Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The State of the Governors

Is Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) the most vulnerable incumbent in the country?
I still think it's probably too early to discuss 2018 elections (and WAY too early to discuss 2020 elections), but I do like the idea of time-capsuling, and the 2018 elections, like it or not, are kind of underway, albeit in the early stages.  We have seen in the past couple of weeks, for example, a number of House candidates declare and even Rep. Evan Jenkins in West Virginia sign on for a race in the Senate (while the DSCC endured the unfortunate situation of Krysten Sinema turning down a challenge to Jeff Flake...anyone else getting a Richard Blumenthal vibe from her on constantly being wooed but never actually jumping until she has a sure thing going?).

The big names, however, seem to be going away from Washington and instead are gearing up for the gubernatorial races.  In recent years we've seen a shift in governor's races, with more and more Washington politicians making a play for the statehouse after endless gridlock on Capitol Hill.  Some were successful (John Carney) while others endured humiliating defeat (David Vitter).  This year we're seeing a plethora of names being added to the list of representatives either exploring a run or actually making the jump.  How many actually win, well, we'll see.  

First, though I figured it was time for me to investigate (at this early juncture) which statehouses are most likely to flip parties in 2018.  Unlike the battle for the Senate, the Republicans are largely playing defense here, with 27 GOP seats up for grabs while the Democrats only have ten (plus one independent running for reelection in Alaska).  Below I've started with the top dozen seats of 2017 and 2018 that I think are most likely to flip, with Number One seeming to be the best shot.  This will surely change as candidacies are solidified and we see the direction of the economy/Trump's popularity, but for now, here goes...

Honorable Mention: I think it needs to be said that a few states are just on the outskirts of being competitive.  Maryland is an ultra blue state with a popular Republican governor who wouldn't normally be vulnerable, but if Trump's approval ratings there stays low, it's hard to imagine a Democrat not linking Gov. Hogan to Trump.  The same goes for Vermont and New Hampshire.  Additionally, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Kansas could be vulnerable considering the insane unpopularity of Gov. Sam Brownback and that the state isn't as adverse as most red states are to going for a Democrat.  Finally, Democrats are enduring a rough primary in Virginia right now while Republicans have a cleared field; a fractured electorate could help Ed Gillespie, but Trump's unpopularity could hurt more here than most states simply because the race is in just a few months-at this point it seems likely that the Democrats will win no matter how emerges out of the primary.  None of these scream "SWITCH" right now, but you shouldn't entirely dismiss them out of hand.

Attorney General Maura Healey (D-MA)
12. Massachusetts

Under normal circumstances, I'd say this is an easy win for Gov. Charlie Baker (R).  While the Bay State is deep blue on a federal level, it has a long history of electing Republican governors (just ask Mitt Romney), and Baker is quite popular personally, having struck a moderate balance in the state.  Plus, there's no major Democrat in the state that's gotten into the primary.

However, Trump's unpopularity could give Baker problems.  While the governor has struck a chord against the president (refusing to endorse him and being outspoken on his policies), in a wave election the letter behind your name can matter more than anything else, as was evidenced in 2002 when someone like Roy Barnes randomly lost in Georgia.  If Democrats like Attorney General Maura Healey or Newton Mayor Setti Warren (both declining interest right now but given past ambitions would definitely like the governor's seat, particularly considering this is their only shot at a promotion in a state where both Senate seats are blue and filled with incumbents who could stay a while) suddenly jump into the race, it could be a sign that Democrats smell blood in the water.

11. Connecticut

One of only three Democratic-held seats on this list, and one that at first glance seems odd (this is a blue state, after all), until you remember that Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is wildly unpopular in the Nutmeg State.  Malloy declined a run for a third term (a sigh of relief for the DGA, I'd imagine), but eight years of an unpopular governor is hard to shake unless you're Washington or Hawaii, and Republicans probably will target this seat.  Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Attorney General George Jepsen, and State Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr. (yes, of those Kennedys) all could take on a number of Republican state legislators (there's so many of them it's hard to tell which one is the obvious frontrunner), but I'd say this is a stealth race worth watching, at least until we get closer and understand the national environment a bit better.

