The Washington Post
Posted at 12:11 PM ET, 04/08/2011
By Aaron Blake
Democrats will be hard-pressed to play much offense in governor’s races over the next two years.
For that reason, our list of the top five governor’s races over the last few months has included only Democratic seats that could switch to Republicans. And it still does.
But while Republicans will definitely have a chance to expand their edge in governor’s seats in the 14 races to be held in 2011 and 2012, there are growing signs that the wave of 2010 may be cresting.
Look no further than Wisconsin.
Until a few weeks ago, conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was not a name anybody in Washington knew. But after Gov. Scott Walker (R) inflamed liberal and union activists in the Badger State with his move to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights, Prosser came close to losing in a race that was on virtually nobody’s radar two months ago. Meanwhile, Democrats easily took Walker’s old post of Milwaukee County executive.
Republicans point out that Milwaukee is heavily Democratic and that they still (probably) won the Supreme Court race. They also note that Walker didn’t win his November race by an overwhelming margin — a suggestion that the close Prosser race says little about a changing electorate.
Those are fair points. But there is little evidence of broad support for Walker’s proposals so far, and a Democratic base that wasn’t all that excited about voting in 2010 is now looking riled up. It actively turned a little-known assistant attorney general into a real contender who came oh-so-close to knocking of Prosser. Prosser led JoAnne Kloppenburg 55 percent to 25 percent in the open primary; but even with the other candidates out of the race, he saw his vote share drop to just more than 50 percent in the general election. That doesn’t happen without a significant shift.
Objectively, Walker and other crusading Republican governor’s have seen their approval ratings languish as they’ve moved to make tough changes. Fellow GOP Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, for example, has seen his disapproval rating more than double over the last two months, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll. While his approval/disapproval was 35 percent/22 percent in February, the most recent Q poll put him at 35 percent and 48 percent.
Now, what do Scott Walker and Rick Scott have to do with a 2011 governor’s race in West Virginia? Probably not much — unless it becomes something that Democrats in those states and the Democratic Governors Association can successfully turn into a campaign issue. They are trying in Washington state already. We’ll see how that pans out.
But in addition to the controversy caused by newly elected governors, top GOP challengers have succumbed to some bad press in recent days.
The Kentucky media reported this week that state Senate President David Williams’s (R) divorce filing showed $36,000 in gambling losses between 1999 and 2002. His tea party primary opponent, businessman Phil Moffett, meanwhile raised an embarrassing $10,000 in a two-day “moneybomb.”
Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) got even worse news, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported tens of thousands of dollars in hotel stays he racked up on the taxpayers’ dime. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) remains popular, so Kinder (who is not technically a candidate yet) can’t afford many missteps.
Does it mean that the governor’s races have swung back in Democrats’ favor? Hardly. The GOP still has a very good chance of taking Democratic seats in Montana and North Carolina, with an open seat in conservative Montana and unpopular Gov. Bev Perdue (D) in North Carolina.
After seeing plenty of governor’s seats change hands in 2010, though, it seems entirely plausible that the 2011 and 2012 races could do little to shift the balance of power. Of course, there’s still lots of time.
To the line…
5. Washington (Democratic controlled): This is the best example of the Walker drama seeping into other races. The name of the game for Democrats early in this race has been to tie state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) to Walker and other national GOP initiatives, with the state Democratic Party running a newspaper ad saying, “If you like what Governor Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin . . . you will love Rob McKenna as Washington State’s Governor.” McKenna, should he run, has to walk a fine line between wooing the tea party types and being a viable candidate in a blue state. For example, he has joined a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general against the new federal health care law, but also says he doesn’t want the whole bill struck down. On the Democratic side, we’re still waiting on Gov. Chris Gregoire to declare her intentions about seeking a third term. A top alternative is Rep. Jay Inslee. (Previous ranking: 5)
4. Missouri (D): Kinder’s ampaign hit a rough patch — to put it nicely — this week when the Post-Dispatch reported that he had stayed at luxury hotels while traveling on the taxpayer’s dime. Sensing the political danger, Kinder has said he will repay the state the $35,000 he charged it for the hotels, but Democrats are smartly doing everything they can to keep the story in the news. And the optics of it are bad for Republicans, who recently savaged Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for billing the taxpayers for flights on her personal plane. Nixon is taking little for granted, having already hired a campaign manager and starting to raise money in earnest. (Previous ranking: 4)
3. Kentucky (D): The problems for Williams and Moffett are threatening an already uphill battle to defeat Gov. Steve Beshear (D). And Beshear is taking no chances, having launched his first ad already, even though he doesn’t fact a primary. What Democrats would really love is for Moffett to pick up some steam and give Williams a tough primary challenge. Despite his lack of fundraising — he has raised just $80,000 of a $300,000 goal — Moffett has been securing tea party support. Williams, though, has raised more than $1 million, giving himself a big financial advantage. The Republican primary is May 17. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Montana (D): Democrats are still waiting on Attorney General Steve Bullock to get in this race, which looks like it will happen after the current legislative session. Former Republican congressman Rick Hill looks like the frontrunner in the GOP primary, for now. He raised close to $100,000 in the first quarter of the year, and no other Republican came close. Bullock raised $65,000 in the quarter but is hampered by the limits on donations for an attorney general; if he declared himself a gubernatorial candidate, he would be allowed to raise twice as much. Republicans aren’t totally sold on Hill, who notably attacked a female opponent in the late 1990s for being unmarried and without children. But even a weak GOP candidate could put up a tough fight in this Republican-leaning state. And once the state’s legislative session ends, some fresher faces could jump in on the GOP side. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. North Carolina (D): Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is preparing for a rematch against Gov. Bev Perdue (D) in 2012, and strategists on both sides acknowledge the incumbent could be in real trouble. There’s been little reliable polling done in the race to date, but McCrory may start the contest as a slight favorite given Perdue’s struggles in her first term. At the same time, President Obama is planning a full-bore campaign in the Tarheel State in 2012, and that sort of voter identification and turnout operation will likely help Perdue. Of course, it will also make it easier for Republicans to link Perdue to the commander-in-chief. (Previous ranking: 1)
Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner contributed to this post.