Gubernatorial landscape: Democrats still have some fight in them

Believe it or not, 5 of the 6 changes in my gubernatorial ratings favor… Democrats! While the party is still headed for major state-level losses, it is plausible it will win enough states┬áto save face and avoid the wipe-out scenario they were threatened with just a month ago.


Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held Kansas
New York
GOP-held Idaho


Democrats have substantially improved their position in California, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina - all of which shift towards them today.

The biggest prize is obviously California, where Jerry Brown has now grabbed a lead despite Meg Whitman’s staggering $141 millions - or perhaps because of them. The race moves from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic.”

This comes as a huge relief for Democrats, as Brown had not only fallen behind over the summer but was getting distracted in damaging controversies, for instance when he was provoked into attacking Bill Clinton. But Whitman’s lack of government experience, “maid-gate,” Schwarzenegger’s unpopularity and California’s blue-state status have reversed the momentum, not to mention that voters have gotten clearly turned off by Whitman’s obscene airwave saturation. All of this said, Brown has certainly not put the race away, and a potentially superior ground operation could help Whitman close some of the gap.

Another race moves out of the toss-up column in Democrats’ favor: Maryland moves all the way to “likely Democratic.” While the GOP was excited by Bob Ehrlich’s candidacy, the former Governor hasn’t been able to overcome Maryland’s staunchly Democratic leanings. Sure, O’Malley might not be the most popular of politicians, but he also is no Pat Quinn or Deval Patrick - two Democratic Governors in blue states who are in worse shape than him. The latest poll has O’Malley leading by double-digits and the RGA has pulled out of the race.

Two other Democratic incumbent Governors are doing better than they were for much of the year, giving Democrats hope they’ll avoid losing all of their Midwestern governorships: Ohio and Illinois both move from “lean Republican” to “toss-up.”

Democrats should still consider themselves lucky if they can save just one of these races, but Pat Quinn and Ted Strickland have pulled themselves into dead heats. Quinn is heavily unpopular and he trailed by wide margins after February’s primary, but Illinois is Democratic-enough that even an unpopular incumbent has a shot of winning, and polls show Quinn has bounced back into contention as some Democratic voters come home and as Quinn goes after Bill Brady’s conservative positions. Strickland’s approval rating isn’t quite as dramatic, but the GOP is far stronger in Ohio than it is in Illinois; yet, after months of trailing in high single-digits, Strickland has closed the gap. CNN’s latest poll went as far as to show Strickland leading by 1%.

The fifth rating change benefiting Democrats is South Carolina: Nikki Haley was expected to cruise after her primary triumph, but Vincent Sheheen has proven a strong campaigner while Haley is weighed down by her ties to Mark Sanford. With polls showing a tightening race, albeit one that still undoubtedly leans Haley’s way, the national parties are growing interested. The race moves from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”

In addition, Dan Onorato appears to be closing some of the gap and pulling himself into contention in Pennsylvania, though that race remains in the “lean GOP” column; and Mark Dayton has stabilized his lead in Minnesota, making the state the Democrats’ best hope to keep a Midwestern governorship.

The one state that moves in the GOP’s direction in today’s rankings is one I didn’t expect: Colorado moves from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic,” which means I now consider it to be in play. It remains difficult to envision Tom Tancredo overcoming the Republican vote’s split between him and GOP nominee Dan Maes. Yet, Maes is on the brink of becoming totally irrelevant, which is giving Tancredo a shot at beating John Hickenlooper. The Denver Mayor chose not to go negative, thinking the race was under control, and he gave Tancredo an opportunity to coalesce Republican support.

(Remember: Maes falling under 10% would give Tancredo a shot at victory, but it would also mean Republicans would no longer be considered a “major party” in Colorado. That would have real consequences in terms of ballot placement and, most importantly, it would limits their fundraising rights.)

Other states in which Republicans look increasingly comfortable are New Mexico and Georgia, which nevertheless remain in the “lean GOP” column; Georgia in particular could still grow heated since it will go to a December runoff if no one clears the 50% mark (a distinct possibility given the presence of a libertarian candidate on the ballot).

I now list 6 states in the toss-up column, but for most of them I have a clear opinion as to whom would win if the election were held today. The two races in which I truly have no idea who would come at ahead are: Vermont and Florida.

Needless to say, this makes the Sunshine State one of the prime battlegrounds. Given the state’s size, a victory by Alex Sink could go a long way towards consoling Democrats on Election Night. In most other cycles, Rick Scott’s dealings with the law over Medicare fraud would have made it tough for him to win; but the political environment combined with the $60 million of his personal fortune he has spent on the race have left him in a tie. Decent pollsters have shown both candidates in the lead, at times by not-so-narrow margins, which makes the situation all the more confusing. One tea leaf in Scott’s favor: In few states are early voting and absentee ballot numbers as favorable to Republicans as they are in Florida.

3 Responses to “Gubernatorial landscape: Democrats still have some fight in them”

  1. 1 Panos

    I am surprised Taniel that you didn’t move New York back to Safe Democratic. Paladino not only was unable to maintain his post-primary bounce, but he seems to be now in an even worse position than he was before. He must be by now the most unpopular challenger in the whole country.

  2. 2 Nathan

    It’s about time one of anti-democratic levers the major parties use to tilt the playing field against independent candidates came back to smack one of them in the head. I sincerely hope the Republicans lose “major party” status in Colorado. In fact, I hope that someday both of these black comedy parades lose it in every state.

    Also, I think Panos makes a good point about NY.

  3. 3 Taniel

    My defense on NY: The line between likely and safe is fuzzy enough that I have always tended to put any election that attract attention in the “likely” category to acknowledge that it interests some people; that also explains why I’ve left Michigan and Alabama in the likely GOP column, for instance. I’ll re-evaluate all of this over the week-end.

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