Heading Into 2006, Most Governors Seem Strong

Posted February 28, 2005 at 6:34pm

Between now and November 2006, the governorships of 38 states will be put to the voters. But most won’t really be up for grabs.

Barring unforeseen developments, the 2005-06 election cycle looks far sunnier for incumbents than it does for challengers. So slim are the pickings that when Out There began to assemble a list of the 10 governorships most vulnerable to partisan takeovers — a conceit we humbly crib from The Hotline’s Chuck Todd — we had to scrounge. After about six or seven, the chances of a turnover diminish rapidly. Here’s the list:[IMGCAP(1)]

1. New York. Incumbent: George Pataki (R)

Moderate or not, Pataki governs one of the bluest states — and New Yorkers tire of political giants after three terms (witness former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, both of whom lost bids for a fourth term). Most importantly, Pataki faces the toughest possible Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

No wonder, then, that Pataki’s poll numbers are in the toilet. A Quinnipiac University survey from early February gave Pataki just a 34 percent approval rating, down 10 points from December. He trailed Spitzer, 54 percent to 30 percent, in a head-to-head matchup. (Spitzer had 61 percent job-approval in the same poll.)

Maurice Carroll, Quinnipiac’s director, cautioned that Pataki is “the most resilient politician I think I’ve ever seen.” Still, for many, the question is whether Pataki will even seek a fourth term. If he does retire, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the New York Republican bench who seems capable of saving the seat.

2. Maryland. Incumbent: Bob Ehrlich (R)

After decades of Democratic dominance in Annapolis, Ehrlich won office touting his personality and his promise to keep an eye on entrenched Democratic interests. It enabled him to beat two-term Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who ran a lackluster campaign.

During his first two years in office, Ehrlich maintained generally strong approval ratings. However, the recent revelations that a close associate spread scurrilous rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) on the Internet have robbed Ehrlich of some of his luster — and made O’Malley, one of his two leading challengers, into a victim.

Additional revelations about the associate’s allegedly high-handed firings of long-serving state officials may lead to investigations by the Democratic-controlled

Legislature, which should help keep the story alive. Even before the flap, independent polls found an Ehrlich-O’Malley race a dead heat.

“He’s got to be sitting on eggshells right now,” said Keith Haller, the president of polling firm Potomac Inc.

3. Virginia. Open Seat. Incumbent: Mark Warner (D)

Warner, the self-styled NASCAR Democrat and possible 2008 presidential contender, is required to leave office at the end of 2005 due to Virginia’s one-term limit on governors. Though he’s generally been considered successful, a part of his legacy will rest on whether Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) succeeds him.

Kaine has a clear shot at his party’s nomination, but any Virginia Democrat faces a steep challenge, and former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the Republican frontrunner, is trying to highlight his opposition to the death penalty. (In a stroke of philosophical consistency, Kaine also takes a position against abortion rights. He has pledged to uphold Virginia’s laws regardless.)

What cheers Democrats is that Virginia Republicans are fractious right now, thanks to Warner’s skill at peeling off moderate GOP support in the Legislature. Kilgore faces a potential primary challenge from self-financing maverick George Fitch, the mayor of Warrenton and founder of the celebrated Jamaican bobsled team; Republican state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., a moderate disenchanted with the party’s rightward drift, announced last week that he would run as an Independent.

With months to go before the June primary, expect more volatility among Republicans.

4. Alabama. Incumbent: Bob Riley (R)

Alabama’s gubernatorial race is more complicated still. Riley has suffered several high-profile setbacks, especially two stinging rejections by voters — a proposed tax overhaul and an effort to strike obsolete school-segregation language from the state constitution. Both earned him the enmity of anti-tax conservatives — a crucial part of his base — without helping him much with Democrats or independents.

If Riley seeks another term, he is expected to face a fierce challenge from Roy Moore, the former state Supreme Court justice who was ousted for placing a marble Ten Commandments monument in his Montgomery courthouse. Though Moore is a polarizing figure even among Republicans, a Mobile Register poll in January found him beating Riley in a GOP primary, 43 percent to 35 percent. A big unknown is whether Democrats who fear Moore will cross over to back Riley in the primary.

