Fortunes of Governors Continually Shifting in Advance of Elections

Posted May 16, 2005 at 6:45pm

In politics, two and a half months can be an eternity. For evidence, consider our last ranking of the 10 most endangered governorships for 2005 and 2006, published March 1. [IMGCAP(1)]

Although the 2006 elections are still 18 months away, governorships have been moving up and down the list like crazy. Only two states had the same spot on both lists, with four governorships falling off entirely.

As usual, we rank states only by the likelihood of partisan change, not by the likelihood of a sitting governor being ousted in a primary by a candidate who goes on to win in the general election. Also, the rankings are based on current factors, not on as-yet theoretical candidacies.

1. NEW YORK
Incumbent: George Pataki (R)
Last ranking: 1
Once again, New York tops our list. Poll numbers in the Empire State have held steady: State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the presumptive Democratic nominee, easily led three-term Gov. Pataki in several polls taken during the past two months.

And that’s if Pataki runs again; in fact, that’s still an unlikely scenario. Beyond Pataki, the GOP cupboard is bare: Flavor-of-the-month William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor turned New York resident, won just 16 percent against Spitzer in a recent Quinnipiac poll.

2. VIRGINIA
Vacating Seat: Mark Warner (D)
Last ranking: 3

Virginia moves up a notch, less from a heated (if rather trivial) dispute between Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) over the honor of southwestern Virginia accents, but rather because the race is one of only two gubernatorial contests in 2005. Because of this, it’s getting major scrutiny from consultants, journalists and donors, which has kept the contest volatile.

Kilgore faces a challenge in the June 14 primary from self-financing maverick George Fitch, the mayor of Warrenton. In the general, both major-party nominees will face Republican state Sen. Russell Potts Jr., who’s running as an independent disenchanted with the GOP’s rightward drift.

3. MARYLAND
Incumbent: Bob Ehrlich (R)
Last ranking: 2

Maryland drops one slot, simply because there haven’t been any new bombshells in the past few weeks. The race was jolted earlier this year by revelations that a close associate of Ehrlich spread rumors about the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. That revelation led to others about the associate’s apparent purges of long-serving state officials.

Ehrlich, a Republican in a state long dominated by Democrats, seems to have suffered a blow to his nice-guy image. An April poll by Potomac Survey Research for the Baltimore Sun found him trailing O’Malley 45 percent to 39 percent, compared to a 40-40 tie in the same poll in January. Ehrlich still leads the other Democratic contender, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, 44 percent to 38 percent, though in the primary, O’Malley leads Duncan by the same margin. This race promises to be highly competitive.

4. IOWA
Vacating Seat: Tom Vilsack (D)
Last ranking: 6
Iowa climbs two slots this month, amid quietly growing concern among Democrats and growing unity among Republicans in support of their frontrunner, Rep. Jim Nussle.

Nussle, who faces a challenge from Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, does not yet seem to be taking too much flak for his role in cutting federal outlays as House Budget chairman, though he’s still little known outside of his eastern Iowa district. On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Chet Culver, the tentative frontrunner, benefits from high approval ratings for retiring incumbent Vilsack, but he could face several primary opponents.

“The Democrats have a decent pool of candidates, but none can match Nussle’s campaign experience and fundraising ability,” said University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire. That said, the seat is open and the state is politically divided. Keep it high on the list.

5. OHIO
Vacating Seat: Bob Taft (R)
Last ranking: 5
The race to succeed Taft — who received a dismal 34 percent approval rating in a March-April University of Cincinnati poll — has continued to be volatile. On the Democratic side, Rep. Ted Strickland has jumped into a race that previously included only Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.

Strickland, though less well known than Coleman, especially in Ohio’s major urban areas, is a former minister who has won consistently in a district with a slight GOP lean. “Strickland can appeal to Republicans,” said Melanie Blumberg, a political scientist at California University of Pennsylvania.

Moreover, the tonic of a primary could keep the Democrats in the news as three Republicans — Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery — wage a gloves-off primary battle of their own.

But a Republican strategist said a party as weak as Ohio’s Democrats may not be able to handle the stresses of a contested primary. “The Democrats’ best strategy was to unify early and let the Republicans beat up on themselves,” he said. “Now they may be giving up that one advantage.”

6. MASSACHUSETTS
Incumbent: Mitt Romney (R)
Last ranking: Unranked
While Romney may forgo another term to focus on a possible presidential bid, Democrats are feeling good even if he does run again. Recent polls by the University of New Hampshire and University of Massachusetts at Lowell found state Attorney General Thomas Reilly (D), a well-funded moderate, beating Romney by 7-8 points.

