I don’t need to tell you that things aren’t looking good for Democrats in congressional races. And it certainly does not look like the party will gain much comfort from state races - quite the contrary: Putting aside the prospect of huge losses in state legislatures, the gubernatorial landscape is brutal for Democrats.
|Safe GOP||Likely GOP||Lean GOP||Toss-up||Lean Dem||Likely Dem||Safe Dem|
If my Democratic readers want to feel depressed, they should compare the map of gubernatorial ratings I prepared in February 2009 to the one the party is facing today. The blue has almost entirely disappeared from the map, especially as the entire Midwest has dramatically shifted towards the GOP and the West’s red hue has become far more pronounced.
Then, 16 of the year’s 37 races favored Democrats; now that number is just 8. Another striking sign of how much the landscape has shifted to the GOP’s favor: In February 2009, 7 races were likely/safe Democratic while 9 were likely/safe Republican; today, those number are incredibly unbalanced: There are just 4 states Democratic are likely to hold compared to 13 Republican states. In fact, Democrats are left clinging to Arkansas and New York as their only two safe states!
However brutal the map looks, however, Democrats have the potential to save their Election Night by winning a few big prizes that would by themselves balance out huge losses elsewhere. Sure, the loss of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania (the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th-largest states population-wise) would be quite a blow, but Democrats remain in a good position to pick-up California and Florida - home to more than 55 million people (18% of the country).
Throw in the fact that Democrats’ best shot at unseating an incumbent is in Texas, that Georgia (the 9th largest state) is looking like a toss-up and that New York is one of just two “safe Democratic “seats”, and Democrats do have a clear path to balancing the number of their (many) losses with the size of their (fewer) victories. Even if it is now all but certain that the GOP will hold a clear majority of governorships come 2011 (they now trail 30-20), Democrats have a shot at controlling 3-4 of the largest five and 5-6 of the largest 10.
Sure, Meg Whitman’s record self-financing ($118 million and counting) has kept California highly competitive for Republicans; Florida’s Rick Scott is roughly even with Alex Sink despite his innumerable flaws; and Georgia’s Nathan Deal typically holds a narrow lead despite his ethical problems. But given how much the landscape has been altered in most other states, it has to be a huge relief for Democrats that they remain highly competitive in each of these races.
That said, it’s just as likely they’ll end up with just 2 0f the largest 10: New York and North Carolina, which isn’t on the ballot this year. And nothing can erase what is shaping to be an utter disaster for Midwestern Democrats, who currently control most of the region’s governorships: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. Republicans control Minnesota and Indiana.
Republicans are currently in a good position to control all of these states but Missouri, which isn’t holding a contest this year (Democrats should be very thankful of that). Democrats’ clearest shot at preventing a GOP sweet of the Midwest is Minnesota, and it’s no coincidence that it is the only state that’s holding a Governor’s race this year with a Republican Governor. The GOP has had to bear some of the insider mantle as well; add to that the fact that Republican nominee Tom Emmer is conservative politician, and Democrats have a good shot at bucking the region’s trend.
But Democrats are running out of time to change the dynamics in other states. Michigan and Pennsylvania have long looked like they would be tough for the party to hold, but the Democratic nominees haven’t even looked competitive for months - a situation that should affect Democratic chances in down-ballot races.
Illinois, Iowa and Ohio looked good for Democrats as 2009 started, but the party has long ago given up on Iowa Governor Chet Culver; Illinois Governor Pat Quinn trails by consistently substantial margins; and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland has been own for months amidst his state’s pronounced economic decline - though he still looks competitive. Besides Ohio, Democrats have their best shot in Wisconsin, where Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is a strong candidate for Democrats ; but an open race in a swing states between two credible candidates this year is bound to favor the Republican.
Outside of these 7 Midwestern states, Republicans are in good shape to pick-up four additional governorships. They’re highly likely to win Kansas, Wyoming and Tennessee. (Tennessee offers an interesting situation, since Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was unquestionably the most moderate candidate in the GOP primary; this is the second straight statewide Tennessee primary won by a moderate.) And while it’s worth keeping an eye on Oklahoma, since the Democratic nominee is a statewide official who enjoyed a strong finish in her primary, it’s hard to see how she could pull it off.
The GOP also solidified its positions in states it is defending that once looked like they would be competitive: Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona and Nevada. The latter two states are particularly tough pills for Democrats to swallow, as they had high hopes just a year ago. In Nevada, at least, it always seemed likely the GOP would be on a better footing once it kicked out Governor Jim Gibbons in the primary; but Brian Sandoval’s dominance is surely more than Republicans were hoping for. But in Arizona, it’s easy to forget just how vulnerable Jan Brewer looked in the first six months after she took over for Janet Napolitano. She trailed big in the GOP primary and in the general election; but she then signed SB 1070 and hasn’t looked back since - she became a darling of the hard-right, cruised through the primary and took a decisive lead over Terry Goddard.
Testifying to the fact that the Southwest is no longer the favorable territory it was for Democrats in 2006 and 2008 is New Mexico, not so long ago a likely Democratic hold but now a tough proposition for Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish. (Remember, Denish once believed she was a few weeks away from becoming Governor until Bill Richardson withdrew his nomination for Obama’s Cabinet.) In the Northwest, former Governor John Kitzhaber was long expected to win the race but former NBA player Chris Dudley has tied up the race; Kitzhaber seems to be running a slow-moving campaign like his California colleague Jerry Brown, but Oregon isn’t blue enough to pull that off.
Democrats do have a few bright spots, however - and I don’t mean California, Florida and Minnesota, all of which are toss-ups that could easily go for the GOP.
The brightest is undoubtedly Colorado: Here’s a swing state in a region that has been trending Republican this year, but the GOP managed to completely mess up its strong pick-up chances The Scott McInnis plagiarism scandal followed by Dan Maes’s nomination and Tom Tancredo’s bid have set up a 3-way race that clearly favors Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper. This would be an important victory for Democrats, as Colorado is a growing state in a region of the country that is key to Democrats’ national ambition.
Another relatively bright spot is Massachusetts: Deval Patrick is hardly out of the woods but his numbers have remained stable over the past year - unlike those of many of his colleagues. And Democrats are also in good shape in GOP-held Connecticut and Hawaii, though both races remain competitive. (I have rated Rhode Island a “lean Democratic” pick-up to reflect the fact that the GOP is sure to lose the Governor’s Mansion; but the race is currently a toss-up between Democrat Frank Caprio and independent Linc Chaffee, who some say has ran to Caprio’s left and who has earned the SEIU’s endorsement.)
One last note: In July, I published an analysis of who is likely to control the redistricting process in every state - and what November elections will determine that. Part of the equation is gubernatorial races, of course, but state legislatures are obviously crucial, so check out that piece to detailed information. The bottom-line is that Democrats are facing the daunting prospect of GOP-gerrymandered maps in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania; and are hoping to force a divided map in all-important Florida.