Gov. Bill Walker (I-AK)
10. Alaska

A couple of questions here.  First, will the Democrats skip entirely nominating someone for this position?  After all, Gov. Bill Walker (I) served as the Democrats surrogate candidate in 2014 (when their candidate joined him on the successful ticket and became lieutenant governor), or will they put up someone like former Sen. Mark Begich or Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz?  That may largely depend on whether or not the Alaska Republicans shoot themselves in the foot and nominate controversial Judge Joe Miller (who rose to fame in 2010 while primarying Lisa Murkowski).  If Miller is making a play, I could see Begich coming into the race assuming he could take advantage of a vote split, but if they go with a more conventional path (say, former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman), this could stay a two-way race.  Either way, it's a true tossup in terms of the eventual outcome, though don't discount the independents in a state that is very fond of them.

9. Maine

The most important thing that matters in this race right now is whether the 800-pound gorilla gets into the race.  That would be Sen. Susan Collins, a very popular moderate Republican who seems pretty fed up right now with the national party (she publicly admonishes Donald Trump more than perhaps any member of the congressional GOP), and has shown interest in the statehouse before (running for governor in 1994).  If she were to enter the race, this would be an easy hold for the GOP, but perhaps would give the Democrats a greater reward as they'd be favored to pickup her seat in 2020 (something unlikely to happen if she stays in the Senate).  

If Collins doesn't get in, it still could be a good day for Republicans, who benefited in 2010 and 2014 from a split vote and will enjoy one again with former Democrat Terry Hayes (the incumbent State Treasurer) running as an independent.  Both sides have a bevy of candidates, but one has to assume that all-things-being-equal the Democrats will have an edge in a Collins-free race, if only because Gov. Paul LePage continues to be somewhat unpopular and this is a blue state overall.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN)
8. Minnesota

The second seat to be held by a Democrat that looks very competitive this year, Minnesota also has an incumbent declining to seek a third term (probably for the best there).  While the state is consistently blue on a federal level, Trump came close to winning in 2016 and they've never been shy about electing Republican governors (before Dayton, the Democrats hadn't held St. Paul for twenty years).  While I'm never quite certain if crowded primaries are the heinous thing they seem to be for election committees, if they are an issue than the DFL is in trouble, as they already have five serious candidates in Mayor Chris Coleman, Rep. Tim Walz, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, and State Reps. Tina Liebling & Erin Murphy all in, with Attorney General Lori Swanson and Rep. Rick Nolan still considering entry.  The Republicans don't have quite that smorgasbord, and may settle on the likes of State House Speaker Kurt Daudt or another member of the state legislature, but I'm guessing this is a vulnerable Democratic seat this year if only because Minnesota can famously buck the national tides (witness 2006, 2010, and 2014 where this seat went against the national headwinds despite Minnesota hosting a tossup race), and because Democrats are not good at holding open gubernatorial seats (they've never done this before).

7. Florida

Lost in the frequent (constant, in some cases) discussion of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan is the fact that Florida was relatively close to going for Hillary Clinton in 2016 as well.  Democrats in the state, save for Bill Nelson, have seemingly been allergic to winning statewide despite their best efforts as A-list recruits like Alex Sink, Charlie Crist, and Patrick Murphy all watched their once promising chances flounder with the slight red-tilt of the state.  Still, 2018 if it's a wave election (and it could well be) may put the weight on the scale a bit harder than usual, and so far Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (R) has not shown himself to be Jeb or Marco in terms of "future president" material that seems to be mandatory in Florida these days.  Democrats could have a primary, particularly between former Rep. Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, but this is arguably their best chance at taking the statehouse in a generation, and whichever of these two make it through to the general would start out as a very slight favorite for the victory...and if elected, immediately throw themselves into future White House considerations.

District Attorney George Brauchler (R-CO)
6. Colorado

Unlike Florida, Colorado doesn't seem to toy with the Democrats quite as hard.  While, yes, Cory Gardner did win in 2014 (and Mike Coffman seems to be immobile), by-and-large Democrats have done quite well in the Centennial State, holding the governorship for the past three cycles and taking the presidency thrice during the same period.  That said, Colorado hasn't quite graduated to being "Washington" in terms of always going to the Republicans, and the GOP has recruited a doozy of a nominee in the form of George Brauchler, a district attorney who won the Aurora Colorado Shooting case, and a military veteran to boot.  Meanwhile, the Democrats have a contentious primary, pitting Rep. Ed Perlmutter and State Treasurer Cara Kennedy against each other, with potentially Rep. Jared Polis and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne also possibly going into the contest (I don't know why at least one of these people is waiting for 2020 to go against Gardner...is Mark Udall keeping the field clear for a rematch, and if so can we instead pick an up-and-comer instead like Crisanta Duran?).  Either way, without a kingpin like Ken Salazar in the race, I'd argue this is the most vulnerable Democratic governorship in 2018, though it says something that it's very possible if Brauchler falters that they keep the seat.