The Democrats have two plausible candidates. One is ex-Gov. Don Siegelman, who narrowly lost to Riley in 2002. Though he’s faced legal troubles since then, “Siegelman is like a vampire — you think a wooden stake has been driven into his heart, then he arises again,” said Auburn University Montgomery political scientist Carl Grafton.

A safer choice for the Democrats is probably the folksy, popular Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, said University of Alabama political scientist David Lanoue. A February Register poll found that she would beat Riley and Moore, though with many voters still undecided. Siegelman, by contrast, would lose to both Republicans.

5. Ohio. Open Seat. Incumbent: Bob Taft (R)

Given the decade-long decimation of the Ohio Democratic Party, it’s hard to believe that Democrats have a prayer of seizing the governorship, which has been in GOP hands since 1991. But it’s a genuine possibility.

The term-limited Taft has some of the country’s worst approval ratings, due to a long economic downturn and a reputation for poor communication and difficult relations with legislative leaders. Perversely, the Democrats’ record of losing in Ohio could be their greatest strength in the governor’s race, because they can avoid blame for the status quo.

While Rep. Sherrod Brown, controversial talk-show host Jerry Springer and a few other Democrats are weighing bids, the frontrunner and establishment favorite so far is Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who has broad appeal in the battleground of central Ohio.

The Democrats stand to benefit from a divided Republican primary. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery are in the race.

Blackwell, the likeliest to win the primary, might also be the weakest in the general election, due to his staunch conservatism and his controversial actions overseeing the 2004 election. In a general, Montgomery could attract votes from women and moderates (she favors abortion rights), while Petro, who’s from the Cleveland area, could hold down Democratic margins in that key stronghold, said Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher.

Given the state’s decisive role in the 2004 presidential race, both parties are looking to leverage the massive grass-roots efforts they made last year, hoping to get a leg up for 2008. Asher suggested that the GOP’s gains, accomplished largely by home-grown volunteers, may matter more, though Democrats benefited from the efforts of unions, said Melanie Blumberg, a political scientist at California University of Pennsylvania.

6. Iowa. Open Seat. Incumbent: Tom Vilsack (D)

Though Vilsack has had a good run in two terms, Iowa’s gubernatorial race is bound to be hotly contested. “The state is simply that balanced politically,” said University of Iowa political scientist David Redlawsk.

The Democratic frontrunner is Secretary of State Chet Culver, the son of one-time Democratic Sen. John Culver. However, several other Democrats are making noises about running (and some rumors even have Vilsack seeking a third term, though it’s still considered unlikely).

The GOP field also has a frontrunner, eight-term Rep. Jim Nussle. With Republican Doug Gross opting against a run Monday, the only other major GOP candidate is Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats. Nussle benefits from a big war chest, but has the burden of explaining some hard policy choices he’s made as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

7. Colorado. Open Seat. Incumbent: Bill Owens (R)

Until recently, Colorado was drifting rightward, and Owens, its two-term governor, was considered a plausible 2008 presidential candidate. Then, last fall, the Democrats seized both chambers of the Legislature, one Senate seat and one House seat from the GOP. Now, Democrats think they can win the governor’s race in 2006.

“I think the outlook has been dramatically redefined by the last election and the first few months of the legislative session,” said Denver-based independent pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The Democrats are doing a decent job of holding their own and the governor is playing defense.”

The GOP, recovering from a divisive Senate primary last year, has a weak field, led by Denver University President Marc Holtzman, state Treasurer Mike Coffman and Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. But the Democrats’ bench is thin, too. If Democratic Rep. Mark Udall doesn’t run, it will leave self-financing businessman Rutt Bridges and former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter as the party’s best bets. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has been mentioned but is thought unlikely to run.

8. Alaska. Incumbent: Frank Murkowski (R)

Ordinarily, Alaska would not be competitive for the Democrats. But discontent over Murkowski — starting with his appointment of daughter Lisa to his vacated Senate seat in 2002 — has never really evaporated.

