Governorships a Big Opportunity for Democrats in 2014

by Stuart Rothenberg March 8, 2013 · 9:30 AM EST

While the fight for the House of Representatives will take center stage next year, another battle could be almost as important for the two parties: control of a handful of big-state governorships.

Republicans like to point out that while they lost the presidency and seats in both chambers of Congress in 2012, their party continues to hold governorships in 30 states, including nine of the country’s 12 largest states.

But most of those governors — 23 to be exact — were elected in 2010, a great GOP year that doesn’t reflect the nation’s (or many states’) political fundamentals. (That number includes Utah’s Gary R. Herbert, who ran in a special election in 2010 and again in 2012.)

If Democrats can win a number of these big-state governorships, even if they don’t take back the U.S. House, it could well bolster the narrative of Democratic momentum leading up to the 2016 elections. It also would put Democrats in the position to retain those governorships four years later, in 2018, when states will select governors who will play a role in the next round of congressional redistricting.

Vulnerable Republican governors in four of the 10 largest states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan — give Democrats obvious targets, as well as the bragging rights that go along with any victories.

For the GOP, holding on to at least three of the states’ top office is imperative. But that won’t be an easy task.

Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott surprised some observers four years ago when he defeated the state’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, by a little more than 1 point.

Scott, who had never held an elected office, survived a tough primary against state attorney general Bill McCollum, while Sink had only a nuisance primary for the Democratic nomination.

But Scott’s poll numbers have been lousy almost since he took office, with a January 2013 survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling putting his job approval at a very weak 33 percent and showing him trailing both Sink and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who recently became a Democrat, in general-election trial heats. Other private polls show the governor better positioned but still clearly vulnerable.

Scott recently agreed to expand coverage of his state’s Medicaid plan, taking advantage of federal funding under the new health care law. But Republican legislators are fighting his decision, which could affect the governor’s positioning for re-election.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s job approval has ranged from the mid-30s to the mid-40s in recent polls, which show him having trouble in hypothetical ballot tests against a number of potential Democratic opponents. And unlike Florida’s Scott, who is planning on spending as much as $100 million on his re-election effort, Corbett doesn’t have a huge personal fortune that he can use to bankroll his 2014 run.

Democratic Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, who represents a congressional district in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, is expected to run for the Democratic nomination, but other names also are circulating.

Maybe the best thing that Corbett has going for him is history. Pennsylvania voters have alternated eight years of Republican and Democratic control of the governor’s office going back at least to World War II, and a Corbett defeat would break that trend.

Ohio’s Republican governor, John R. Kasich, has had a rocky term, but his job approval climbed to 52 percent in a late February 2013 Quinnipiac University poll. The state’s jobs picture has brightened (which helped President Barack Obama carry the state in November), and that apparently is also helping the Republican. But his prospects remain uncertain.

The governor had supported a law that restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively. But unlike in Wisconsin, the legislation did not exclude firefighters and police from the restriction, and voters overwhelmingly overturned the law 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent in a 2011 referendum.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald is among those making noises about running for the Democratic nomination, though Rep. Tim Ryan and former Rep. Betty Sutton are mentioned as potential candidates as well.

Finally, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a businessman who won a crowded GOP primary and then a landslide general election against the mayor of Lansing, also has his share of re-election troubles.

Snyder’s support for legislation making Michigan a “right to work” state makes him a huge target for Democrats in a state with a history of strong unions. But his recent decision to declare the city of Detroit in a financial emergency adds a wild card that could affect voters’ evaluation of his leadership.

Lots of Democratic names have been mentioned as possible candidates, but if Snyder can take advantage of the same economic rebound of the automobile industry that helped Obama carry the state last year, the governor could well win a second term. Still, he probably will have a real fight on his hands.

Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan — along with Virginia this year and Maine in 2014 — constitute Democrats’ top opportunities in the 38 gubernatorial races up between now and next November. Winning a number of the big states would further shake Republican confidence and swing the nation’s political pendulum further toward the Democrats. And that’s reason enough to watch the big four gubernatorial contests.