Sleepy Gubernatorial Cycle Is Beginning to Wake Up With a Start

Posted July 25, 2005 at 6:40pm

Tired of the lack of competitive seats in Congress? Yearning for political action? Come to the state level, where a once-sleepy gubernatorial cycle is showing signs of restlessness.

[IMGCAP(1)]In our third quarterly ranking of most-endangered governorships, our 10 slots are suddenly overflowing with hot races. As always, we rank the 2005-2006 contests by the likelihood of partisan change and using current factors, not theoretical candidacies.

1. NEW YORK
Incumbent: George Pataki (R)
Last ranking: 1

Pataki has had a run of good press, shepherding the first on-time budget in 21 years and helping launch the new Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. Better yet, given the GOP’s thin bench, the presidential hopeful is sounding more like he might seek a fourth term.

Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s edge over Pataki has narrowed modestly, amid tighter media scrutiny. His big war chest and the state’s Democratic lean still make him a favorite, but victory is no longer inevitable. If Spitzer stumbles, Tom Suozzi — the first Democratic Nassau County executive in 30-plus years — could enter the race if he’s re-elected later this year.

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

Republicans are desperately trying to emphasize former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s GOP affiliation, while Democrats desperately try to pitch Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine as the heir to popular Gov. Mark Warner (D). The wild card: Who will moderate Republican state Sen. Russell Potts Jr., running as an independent, steal more votes from? For now, it could be either candidate.

3. OHIO
Vacating seat: Bob Taft (R)
Last ranking: 5

Ohio’s once-dominant GOP is in a tailspin, due to allegations of cronyism, ethics violations and fiduciary negligence. A Democratic poll pegged Taft’s approval rating at 19 percent, and the three leading GOP hopefuls — Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, state Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery — are also at risk.

Blackwell is least directly affected by the scandals, but because he is a hard-line

conservative, Democrats might find him easiest to beat. Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman have yet to show that they’re world-beaters. The GOP has one untainted savior, if he runs: former Rep. John Kasich.

4. IOWA
Vacating seat: Tom Vilsack (D)
Last ranking: 4

Iowa Democrats are optimistic that state Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge and possibly state Economic Development Director Michael Blouin will strengthen their wide, but shallow, primary field. More important, Democratic Governors Association Chairman Bill Richardson (N.M.) — a potential Iowa presidential caucus candidate in 2008 — recently promised that national Democrats will go full tilt for the nominee.

On the GOP side, Rep. Jim Nussle has strengthened his primary edge over businessman Bob Vander Plaats, but he still must raise his statewide profile and overcome his inside-the-Beltway image. He could benefit if Democrats have to resort to a party convention to pick a nominee.

5. MASSACHUSETTS
Incumbent: Mitt Romney (R)
Last ranking: 6

With a Romney presidential bid likely, the Democrats stand to recapture the Massachusetts governorship for the first time since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991. Romney has consistently trailed state Attorney General Thomas Reilly (D) by 7 to 10 points. Other Republicans — Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, said to be Romney’s preferred successor, or health care executive Charlie Baker — would presumably start further behind.

Reilly got a boost in the Democratic primary when Boston Mayor Tom Menino said he would endorse him. Menino’s political operation would be an asset in a primary against former Clinton administration official Deval Patrick, a black attorney who needs strong returns in Boston to edge Reilly.

6. CALIFORNIA
Incumbent: Arnold Schwarzenegger (R)
Last ranking: Unranked

Who knew the Gubernator would fall so far, so fast? In a late-June Field poll, a whopping 57 percent said they were disinclined to support his re-election; in February, 56 percent had been inclined to support him. And that was before his muscle-magazine consulting fee controversy peaked.

Liberal state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D) and moderate state Controller Steve Westly (D) narrowly top Schwarzenegger in trial heats. Both will be well funded, though Angelides is better known. If Schwarzenegger runs again — and if his numbers fall further, he may not — it will be a real race.

