Sabatos Crystal Ball


The Campaigns for Governor in '07 and '08

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 22nd, 2007


Governors do while Senators talk–and we’re not just referring to Joe Biden. The talking takes place in Washington, the most over-covered capital city in the world. The doing occurs in the fifty states, scattered across a continental country and often ignored by the D.C.-centric national press. That’s one reason why the Crystal Ball has always placed a special emphasis on gubernatorial elections.

Even though the statehouse contests rarely get as much attention as the battle for the upper house of Congress, they ought to be studied more closely. The issues that arise in state executive elections frequently produce policy changes in the “laboratories of democracy” that are later copied by the federal government. Moreover, in an off-year such as 2007, the statehouses can serve as a canary in the mine for politics to come. For example, in 1993 Republican gubernatorial victories in the two states up that year, New Jersey and Virginia, presaged the GOP landslide of 1994, and in 2005 Democratic triumphs in the same states hinted at the Democratic wave of 2006.

Lively contests are already guaranteed in two of the three states electing Governors in 2007, Kentucky and Louisiana. Only Mississippi will have a preordained result, with first-term Governor Haley Barbour (R) easily capturing a second term. Barbour’s fine performance during the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its aftermath appears to have given him an unassailable margin, and so far the Democrats are scratching around for a second- or third-tier candidate. Even a first-tier nominee would have tough sledding in bringing down Barbour.

In Kentucky the only question is who is not running for Governor. The genesis of the large field is the deep trouble in which freshman GOP Governor Ernie Fletcher finds himself. Fletcher has been enormously weakened by a prolonged legal and political battle over his patronage hirings. No doubt, the pressure was great in 2003 to hire GOP office-seekers since Fletcher is the first Bluegrass State Republican Governor since Louie Nunn left office in 1971, but his handling of the matter has nearly destroyed his Governorship. GOP stalwarts insist it is all partisan, a product of the ambitions of Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo (now running for lieutenant governor on a ticket in his party’s primary). Whatever the truth of that, some of the revelations have been highly embarrassing to Fletcher, and his job approval and re-elect numbers are languishing in the 30s. Almost all Democrats and many key Republicans do not believe that he can be reelected in November.

Enter the Svengali of Kentucky GOP politics, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, who is not about to sit idly and watch the Republican house he has built since 1984 crumble. The Senate Minority Leader also comes up for reelection himself in 2008, and he doesn’t want a Democratic Governor recruiting a strong candidate against him. Behind the scenes, McConnell and his allies have promised support to former Congresswoman Anne Northup, who was persuaded to run despite last November’s defeat for reelection. Northup had represented the Democratic Louisville area for ten years, managing to win close victories in a hostile environment until she was finally washed away in the Democratic wave of ’06. Northup has already tied Fletcher in at least one survey conducted for her campaign, never a good sign for an incumbent. If her campaign is well run and generously financed, she has a decent chance to win in the May 22nd primary–though we note that Fletcher has started to effectively use the powers of incumbency in an attempt to hold on. He still has a mountain to climb. Multimillionaire businessman Billy Harper, who led Fletcher’s fundraising efforts in 2003, has also filed to challenge the Governor in the GOP primary. His main threat appears to be in forcing a costly runoff, which will occur if no candidate secures at least 40 percent in May–unless the legislature abolishes the run-off, which is a live possibility.

Meanwhile, the Democrats smell blood, and voters will need a detailed program to follow all the players. There is no obvious favorite at the moment, but seven politicians have filed to run: former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, House Speaker Jody Richards, wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, and two minor candidates, frequent office-seeker Gatewood Galbraith and businessman Otis Hensley. Richards, Lunsford, and Beshear are mentioned most often by Bluegrass insiders as the current frontrunners at the moment. None of the Democrats comes close to being a shoo-in, and they all have some damage to their goods. Henry had a messy financial settlement with the feds because he charged for operations he did not perform. Richards is 68 years old and strongly associated with a sometimes unpopular legislature. Lunsford actually dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary the last time to endorse the GOP’s Fletcher, which is not likely to endear him to Democrats. Beshear has already lost past races for Governor and Senator. And Miller is not particularly well known and may have a hard time breaking out of the pack. It will be a major surprise if there isn’t a run-off primary for the Democrats, and that could drain money and stir acrimony, to the party’s detriment, especially if the GOP has been able to settle on a nominee in May.