A more liberal Democrat, former Clinton administration official Deval Patrick, trails Romney in the head-to-heads, but he’s seemed livelier on the stump. Strong GOP contenders if Romney bows out include Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and health care executive Charlie Baker. Look for this contest to climb the charts as the campaign develops.

7. ARKANSAS
Vacating Seat: Mike Huckabee (R)
Last ranking: Unranked
Arkansas climbs a few notches into the top 10. The GOP faces a primary between two strong candidates: former Rep. Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. The more conservative Hutchinson is favored in the primary, though either Republican would run a strong race against moderate state Attorney General Mike Beebe, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Beebe can take heart that, in recent years, moderate Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln have chalked up solid statewide victories.

Another potential factor, noted Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College: If Rockefeller is the nominee, outgoing (and newly trim) Gov. Huckabee will likely become more engaged in the race, since the Huckabee-Hutchinson feud “is an old, deep one.”

8. WISCONSIN
Incumbent: Jim Doyle (D)
Last ranking: 10 (tie)
Doyle’s position, while not dire, has been eroding somewhat. He’s had a rough time working with the Legislature, and he took flak for lobbyist-paid (but legal) trips to Michigan and to the Super Bowl. A March-April University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee poll pegged his job ratings at a mediocre 38 percent approve, 29 percent disapprove. GOP Rep. Mark Green has now joined Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R) in the race, cheering Republicans.

9. MICHIGAN
Incumbent: Jennifer Granholm (D)
Last ranking: Unranked
Michigan leaps onto the list, despite Granholm’s star cachet. The state has a sluggish economy, and the governor has struggled a bit of late. Dick DeVos, a wealthy and well-connected businessman, would be a strong GOP challenger, as would Rep. Candice Miller (R). Granholm is still ahead, even in Republican polling, and her head is above water in approval ratings. But Republicans are increasingly optimistic, and Democrats concede that Michigan is becoming a problem.

10. ALABAMA
Incumbent: Bob Riley (R)
Last ranking: 4
Little has changed in this race in recent months, but the incumbent, Riley, has been in a deep hole since 2003, when his tax-restructuring plan was rejected by the voters. Riley has to worry about both a potential challenge from the right (ousted state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, a hero to Christian conservatives) as well as from the center (popular Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley). The latest polls, from January and February, had both Moore and Baxley beating Riley.

WATCH LIST: The Climbers
California. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s once-stratospheric approval ratings have nosedived after taking on too many difficult fights against well-organized opponents. Liberal state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D), who has already announced his intention to run for governor, has gained some traction, with moderate state Controller Steve Westly (D) waiting in the wings. The Gubernator remains the favorite if he seeks a second (actually, first full) term, but that’s now less certain than it was.

“A big problem for California Republicans is that there is no one on the bench should he not seek re-election,” said one California Democrat.

Georgia. It’s hard to imagine Georgia, which has taken a hard right turn since 2000, seriously considering a Democrat these days. But either Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor or Secretary of State Cathy Cox could give first-term Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) a race. An April poll by Zogby for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Perdue and Cox tied at 43 percent. (Perdue beat Taylor 48 percent to 35 percent.) Perdue “inherited budget problems, but still may get some of the blame,” one Georgia observer said. “Teachers, a crucial vote against his Democratic predecessor [Roy Barnes], are not happy with him either.”

Nevada. For a while, it seemed that Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) had Nevada’s open governorship in the bag. But “Team Gibbons is having a difficult time adjusting to the white-hot lights of a real race,” conceded one Nevada Republican, citing flak from a plagiarized (and vitriolic) speech he gave in Elko, Nev., and the distraction of his wife, Dawn, running for his House seat. It’s still Gibbons’ to lose, but the gloss is off.

Minnesota. The Democratic field hasn’t coalesced yet, and Republican incumbent Tim Pawlenty isn’t in big trouble. But he has a rough couple of months coming up in the Legislature, where Democrats made significant gains in the state House last fall, making Minnesota a state to watch.

Pennsylvania. Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell remains favored for a second term, but the odds have slipped from overwhelmingly likely to just highly likely. Rendell remains weak outside the Philadelphia area, and Republicans have at least three serious candidates, including former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton, state Sen. Jeff Piccola and, intriguingly, former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann. But Rendell remains strong in metro Philadelphia and is a top-flight fundraiser. Keep this one on the back burner.

WATCH LIST: The Decliners
Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Florida. But check back in three months.

CORRECTION:

The “Out There” column in the May 17 edition incorrectly reported recent poll numbers on the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland. In the poll, conducted for The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley took 45 percent of the vote and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan took 25 percent.