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

Little has changed: Ehrlich will face one of two bitterly fighting Democrats, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. Polls showing O’Malley beating Ehrlich by a half-dozen points were taken just after it was revealed that a close Ehrlich associate spread scurrilous rumors about O’Malley. But the scandal drumbeat has ebbed, and a compelling open-seat Senate contest is now stealing some of Maryland’s political oxygen. Expect more volatility.

8. MICHIGAN
Incumbent: Jennifer Granholm (D)
Last ranking: 9

Granholm, beset by a weak economy, got good news in a June-July EPIC/MRA survey: favorable-unfavorable ratings at 56 percent to 32 percent and job approval ratings at 52 percent positive, 44 percent negative. But then she was ensnared in a shouting match with The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which attacked her “grandiose proposal” to hike business taxes. Though Granholm is no fundraising slouch, she’s expected to face deep-pocketed Republican businessman Dick DeVos.

9. OREGON
Incumbent: Ted Kulongoski (D)
Last ranking: Unranked

An odd-bedfellow coalition of American Indian tribes, environmentalists and social conservatives loudly opposed Kulongoski’s support for locating a tribal casino off Indian lands, and the fallout has damaged his already soft support. In June, Riley Research Associates found 33 percent supporting his re-election and 42 percent saying they might support someone else.

That could be enough to convince Kulongoski not to run again, especially given possible primary challenges by Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson and state Sen. Vicki Walker. On the Republican side, said one political analyst, “almost any Republican is now plausible,” with the possible exception of state GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix, the social conservative Kulongoski beat in 2002. If Kulongoski does bow out, state Treasurer Randall Edwards and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio are possible Democratic candidates.

10. (tie) ARKANSAS
Vacating seat: Mike Huckabee (R)
Last ranking: 7

Huckabee is going out on a high note, and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson just got the GOP field to himself in this red state following the withdrawal last week of Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. But state Attorney General Mike Beebe (D) had far more cash on hand than Hutchinson at the end of the last reporting period, thanks to strong business ties.

10. (tie) MAINE
Incumbent: John Baldacci (D)
Last ranking: Unranked

Maine leaps into the Top 10, as liberals gripe about Baldacci’s budget austerity while socially conservative Democrats oppose his signing a bill that outlaws discrimination against gays and lesbians. The gay rights measure now faces an aggressive repeal effort.

Meanwhile, proposed base closures could worsen a slow economic recovery. A May survey found Baldacci’s favorability at just 29 percent, with 37 percent unfavorable. The GOP field includes ex-Rep. David Emery and businessman Stephen Stimpson, while former Ralph Nader supporter Nancy Oden plans a third-party challenge from the left.

Just below the Top 10:

12. WISCONSIN
Incumbent: Jim Doyle (D)
Last ranking: 8

In mid-July, Doyle’s two challengers, Rep. Mark Green (R) and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, reported $1.7 million and $502,000 in cash on hand — less than Doyle’s $3.5 million, but enough to embolden Republicans who consider Doyle vulnerable. Critics on the left want to nudge state Rep. Spencer Black (D) into a primary, but it’s considered unlikely for now.

13. MINNESOTA
Incumbent: Tim Pawlenty (R)
Last ranking: Unranked

Republican Pawlenty and the split-control Legislature forced one shutdown and narrowly averted another this year. A 75-cents-a-pack “health impact fee” on cigarettes has hurt the no-new-tax governor with conservatives. But voters may be souring on both parties equally, and a clear Democratic challenger hasn’t yet emerged.

Climbers
Illinois
. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), beset by allegations of corruption in his administration, actually trailed Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in a June GOP poll, 31 percent to 33 percent. But without the emergence of a unifying candidate like former Gov. Jim Edgar, the fractious state GOP will be hard-pressed to capitalize.

Nevada. Rep. Jim Gibbons, once the easy Republican frontrunner, now faces a messy fight for conservatives from state Sen. Bob Beers. A Democrat could beat a primary-bloodied social conservative, but the Democratic field is not scaring the GOP yet.

Decliners
Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida and Georgia.