Fletcher is the focal point of the Kentucky election, and this one is virtually a referendum on him. Should he be eliminated by Northup in the primary, then the general election could be a more accurate measure of the nation’s partisan drift. President Bush and the Iraq War will be at least indirect influences on the November outcome.

In Louisiana, another Governor is in trouble, this one a Democrat, Kathleen Blanco, first elected like Fletcher in 2003. Hurricane Katrina is the proximate cause of Blanco’s woes. Fair or not, she was seen as ineffective in the storm’s aftermath, compared to Governor Barbour in the Magnolia State. Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans received as much blame locally as President Bush and his incompetent Federal Emergency Management Agency. So far Blanco has been unable to recover, and she is seen as a clear underdog for a second term. Her foremost opponent is her 2003 GOP foe, Congressman Bobby Jindal, who lost last time mainly because of racial voting in the conservative white precincts of northern Louisiana. (Jindal would have been the first Indian-American Governor in U.S. history.) This time he is seen as a strong favorite over Blanco if she makes it into the general election. The unique free-for-all Bayou State primary on October 20th will produce two top finishers, should no one secure a majority (both can be Democrats, both can be Republicans), with the run-off general election on November 17th. Should a weakened Blanco run in third place, for example, Jindal would have to face an unknown November opponent who could–could–be a more difficult hurdle than the incumbent Governor. As of yet, it is unclear who the other candidates will be, but in this state’s wild politics, anything can happen. A second Republican, State Sen. Walter Boasso, has already announced, but Jindal has the vast majority of the GOP on his side. Democratic Public service Commissioner Foster Campbell is another likely candidate. Bhe scenario being most widely discussed now is a surprise: Blanco could step aside, and popular former U.S. Senator John Breaux (D) would take Blanco’s place in the race. (Breaux and Blanco have been allies, and Breaux has recently raised some money for her reelection.)

So much for 2007. What about the statehouse races in 2008? At mid-term for the incumbent Governors, all we can do is speculate in most cases–but your Crystal Ball specializes in speculation! Remember that the current split nationally for Governorships is 28 Democrats to 22 Republicans. Because only eleven Governorships are up in the Presidential year–an attempt to avoid the coattail effect that can determine state contests for chief executive–it is unlikely that Democrats will lose their current majority in 2008. There are six Democratic Governorships up in ’08: Delaware (Governor Ruth Ann Minner is term-limited), Montana (Governor Brian Schweitzer is favored for a second term), New Hampshire (Governor John Lynch is favored for a third term), North Carolina (Governor Mike Easley is term-limited), Washington (Governor Christine Gregoire is running for a second term), and West Virginia (Governor Joe Manchin is favored for a second term). In both the Delaware and North Carolina open seat races, Democrats have much stronger benches, and the early line–subject to change, of course–is that they will retain both statehouses. Lieutenant Governors Beverly Perdue (D-NC) and John Carney (D-DE) appear to have the initial inside track to succeed their bosses.

The only truly endangered Democratic Governor is Washington’s Gregoire, who was elected in one of the closest elections in U.S. history–just 129 votes out of 2.8 million cast over Republican Dino Rossi. The result was highly disputed. Rossi had led the first two vote counts, and Republicans still insist that the Democratic superstructure in Washington found the votes needed to install Gregoire. Democrats hotly dispute this, naturally, and so a titanic re-match is in the works. Gregoire has never been especially popular, but she has incumbency plus the likelihood that the Democratic nominee for President will carry her state handily, creating some coattail for her. Rossi is viewed by many, perhaps most, as having been cheated out of the statehouse, but whether the substantial sympathy for him in ’04 can last into the voting booths four years later remains to be seen. This will be one heck of a race, quite possibly the best in the nation.

