay his party roots. But Republicans point out that McKenna actually won more votes in the state than President Obama did in 2008. Democratic former Rep. Jay Inslee's resignation from Congress has given his lackluster campaign new life, and he'll try to make the race all about McKenna's party label.
|MONTANA (Open D, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is term-limited.)
Attorney General Steve Bullock will have a head start in the general election, given the lack of serious competition in the Democratic primary. Former Rep. Rick Hill is the favorite in a seven-way Republican field. The Republican Governors Association has already tried to make health care—and Bullock's refusal to join the national lawsuit—an issue in the race. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer is popular, and he could help Bullock localize the race, a must for any Democrat in a presidential year in a red state.
|VIRGINIA (Open R, Gov. Bob McDonnell is term-limited.)
The battle for the Republican nomination is well under way, with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli leading Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling in what's sure to be a fierce contest. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe wants another shot after losing the Democratic primary in 2009, but he'll have to get past state Sen. Chap Petersen—who hails from the same chamber as the man who beat McAuliffe in 2009, Creigh Deeds. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is Sen. Mark Warner, who isn't hugely happy with his current job. McAuliffe has already said he'll back down if Warner wants his old gig back.
|NEW HAMPSHIRE (Open D, Gov. John Lynch is retiring.)
Lynch is the undisputed champion of New Hampshire politics, and every other candidate running will have big shoes to fill. Both parties face competitive primaries. Former state Sen. Maggie Hassan is the Democratic front-runner battling a Labor-backed alternative, while Republican attorney Ovide LaMontagne looks like he's ahead of conservative activist Kevin Smith. This race may come down to the amount of effort the Democratic nominee, and President Obama, put into Lynch's once-formidable turnout machine.
|NEW JERSEY (R, Gov. Chris Christie)
Garden State residents, by rule, hate their incumbents, so it's notable that Gov. Chris Christie's approval ratings are so strong. In an off year—New Jersey will elect its next governor in 2013—the state has tended to vote against the party that holds the White House, further bolstering Christie's chances. Democrats face the prospect of either sticking with a legislative insider (state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, state Sen. Barbara Buono, and state Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald have all expressed interest) or wooing their biggest potential recruit, popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Booker's good working relationship with Christie doesn't help the Democratic Governors Association's case.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin)
No state displays a greater divergence between local party and national party than West Virginia—a fact made clear when Tomblin and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin refused to say they would back Obama in November. Tomblin has good poll numbers, and he should be safe, but GOP businessman Bill Maloney has the ability to fund his own campaign. If 2012 turns into a Republican landslide, and if West Virginia voters start voting in statewide elections like they do in federal elections, Tomblin could be in for a closer race than expected. As it stands, he's a safe bet for a full term.
|INDIANA (Open R, Gov. Mitch Daniels is term-limited.)
Democrats once had hopes of snagging Indiana's governorship. But Republican Rep. Mike Pence has proven an able campaigner as he sets himself up for what many believe is a future White House bid. The only public polling out of the Hoosier State so far shows Pence leading former state House Speaker John Gregg by double digits, and Pence has the money advantage to make sure that continues.
|MISSOURI (D, Gov. Jay Nixon)
Republicans are jinxed in this red-state race where they should be more competitive. After Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder dropped out thanks to a pantsless-parties scandal, the GOP turned to businessman Dave Spence, who's now facing scrutiny over accepting bailout money while serving on the board of directors of a local bank—a cardinal sin for a Republican. Nixon, on the other hand, has solid job approval ratings, and he ran well ahead of Obama in 2008. Barring a disaster, he'll win a second term.