Sabatos Crystal Ball


Who will be "The King" and why you should be listening

Isaac Wood, U.Va. Center for Politics July 26th, 2007


With political pundits and concerned citizens focusing on the 2008 presidential and congressional contests, the 2007 election season has been lost in the shuffle. But, there are three revealing governorships on the ballot this November (Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi), and at least one of them (Kentucky) may turn out to be significant. Even the two less competitive statehouse races will matter because governors do count, not just for their states but in national politics as well.

To begin, governors play a key role in redistricting, which in turn can determine which party controls the House of Representatives. In most states they must approve or reject the plans passed by their state legislatures, and that is true in the three states electing governors in 2007. Additionally, the legislatures that craft the redistricting plans are shaped by gubernatorial elections. If there is coattail from a governor’s victory, then the legislature might also better reflect the preferences of the state chief executive’s party when they redraw the House lines in 2011. While Kentucky has no legislative seats on the ballot this year (the state house and senate are both elected in even numbered years), both Mississippi and Louisiana do. In those two states the popular Republican gubernatorial candidates: first-term Governor Haley Barbour in the Magnolia State, and Louisiana Congressman Bobby Jindal–who narrowly lost to retiring Governor Kathleen Blanco in 2003–are currently expected to sweep, and they may quite possibly carry their legislative political allies into office with them.

As the bitter redistricting fights in Texas following the 2000 Census showed us, anything that tilts the balance to either party is an advantage to be coveted and sought. A Republican governor in Louisiana, for example, could prevent the likely Democratic legislative majority from putting into action their preferred redistricting plan and would temper any pro-Democratic proposals that might look tempting following the drastic demographic changes brought about by Hurricane Katrina. Those changes involved the semi-permanent dislocation of many thousands of Bayou African-Americans, who now live in other states and are therefore unlikely to cast ballots in Louisiana elections, despite vigorous get-out-the-vote efforts by Democratic-affiliated groups.

Aside from redistricting, governors also have the power to appoint senators in the event of resignation or death. All three of the states with governorships on the ballot in 2007 allow these appointed senators to serve until the next regular Senate election. In addition, this appointment power has no strings attached–unlike in Wyoming where Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal was only permitted to pick from a list of three individuals provided to him by the state Republican Party (since the vacant seat had been held by a Republican, the late Senator Craig Thomas).

Although the governors have the ability to make these appointments, just how likely are they? Over the past four decades, there has been an average of just under one appointment per year.

Decade Number of Appointments
1960s 20
1970s 9
1980s 6
1990s 8
2000s 6

While scandals and unexpected health problems can occur at any time, senators are especially vulnerable to an early exit from office when they are at an advanced age. Mississippi’s Senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, are 65 and 69 respectively, still young by Senate standards. Louisiana’s Senate delegation is truly young, with Senator Mary Landrieu, the state’s “senior” senator, just 51 years old and Senator David Vitter a youthful–and as we recently learned, quite spry–46. It is possible, though not likely, that Vitter’s sex scandal could force a resignation before his term expires in 2010, and a Governor Jindal would then appoint the replacement should Vitter’s departure occur after January 2008. Finally, in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 65 but Senator Jim Bunning is 75. Bunning insists he is running for reelection in 2010, and if he does run and wins, he would be 86 at term’s end. A Democratic governor elected in 2007 could potentially make a Senate appointment, and most Bluegrass observers expect the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Steve Beshear to defeat the scandal-damaged GOP incumbent, Ernie Fletcher.

A third national advantage to holding a governorship is that a political party gains a foremost advocate for the party’s presidential nominee. Every governor has thousands of appointees, supporters and contributors at his or her beck and call. While gubernatorial backing does not guarantee that a state will tilt toward the party candidate by any means, every presidential standard-bearer welcomes the gubernatorial assist. A governor can save the candidate time and money, and almost single-handedly coordinate the campaign and appearances in the state, should the executive be willing. However, unless 2008 proves to be an exceptionally Democratic year–a possibility due to President Bush’s Iraq War and personal unpopularity–it is highly unlikely that Kentucky, Mississippi or Louisiana will be competitive in November 2008. These Red states should prove impervious to any gubernatorial influence, though the GOP nominee will certainly benefit from having Barbour and Jindal ensconced in the state capital.

As we noted earlier, the contest in Kentucky continues to be the most heated and newsworthy of the cycle. The race has settled into something of a predictable rhythm as the two candidates have been lobbing allegations at each other since even before the general election ticket was finalized in May. Republican Governor Fletcher is under attack for alleged corruption involving the state’s highway contracts, as his allies (or co-conspirators, depending on whose side you take) have fallen by the wayside one after another. To deflect the criticism, Fletcher called the state legislature into an emergency session to have them pass, according to him, urgently needed incentives that would lure a large energy company to the state. Among the most controversial of the other 66 items on the “emergency” agenda was a call by Fletcher to ban domestic partner benefits at state universities. This raised the ire of local newspapers and made the political gambit seem even more outrageous to his critics since Fletcher had previously been neutral on the issue and a quick fix didn’t seem worth the $1 million taxpayers would spend on the emergency session. The dustup has some voters “all shook up,” and has played to Beshear’s already significant advantage.

But, Louisiana should balance any potential party switch in Kentucky. The Vitter scandal is unlikely to affect Jindal’s lead, and Jindal has been careful to distance himself from Vitter in recent days. A poll that was in the field when Vitter made his admission showed that likely voters in the October “open primary” wholeheartedly support Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal, who reached 52 percent in the poll against three challengers. If that level of support holds up, then Jindal could surpass the 50 percent threshold and would be declared the victor immediately, avoiding a November runoff. Democratic state senator Walter Boasso so far appears to be Jindal’s strongest competitor and has been spending heavily on TV ads poking fun at his own girth. While Boasso may be the bigger man, the true heavyweight in this fight is clearly Jindal. It is still possible that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) might announce a bid at the governorship but it is doubtful he would prove to be a competitive candidate.

The contest in Mississippi is this year’s snoozer–more of a ho-hummer than a hum-dinger. Governor Barbour continues to raise huge sums, close to $10 million since his last election, further cementing his all-but-certain victory in November. His strongest (“least weak” would perhaps be more accurate) competition comes from attorney, and presumptive Democratic nominee, John Arthur Eaves. While Eaves has $1.2 million cash on hand and pledges to put his “entire life savings into this campaign,” he would be better off investing the cash in an IRA for his early political retirement. While nothing in politics is ever certain, Governor Barbour’s reelection is about as close as it comes.

We at the Crystal Ball bring to you yet another episode in the weekly soap opera of the disputed George Aiken quote. Linda Feldmann at the Christian Science Monitor e-mailed a copy of an Aiken article referenced in last week’s Crystal Ball. While the article, penned in July 1973, did mention the quote off-hand, it did not provide any further sourcing other than mentioning that Aiken had said, “The way out of Vietnam is to declare victory and leave” in 1966. There is no word on any primary source verification of the authenticity of the quote long attributed to George Aiken.