Governors were once a breed apart. A Democratic state might elect a Republican governor to serve as a check on a Democratic legislature. A Republican state might elect a Democratic governor if he put some distance between himself and the national party. That’s why, just two years ago, the governors of Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the three bluest states in America, were Republicans. At the same time, the governors of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, three of the reddest states in the country, were Democrats. As the governors of those six states ended their terms, voters still held favorable impressions of them.
But the last two elections have demonstrated that governors are subject to the same partisan tides as House and Senate members. All six of the governors cited above retired in 2010, and all six were replaced by governors of the opposite party. (In Rhode Island, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who endorsed President Obama in both 2008 and 2012, replaced Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.)
And this year, the few races for executive offices mostly followed predictable partisan voting patterns. The era of governors as a breed apart, it appears, is over.
Of the 11 states that elected a governor on Tuesday, only Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia chose a candidate from the party that did not win the state’s presidential vote. (At press time, the race in Washington state had not been called.)
Two of the two states that broke with the Electoral College had extenuating circumstances. West Virginia, long a Democratic stronghold that has only recently begun voting Republican at the presidential level, reelected popular Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin by a wide margin against a weak opponent in a rematch from a special election last year. And in Missouri, where Democrat Jay Nixon has boasted strong approval ratings throughout his first term, voters stuck with their governor over a flawed Republican. “People vote the issue. They vote the person, and ... independent voters control most elections,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the head of the Republican Governors Association.
But almost every other state stuck to the script.
In 2008, Obama eked out a 14,000-vote win in North Carolina, while Democrat Bev Perdue won by a wider 45,000-vote margin. Four years later, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney snagged the state from the Obama coalition and Perdue bowed to political reality by retiring, the man Perdue beat—former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory—waltzed into the Governor’s Mansion with a half-million votes to spare. He is the first Charlottean to win the governorship since 1920, and his victory breaks a streak of five consecutive losses by former Charlotte mayors who have failed to win statewide office.
Washington state has not elected a Republican governor since 1980, the longest such streak in the nation. And the GOP put up a strong candidate in Attorney General Rob McKenna, a technocrat who won more votes than Obama did in 2008 in this deeply blue state. Former Rep. Jay Inslee, a fiery progressive, tried to tie McKenna to the national Republican Party, an effort that apparently paid off. Although he won by more than 500,000 votes in 2008, McKenna trailed by 50,000 votes out of more than 1.9 million cast. Late absentee ballots in Washington, where the entire election is held by mail, have occasionally favored Republicans, but the 2-percentage-point margin by which Inslee leads McKenna has most observers convinced that Washington’s streak of electing Democratic governors will continue once the race is called.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, who decided to retire rather than seek a fifth two-year term despite high approval ratings, leaves his legacy to fellow Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former state senator. Hassan took 54 percent of the vote against Republican Ovide Lamontagne, who was making his third bid for statewide office and was widely seen as too conservative for the state.
Another popular retiring governor, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, will be succeeded by a member of his own party. Rep. Mike Pence polled well ahead of Democrat John Gregg for most of the race, but he pulled off a surprisingly narrow win, 50 percent to 46 percent, after the race closed in the final weeks. Pence may have been harmed by the comments of Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the GOP’s Senate nominee, who said in a debate that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Pence immediately distanced himself from Mourdock’s comments, a sign he recognized the political danger.
Republican Govs. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota and Gary Herbert of Utah easily won their bids for a full term. Both had succeeded predecessors who quit: Dalrymple became governor after John Hoeven resigned to take a Senate seat; Herbert took office after Jon Huntsman accepted President Obama’s offer to become ambassador to China. Democratic Govs. Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Jack Markell of Delaware each cruised to reelection.
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.