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.
The only other state where the party winning the gubernatorial race electoral votes differs is Montana, where another popular incumbent is hanging up his cowboy boots. Democrat Steve Bullock, the Treasure State’s attorney general, ran to succeed outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer. For most of the race, he was locked in a dead heat with former Rep. Rick Hill, the GOP nominee. But confusion over a judicial ruling forced Hill to give up $500,000 in donations in the crucial stretch run—and kept him off television for the final week of the race. That was enough for Bullock, who won by a 49 percent to 47 percent tally.
Gubernatorial elections were a rare bright spot for Republicans on Tuesday night. After winning North Carolina, the party boasts 30 of 50 governorships—what McDonnell calls the “nation’s CEOs.”
“We’ve got some work to do structurally with young voters and minority voters,” McDonnell said. But, he added, “I think that’s going to be the future of our party, conservative governors in the states.”
Some unexpected issues are uniting more voters, even as the nation remains deeply divided along partisan lines. Gay marriage, once an issue Democrats avoided for fear of its political fallout, has lost much of its potency. On Tuesday, voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state approved ballot questions permitting same-sex unions, while voters in Minnesota blocked a constitutional amendment that would have banned them.
Marijuana, too, is finding traction in more-liberal states. Voters in Colorado and Washington state backed initiatives to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug. The ballot questions drew an odd coalition of supporters, including civil libertarians and law-enforcement personnel tired of trying to enforce marijuana laws. Perhaps more counterintuitively, medicinal-marijuana dispensary owners are becoming the measure’s biggest opponents, fearful that their monopoly status is in jeopardy. Voters in Oregon rejected a similar measure, while those in Montana voted to ban marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Even in an age of federal-budget austerity, some voters are willing to pay higher taxes. California voters handed Gov. Jerry Brown a big win by approving Proposition 30, a measure that would increase certain taxes to provide more funding for education. But Washington state voters weren’t in the same giving mood; they voted to establish a law handcuffing the state Legislature’s ability to raise taxes, something that is similar, but not identical, to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota proposal to require voters to show identification at the polls went down to defeat, the first time such a measure has lost when it was on a ballot. Still, given the success conservatives have found in pushing voter-identification laws through state legislatures, some opponents worry that initiatives are the next step.
Liberal groups that keep close tabs on ballot initiatives declared themselves satisfied with the results. “We saw so many rights expanded,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “We made history in voting for marriage equality. Seeing the voter-ID amendment rejected by voters ... is a huge statement to reject the policies that we’ve seen in state legislatures the last couple of years on voter restriction.”
The explosion of money available in politics has not stopped with the presidential election, or even with federal races. A few tax initiatives and a measure to restrict political activity by labor unions attracted more than $350 million in spending in California alone. By the time all the spending is totaled up, Sarver said, the tab could exceed $1 billion.
“Ballot-measure spending is largely uncapped, and we are certainly concerned that corporations are going to be able to legislate and buy things without fair debate,” she said. “We’re definitely working on making some recommendations about transparency for who’s putting things on the ballot and what’s behind them.”
This article appeared in print as "State Politics Go National."
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.