Murkowski could face opposition in a GOP primary, from such challengers as wealthy businessman and ex-state Rep. Andrew Halcro, a moderate; Lt. Gov. Loren Leman; and, less likely, Sarah Palin, a former candidate for lieutenant governor and a Murkowski critic.

For now, two major Democrats are not expected to run: former Gov. Tony Knowles, who just lost a Senate race to the younger Murkowski, and former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who lost the governorship to the elder Murkowski in 2002. But two others are considered plausible challengers to Murkowski: state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz and state Rep. Eric Croft.

Anchorage-based GOP pollster David Dittman expects Murkowski’s popularity to improve over time, and Ivan Moore, who polled the 2004 Senate race for a local television station, agreed that Murkowski is likely to advance to the general, given the state’s tight primary rules. But can a little-known Democrat unseat a political giant? Murkowski “looks fairly solid in the Republican primary, but extremely vulnerable in the general,” Moore said.

9. Oregon. Incumbent: Ted Kulongoski (D)

Kulongoski isn’t in dire straits — last October, he had 59 percent job approval in an independent poll — but he is drawing fire from the left, and that could wound him for the general election.

The first-term governor is expecting a primary challenge by Lane County commissioner and ex-state Sen. Pete Sorenson, and possibly — though less likely — by state Sen. Vicki Walker. The reason is that unions representing public employee and teachers are unhappy with the budget-cutting governor.

“His goal in the next several months is to tamp down the insurrection in his own party,” said Tim Hibbitts, a pollster with the Portland-based firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall.

Kulongoski’s saving grace is that his leading Republican opponent is Kevin Mannix, who already lost to Kulongoski in 2002 and is widely considered too conservative for most Oregon voters. Mannix is “unlikely to draw even deeply unhappy Democrats away” from the governor, said David Sarasohn, a political columnist for The Oregonian.

Other GOP candidates might do better, but may not run and, if they did, might not survive a primary. They include Ron Saxton, a moderate attorney from Portland; state House Speaker Karen Minnis; and state Sen. Jason Atkinson.

10. (tie) Wisconsin. Incumbent: Jim Doyle (D)

Doyle is in much the same position as Kulongoski — reasonably successful in policy terms, but facing a tough legislative session this year. For now, though, he lacks the primary opposition.

Doyle’s most recent job rating was only so-so — 46 percent in an independent poll in January. Still, Jeff Mayers, who edits the online political newsletter Wispolitics.com, said Doyle is “favored by most insiders now” — pending the resolution of an upcoming property tax relief debate.

The identity of the GOP nominee will likely determine whether this race heats up or becomes a snoozer. For now, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is in the race, and Rep. Mark Green is likely to run.

10. (tie) Florida. Open Seat. Incumbent: Jeb Bush (R)

The upside for the Democrats is that the governor’s chair is coming open. The bad news is that President Bush’s bigger-than-expected victory in the state last November — plus his brother’s continued popularity — make their hill steeper than ever.

Top Democrats include 2004 Senate nominee Betty Castor, businessman Lawton Chiles III, Rep. Jim Davis, state party Chairman Scott Maddox and state Sen. Rod Smith. Most of the attention so far has been given to Castor (for her war chest) and Chiles (because of his father, the late governor). The moderate-to-conservative Smith has gained some establishment support on the grounds that he would fare better in northern Florida, where Democrats have recently underperformed.

The GOP field features three veteran politicians: State Attorney General Charlie Crist, chief financial officer Tom Gallagher and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. Of these, Crist is considered the frontrunner, thanks in part to the canny use of his office (he took on price gougers after the state’s hurricanes last year) and his personable style. Gallagher is an aggressive campaigner, which could leave him standing after a bitter primary. Jennings is the least known, but some whisper that Jeb Bush prefers her.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said some Democrats privately think Crist will win.

“The Democrats are hanging on for dear life,” she said. “They have a shot at the governorship, but they have to get some breaks.”