At the starting gate, two Republican Governors look solid for another term: First-termer Jon Huntsman of Utah and third-termer Jim Douglas of Vermont. While North Dakota’s Governorship will be open as Governor John Hoeven is term-limited, it is likely that he will be succeeded by another Republican. Every statewide office but one is controlled by the GOP in North Dakota–quite a contrast to the all-Democratic delegation sent by the state to the U.S. Congress. That leaves two GOP Governors who will face real races in their battles to win second terms: Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Matt Blunt of Missouri. Daniels and Blunt have had rocky starts, but the advantages of incumbency and Republican-leaning electorates may rescue one or both in the end.

Though small in number, the fourteen Governorships up in ’07 and ’08 are critical to a great national enterprise that will be conducted in 2011–congressional and state legislative redistricting. The party controlling the Governorship at least will be guaranteed a vital seat at the table in the process, even if the state legislature is controlled by the other party. You can be sure that national Democrats and Republicans will find the resources to go after any opportunity they have in the statehouses. They correctly see a “multiplier effect“–capturing a Governorship can yield more U.S. House and state legislative seats that will potentially matter long after the Governor has departed his capital office. So get ready for some statehouses to sizzle over the next two years!

Kentucky & Louisiana Governor 2007:


David Wasserman

U.Va. Center for Politics

The two highly competitive gubernatorial contests of 2007 share one obvious feature: unpopular incumbent first-term governors who may struggle to obtain united backing from their respective parties. But the Crystal Ball observes another Kentucky/Louisiana commonality that may trouble Democrats exclusively this year: pro-GOP demographic trends.

Let’s get the more talked-about case out of the way first. Louisiana’s massive and unexpected urban (and even rural) population losses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have made headlines and cast doubt on the state’s political balance. Especially hard-hit Orleans Parish (happy Mardi Gras, by the way) has traditionally produced titanic Democratic margins in statewide elections: Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, for one, can thank its voters for providing just enough cushion in each of her two wins, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco obtained more than 90 percent of her margin of victory from the parish in 2003. So considering the disproportionately African-American exodus of voters from the Big Easy following 2005, are Democrats already sunk in 2007 and 2008?

Party leaders in the Pelican State are indeed uneasy about their fortunes in the coming years, especially since Orleans Parish accounted for more than 10 percent of Louisiana’s votes in the last pre-Katrina statewide election (2004) and less than 5 percent of its votes in the first post-Katrina election (2006). Still, most Democrats point to unusually low interest in the top-of-the-ballot September 2006 Secretary of State’s race as a co-conspirator in this trend and insist that political participation in New Orleans will rebound in time for the big upcoming battles. The open question: will it rebound high enough?

Moving north, Democrats’ demographic dilemmas lie in the Bluegrass as well as the Bayou in this gubernatorial off-off-year. Less dramatic yet still significant population shifts in Kentucky should give Republicans some additional minor comfort heading into 2007. For all the troubles incumbent GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher may currently face, Census estimates show that the counties the Fletcher ticket carried in 2003 have experienced population growth of 4.9 percent so far this decade, while the counties Democrats won that year have grown only 0.9 percent. Moreover, the Fletcher counties have accounted for over 90 percent of the commonwealth’s population growth since the last gubernatorial election.

As heavily GOP exurbs of Louisville and Cincinnati have surged and Democratic-leaning agricultural and coal counties in the east and west have declined, it has become slightly more difficult each year for Democrats to cobble together statewide majorities. Of course, this comes as encouragement not only to Fletcher, but to his rivals for the GOP nod in 2007, and all of these calculations could take on entirely different meanings depending on the identities of the party nominees. Will demographic patterns be just what the doctor ordered (and we don’t necessarily mean Fletcher!) to save the Kentucky governor’s mansion for the GOP? We shall see.