There May Be Less Turnover in Governors’ Races

Posted October 6, 2004 at 6:17pm

If you want job security, get yourself elected to Congress. If you like living on the edge, try being a governor. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the 40 gubernatorial elections of the 2002-03 cycle, an extraordinary 60 percent of incumbent governors saw their party lose, either by an incumbent’s ouster or by an open seat being swiped by the out-of-power party.

By comparison, just 3 percent of House seats and 12 percent of Senate seats flipped during that same period. The takeover rate for governors even surpassed, by many times over, the takeover rate for state Houses (6 percent) and state Senates (17 percent).

The recent voter animosity toward governors has one generally accepted source: the dismal fiscal conditions that spread through the states in 2002 and 2003. What began as a high-tech bust in 2000 quickly snowballed into a national economic downturn that worsened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Two years ago, job losses and business failures were dampening state tax revenues, just as demands grew for unemployment checks and health coverage for suddenly needy residents.

To get budgets into balance — something that’s constitutionally required in most states — governors had to make cuts in services, hike taxes or both. And voters didn’t like it at all.

“The high rate of gubernatorial switches definitely reflected the tough fiscal times,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Whatever captain is at the helm when the ship hits the storm, the crew throws them overboard. That’s what happened with governors, whether they deserved it or not.”

Now, the key question hovering over the 2004 gubernatorial races is: Will voters in the 11 states hosting gubernatorial races this fall be as unkind to incumbents and their parties as they were in 2003 and 2004?

The tentative answer is: No. And if voters do end up throwing lots of the bums out, poor state budgets won’t be to blame. This time, the experts say, budgets are on the mend.

“For most states there’s been a fairly significant improvement in revenues, so we would anticipate that it’s not going to have the same type of impact as two

years ago,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. “What we’re hearing from the tossup races is that people are surprised by the lack of budget issues being front and center.”

According to Corina Eckl, fiscal program director for the NCSL, an infusion of federal funds has helped brighten the budget picture. So have gritty efforts by sitting governors to balance the books.

“It’s been a slow, gradual improvement,” Eckl said.

Equally important for sitting governors, voters seem to be hearing a much brighter message.

“You’re not getting the news stories of legislatures going into special session, and revenue projections falling short,” said Peter Wiley, the director of the office of management consulting at the National Governors Association.

Currently, independent handicappers rate two incumbent governors safe this year: Delaware’s Ruth Ann Minner (D) and North Dakota’s John Hoeven (R). The Democrats are also expected to hold the governorship of West Virginia, where infidelity-plagued incumbent Bob Wise (D) decided not to seek a second term.

Four other gubernatorial seats are considered vulnerable: those held by North Carolina’s Mike Easley (D), Vermont’s Jim Douglas (R) and New Hampshire’s Craig Benson (R), plus the seat being vacated by Washington’s Gary Locke (D).

Four more seats are considered tossups, or worse, for the incumbent party. Democrat Joe Kernan of Indiana holds one of them. Three other seats are open: the Democratic-held governorship in Missouri and Republican governorships in Montana and Utah.

However, fiscal shortcomings by the current governor is rarely a top issue this fall, analysts say.

Take North Carolina. The state got hit as hard on the budget as almost any state, yet other factors appear to be driving the race now.

The state GOP is currently riven by factionalism and only settled on its nominee — the young and not-well-known state Senate Republican leader Patrick Ballantine — in mid-August. Easley, meanwhile, chalked up a 57 percent approval rating in September — the highest since he was elected in 2000. Most observers give Easley the edge.

In Montana, the incumbent governor, Republican Judy Martz, decided against seeking another term after being embroiled in one scandal after another. Though Montana is in most cases a strongly Republican state, the Democratic nominee, Brian Schweitzer, has displayed crossover appeal ever since he nearly topped GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000.

The controversies surrounding Martz and the strength of Schweitzer’s candidacy have defined the race far more than budgetary issues have.

In Utah, too, personality appears to have trumped policy. The incumbent governor, Olene Walker, chalked up an astronomical 81 percent approval rating earlier this year, but was denied a chance to run again by a balkanized state Republican convention. In Walker’s absence, Republican Jon Huntsman, a Bush administration appointee and scion of a chemical-industry family, and Democrat Scott Matheson, the son of a popular former governor, will vie for the governorship.

Neither candidacy is expected to rise or fall based on Walker’s fiscal performance, or that of her predecessor, Republican Mike Leavitt.

“Both candidates recognize the tight resources,” said Southern Utah University political scientist Rodney Decker. “But they’re having a legitimate debate about it, not making a public outcry. They’re not saying things have been mismanaged.”

In West Virginia, Democratic Secretary of State Joe Manchin is expected to prevail after Wise decided against seeking another term. The outgoing governor’s performance in office, official or extracurricular, “is a nonfactor,” said one West Virginia Democrat. “The issues in the race have nothing to do with what he did.”

The three states where fiscal policy could make a difference this fall are Washington state, Missouri and Indiana. But even then, it appears to be just one of many issues.

Washington state has clearly grown fatigued of Locke, whose approval rating last year sank to a dismal 33 percent — a nosedive due at least in part to a sluggish economy and budget challenges.

Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire and Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi are now running a tight race in the Democratic-leaning state.

In Missouri, the Democratic Party underwent a wrenching primary that saw first-term Gov. Bob Holden lose to state Auditor Claire McCaskill. Earlier this year, Holden’s approval rating had sunk to 37 percent, thanks partly to a difficult couple of budget seasons but also because of concerns about his personality and some early missteps.

Ironically, the difficult budgetary choices Holden made — which were informed by his earlier experience as state treasurer — have brought about such an improvement in the state’s fiscal picture that neither McCaskill nor Republican nominee Matt Blunt has to worry too much about the budget he or she will inherit, said St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren.

“Missouri is in a much better budgetary situation than it was two years ago,” Warren said. “The candidates are not making an issue of it.”

Even in Indiana, a Republican-leaning state led by Democratic governors for the past 16 years, budget issues seem to be secondary. Although the state, like much of the Midwest, has suffered economically, much of the race has been about defining the personal characteristics of the two candidates — Kernan, a former South Bend mayor and Vietnam POW, and former Bush White House budget chief and corporate executive Mitch Daniels (R).

To demonstrate his common touch, Daniels has been traveling around the state in an RV, to some success.

But Democrats have attacked him for his $27 million salary when he was a senior executive with drugmaker Eli Lilly, as well as his role on the board of directors of a utility company that defaulted on some of its financial obligations to retirees. Kernan got off to a slow start but has since narrowed the gap, analysts say.

Governors who aren’t up for re-election this fall appear to be in strong shape. Of the six governors who took office in 2003 and 2004 and who have had their popularity tested in recent polls, four have approval ratings above 60 percent. The others are at 53 percent and 48 percent, according to figures compiled by University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle.

Governors with even more seniority are doing just fine, too, including several in the Class of 2002 — those who rode into office on anti-incumbent ire. Democrats Phil Bredesen (Tenn.), Jennifer Granholm (Mich.) and Ed Rendell (Pa.) and Republicans Bob Ehrlich (Md.), Linda Lingle (Hawaii) and Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) are among those with approval ratings above 50 percent. Some of them even top 60 percent.

The current crop of governors “are not out of the woods yet,” especially given chronic funding problems for Medicaid and education and the growing federal debt, said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York in Albany.

Still, he added, “I’d much rather be a governor now than in 2002. Absolutely.”