Dems Try to Break GOP Wave in States
President Obama's dismal approval ratings are jeopardizing Democrat control of the Senate and have destroyed any chance the party had of reclaiming the House. If Obama's ratings remain at near-record lows, Democrat hopes of clawing back some of its 2010 losses in Governors' races could also be dashed. While almost all national attention is focused on Congressional elections, a number of states have critical gubernatorial elections that will impact the 2016 landscape.
The Republican wave in 2010, which gave the party control of the US House, also swept away Democrats in state offices. Republican control of state legislatures surged to levels not seen since the 1920s. The GOP, which went into that election with fewer governors than Democrats reversed this, winning a net gain of 6 governors' mansions. There are currently 29 GOP governors and 21 Democrats.
Democrats had hoped to reverse some of these GOP gains this fall. Four years ago, Republicans had swept politically competitive states like Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. It had won deep blue Maine and run very close races in Washington, Connecticut and Illinois. Without a toxic national landscape, Democrats hoped, many of these states would revert back to their recent trend of Democrat control.
The political landscape, though, is getting even more toxic for Democrats. Several months ago, Democrats looked assured of a net gain of at least 2-3 governors. Today, however, Republicans look more likely to add to their majority of governors, winning a net gain of 1 or 2 states.
That is in the aggregate, though. A number of individual states are surprisingly competitive at this stage of the cycle.
The most vulnerable Republican incumbent is Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. Plagued by low polling numbers for much of his term, Corbett trails Democrat businessman Tom Wolf by 18 points in the RCP average of polls. A first-time candidate, Democrat Wolf can claim the "outsider" label likely to be favored by voters this year.
First-term Maine GOP Governor Paul LePage is also vulnerable. LePage won a three-way race in 2010, beating the third-party Independent candidate by 2 points. The Independent candidate, Eliot Cutler is running again this year and Rep. Michael Michaud is the Democrat challenger. The race is currently a tossup. If the Independent has another strong showing, taking votes away from Michaud, LePage should win a second term, though.
Republicans also face competitive elections in Wisconsin and Florida, with two polarizing incumbents, Scott Walker and Rick Scott, running for reelection. Walker holds a negligible lead over businesswoman Mary Burke in Wisconsin. Walker is suffering some fallout from a partisan ethics "investigation" while voters may be feeling some fatigue over the recall fights that have dominated state politics for the last two years. A Walker loss would obviously destroy growing speculation that he would be a serious 2016 contender for President.
In Florida, Republican Rick Scott holds a razor-thin lead over former Republican and former Independent Charlie Crist. Scott has been controversial since even before his election in 2010. Scott, though, has a considerable personal fortune he can tap for the closing weeks of the campaign.
The surprise on the Republican side this year is GOP Governor Sam Brownback in Kansas. Despite the deep rad make-up of the state, Kansas has a history of electing Democrat governors. Brownback trails his opponent, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis in most polls. Brownback also posted an unimpressive 63% win in his primary last week. A number this low, for an incumbent governor in a primary, usually indicates a serious problem with base party voters.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats face tough fights in Illinois, Connecticut, Colorado, Arkansas and Hawaii. Arkansas is probably gone for the Democrats, where former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchinson leads Dem Rep. Mike Ross. The Razorback State has been trending Republican for years and Ross's position in Congress will make it difficult to separate himself from the national party. In Illinois, incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn trails GOP candidate Bruce Rauner. Quinn pulled a political miracle in 2010, but after a large tax increase and continuing budget crises his luck has probably run out. Rauner has a considerable personal fortune that gives him a definite edge.
In a vacuum, or, rather, a politically neutral environment, these races would rise and fall on local issues and the strengths of individual candidates and campaigns. Republicans would win a handful and lose a handful. By November, though, it is unlikely the political environment will stay neutral.
The Republican Governors Association has crushed its Democrat counterpart in fundraising. The RGA has twice as much cash-on-hand as the Democrats. This funding disparity is likely to increase as Democrat donors pour resources into trying to hold the Senate.
In addition, polling now will likely soon shift in the Republicans' favor. Most polls have yet to use a filter for "likely voters," which will obscure any turnout or enthusiasm advantage for the GOP in the midterms. While Obama's poll numbers themselves may not be a factor in individual campaigns, they will start to have an impact on the composition of the electorate. As the nationalization of the election intensifies, some number of voters who prefer Democrats will simply abstain from voting.
Democrats can counter this with aggressive turnout operations. In Illinois in 2010, voters elected a GOP Senator and a four seat Republican gain in the state's Congressional delegation, while also reelecting Democrat Pat Quinn. Democrats everywhere, including Illinois again, will try to replicate this by localizing the elections.
If Democrats can pull this off, they can add Maine, Kansas and possibly Florida and Wisconsin to their all but certain win in Pennsylvania. If they fail, Republicans will still likely lose Pennsylvania, but hold the other states and add Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois and Connecticut to their column.
Few politicians have done as much for the Republican party as Barack Obama. November will reveal whether he still has the magic touch for Republicans in the states.