5. Michigan

I put Michigan right in the middle mostly because I can't quite figure it out.  Michigan is a strange state in that (2016 being the exception) it normally goes blue federally but is very friendly to the GOP locally, having elected Rick Snyder to two terms and given the Republicans all of the constitutional offices.  Right now, though, only Jim Himes (a local businessman) is in the primary.  It's hard to see him getting it to himself, though, as between Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette, or former Rep. Candice Miller, one of them will surely make a play, particularly considering the Democratic bench is rather weak.  In fact, unless a millionaire pops up randomly to take her on, it's quite possible former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer could cruise to her party's nomination.  That being said, this is a race that's plump for a wave; Whitmer is no slouch even if the bench is weak, and Michigan tends to trade off its governors every eight years or so so the state may be willing to change (plus, Clinton lost the state to Trump by a minuscule margin).  

Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R-NV)
4. Nevada

Democrats in Nevada may have lucked out in 2018.  The leading nominee for the gubernatorial nomination, Adam Laxalt, has been embroiled in a bit of a scandal, as he's being accused of improperly pressuring the State Gaming Board on behalf of the Sands Hotel.  This being Nevada, this isn't a death knell for his career, but it's certainly a major hit against him and could lead the way for a splintered primary whereas before no one may dared have gone after him.  On the Democratic side, a primary seems inevitable, with multi-millionaire CEO Steve Cloobeck looking like he'll be a self-funder in the race, and Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak sitting on $4 million that could be used toward the race.  Other names such as State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, and former Secretary of State Ross Miller could also be in the running for the Democratic side, though they may try for constitutional offices or give a run at Sen. Dean Heller, who would be vulnerable if there is a wave.  All-in-all, I have to say the Democrats have the advantage here from this far out, particularly in a state that Clinton won despite under-performing nationally.

3. Illinois

Illinois is also a race that could feature not one, but two self-funders.  On the Republican side we have millionaire businessman Gov. Bruce Rauner trying for a second term.  Rauner in 2014 spent a record $26 million on his campaign, and seems intent on spending millions more to ensure four more years in office.  Rauner, however, has continually clashed with the state legislature and has struggled with his approval ratings (at 42% in April, which is actually an improvement on the 33% he was clocking in September).  His biggest asset may be that the Democrats seem to have set up a battle of two political dynasties, with businessman Chris Kennedy (son of RFK, nephew of JFK) going against JB Pritzker, the billionaire heir to the Hyatt fortune whose sister recently served as President Obama's Secretary of Commerce.  While other names (including State Sen. Daniel Biss of Vlogbrothers fame) also are in the race, it's questionable whether there's any oxygen left between Kennedy/Pritzker.  A bloody primary would be a boon for Rauner, as would the Midwestern tradition of electing unpopular white male governors (Walker, Snyder, Pawlenty, etc, all had rocky approval ratings and still landed second terms), but this is bright-blue Illinois in a year that could be lovely for Democrats-he'll need an inside straight for a second term.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM)
2. New Mexico

Some scuttle has been made about the lack of interest in this seat from likely frontrunner Attorney General Hector Balderas, who is running for reelection instead, but Democrats are still looking very likely to reclaim this seat (currently held by Susana Martinez) without him.  Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham may avoid a particularly tricky primary in 2018 with Balderas out, and with Martinez ineligible to run for another term, the Republicans are largely without a bench.  Admittedly Rep. Steve Pearce, the only Republican in the delegation, could make a play for the seat and he's been talking about it publicly, but the 2nd is much further right than the rest of the state, and Martinez had the advantage of running twice with Barack Obama in the White House, something Pearce won't have to rely upon.  Given how Clinton won this state in 2016, I think this is one of the safest pickups the Democrats have on the menu next year.

1. New Jersey

Finally, there's New Jersey, a seat that the Democrats have to win if they have any hope of talking about a wave in 2018...and which every indication is that they will.  Though I'm still stunned that such a solid bench in Congress couldn't produce more interest, former Ambassador Philip Murphy (D) has a strong lead over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), and is being aided not only by an unpopular president, but a wildly unpopular governor that Guadagno has served under for years.  You can tell Guadagno is in trouble when she's trying to differentiate herself from the national party, but it's unlikely to help.  This is a liberal state that, before Christie, had historically hated sending Republican to Trenton and Murphy seems like a bland if safe bet for the state.  Expect a pickup, and a year earlier than the midterms.

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